He thinks completely with his body

Peter Brook told me that if you watch any cat, it isn't just that his body is so relaxed and expressive. It's something more important than that. A cat actually thinks visibly. If you watch him jump on a shelf, the wish to jump and the action of jumping are one and the same thing. There's no division. A thought animates his whole body. It's exactly the same way that all Brook's exercises try to train the actor. The actor is trained to become so organically related within himself, he thinks completely with his body. He becomes one sensitive responding whole, like the cat.

An ultimate example of this is revealed in a film of Picasso at work [see above]. In one lightning stroke you can see how the tip of Picasso's brush captures his entire imagination. His brushwork can actually be seen as his thought process. The same is true of the great orchestra conductor. After years and years of work, he thinks and transmits in one gesture. The whole of him is one.
From Conference of the Birds, John Heilpern's masterly account of the 1972 expedition that took the director Peter Brook and an international troupe of actors from their Paris base through Africa. Brook was in search of the miraculous and his experiments in Africa led to some of his most influential work including Conference of the Birds, Carmen and The Mahabharata. The collection of poems titled Conference of the Birds is by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It uses a journey by a group of birds in search of the great Simorgh as an allegory of a Sufi master leading his pupils to enlightenment. As well as being adapted as a play by Peter Brook, Conference of the Birds has received treatments that include a work for piano and electronics by Ezequiel Viñao, an album by experimental rock band Om , an opera by Johan Othman and an ECM album by the Dave Holland Quartet.

After recording my recent interview with Jonathan Harvey I mentioned to the composer, whose three operas include the acclaimed Wagner Dream, that I was taking John Heilpern's book to re-read on my forthcoming travels. He told me that in the past a commission for an opera by him based on Conference of the Birds had fallen through - what a pity. The podcast of the Jonathan Harvey interview is available here. Peter Brook's 1989 film The Mahabharata features here while his earlier screen adaption of William Golding's Lord of the Flies (which had music composed by Raymond Leppard) features here. Finally a link to take this post full circle: thinking with the body is central to the Alexander Technique, which is practised by many musicians. My post on the subject contains some familar themes.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. John Heilper's Conference of the Birds was bought at retail. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


What a great post to come back with! This gets over into that area the neuroscientists call "embodied cognition", which, as we learn more about it, I think is going to really help explain a lot of how music can have such a profound effect on us.
Pliable said…
Thanks Lyle. Credit for this post really should go to John Heilpern's book. It really is essential reading for anyone interested in the art and science of performance of any kind.

Cheap copies of the old Penguin edition can be found here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Conference-Birds-Story-Peter-Africa/dp/041361400X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1285513529&sr=1-8

Interesting to remember that Peter Brook was director of productions at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 1947 to 1950. He was 22 when he took up the post.

Useful introduction to embodied cognition here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodied_cognition
Pliable said…
Comment added via Facebook:

Le Mystère Picasso by Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956. Yes, Peter Brook and the Bouffes du Nord theatre. I was the first refusenik in the queue for his Timon of Athens. It is said in a book on logic that for some reason, we're more upset by a very close miss than if it was a long shot even though the outcome is identical: you have missed whatever it was you wanted to do.

Elizabeth Schumann - http://www.facebook.com/overgrownpath?v=wall&story_fbid=162764437072599

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