THE WEBSITE OF SOUND / TEXT / VIDEO / PERFORMANCE ARTIST DANIEL ALEXANDER HIGNELL

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Santa Vitae



In Santa Vitae, a Santa costume is worn on Christmas morning by an actor performing a durational graphic score. On its surface, the work appears to be relatively simple - a musical street performance by a performer dressed in the obvious character outfit of the season. Beyond this, however, lies a second layer of information. The musical material - a work of an electronic drone - is markedly different from the limited and widely recognised musical output expected at Christmas, neither affirming existing modes and connotations (choral singing, Christian narratives, specific instrumentation, etc.) nor inverting them (presenting a black metal version of Silent Night (Erlosung, 2011), for instance). Performed upon a battery-powered synthesiser, the score utilises a series of diagrams to direct the performer along the X/Y axis of its Voltage Controlled Filter parameters, with a total of five notes available to be played together or individually, and their placement ordered by density rather than pitch. These density descriptions are based upon the lived environment of the performer: if there is a loud car passing, hold all five notes down; if you cannot make out any external noise above your performance, stop playing for twenty seconds; and so forth. As such, the two-dimensional playing field of the scores X/Y axis is designed to reflect the actual movements of passers-by on the street. 

Likewise, the location of the performance – at the heart of the city centre’s main roundabout, the intersection of the distinctive northern, eastern, and western strands of the city – serves to locate the performer as a central pivot around which the rest of the city’s inhabitants oscillate. Although based around the act of performing a musical score, its sonic outcome is compromised by the nature of its site, a location already rife with a literal and conceptual volume that overawes its content. In this sense, this work is a form of what Small calls ‘musicking’ (Small, 1998). The musical material serves as one aspect of a wider event and, crucially, its meaning is defined not by any pre-existing system inherent to the sounds made, but by the parameters, traditions, and objects of its environment. As part of a temporally-defined, malleable event, ‘musicking’ eschews the notion that sonic materials hold any meaning that “reside[s] in the object, existing independently of what the perceiver may bring to it” (Small, p.5, 1998). Rather than pointing towards an ideal musical object, to be perceived under the correct conditions by a suitably literate audience, Santa Vitae co-opts the already abundant social infrastructure in order to celebrate the event of “an activity in which all those present are involved and for whose nature and quality, success or failure, everyone present bears some responsibility” (Small, p.10, 1998).

Street performance holds a somewhat unique relationship to labour – it is one of the few acts where a call for remuneration is explicitly built into the performance; conversely, it is one of the few ‘jobs’ habitually undertaken by the jobless - the domain of buskers, the counter-culture and, by virtue of its location, the homeless community. Such significations create an expectation that its performers are not professional, and lack the kind of artistic skill we expect to find in ‘proper’ venues. It was this already complex relationship to labour that I wanted to tie directly to the mythical construct of Santa Claus, the toy-maker with the impossible task of delivering presents to all of the world's children in a single night. Within that narrative, the one day of the year that Santa is neither making presents nor delivering them, is Christmas day itself. 

Likewise, if we expect to see street performers in the lead up to Christmas, and in particular a myriad of Santa’s in shopping malls, we do not expect them - or anyone else for that matter - to still be working Christmas morning. As such, my Santa Claus is presented as simultaneously labouring, non-professional, and homeless, on the very day that we would expect both he and the actor that portrays him to be doing almost anything else. The choice of musical material – a tense, fifty-minute drone that fails to cater for populist tastes and expectations - is amplified in incredulity by its performance at such an inhospitable time.
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