Recently there’s been a flurry of news coverage of the premiere of Anna Meredith’s HandsFree, a 20×12 Cultural Olympiad commission. Written for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the piece requires the players to put down their instruments and produce sounds by stamping, clapping and beatboxing. 

Meredith is by no means the first musician to draw on body percussion, though hers is the first piece I’ve come across that requires a whole orchestra (please leave a comment below if you know of any other ‘orchestral’ body percussion pieces!). Body percussion has formed part of the sound world across a range of musical styles, from the pop-infused work of Bobby McFerrin to the more noticeably avant garde. My favourite example is Vinko Globokar’s Corporel:

Sound can be produced by stamping the feet, patting or slapping the thighs, chest or buttocks, clicking the fingers or clapping the hands. Different parts of the body produce different sounds, and different techniques can be used to modify the sounds produced.  The sounds produced by striking the body are sometimes supplemented by vocal clicks and pops.

But what prompts this musical self-flagellation? A desire to explore a timbral palette beyond what might be offered by orchestral instruments surely plays a part, as does the inherently performative nature of this method of sound production. For me, these works offer an interesting take on the body-as-instrument. They play out a complicated relationship between different ways of thinking about the body and/as self. On one hand (no pun intended) they show the body-as-mind, the instigator whose choreography brings sound the music to life. On the other hand the body is treated as inert flesh, little more than meat that can be slapped and hit. The body becomes a resonator box, at once a sounding force and a hollow space that provides a home for the soul or self.