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Solo-chef. Performerrollen in Thierry De Mey's Light Music

Thomas R. Moore

Thierry De Mey’s Light Music for solo conductor, projection, and interactive device was written in 2004. In 2020, Centre Henri Pousseur, De Mey, and myself decided to rethink and revise the work, updating both the electronics and implementing a more instrumentalized deployment of both the conductor’s role and conductors’ generally recognizable movement repertoire. This paper will delve into the specific manner in which De Mey casts the solo conductor in Light Music and how that role and its sub-roles evolve throughout the piece.

Thierry De Meys Light Music voor solodirigent, projectie en interactief apparaat werd geschreven in 2004. In 2020 besloten Centrum Henri Pousseur, De Mey en ikzelf het werk te herdenken en te herwerken, de electronica te updaten en de focus te verleggen naar een meer geïnstrumentaliseerde inzet van zowel de rol van de dirigent, als diens algemeen herkenbaar bewegingsrepertoire. Deze paper verdiept zich in de methode waarop De Mey de solodirigent in Light Music belichaamt, en hoe deze rol en zijn subrollen evolueren doorheen het stuk.


Light Music (2004, rev. 2021) by Thierry De Mey (b. 1956) is a 20-minute performance for solo-conductor and live electronics. It is the fifth piece in a series of works in which De Mey pointedly set out to ‘explore the state of tension at the border between gesture and sound, visual and sound, [and] choreographic writing and music’.1 The live electronics the piece incorporates were written in close collaboration with two computer scientists, Laurent Pottier (GMEM) and Christophe Lebreton (GRAME). The conducting and percussive gestures utilized throughout the piece were developed in consultation with the original performer, percussionist Jean Geoffroy. At the time, De Mey, Pottier, and Lebreton employed what could be considered ‘emerging technologies of movement capture’ to allow the soloist,2 Geoffroy, to use only his hands to ‘trigger sounds and musical sequences, make them resonate, tear them apart and manipulate them in space’.3 Since its creation, the piece has undergone continued updates and small revisions up to and including 2014, when the composer and his original team re-entered the studio to replace a fair amount of the electronic samples with recorded acoustic percussion sounds (all of which were played by Geoffroy).

Light Music remained unrevised until 2020, when the computer scientists at Centre Henri Pousseur (CHP), De Mey, and I decided to collectively update, revise, and reimagine the piece with the aim of performing it in front of new audiences. We embarked on this process for two reasons. First, the 2014 technical revision was based on the original 2004 Max/MSP patch. Under current circumstances, use of this patch was no longer possible due to advancements in both soft- and hardware. In order to perform the piece, the expertise of scientists like those at Centre Henri Pousseur was thus required. We had to begin anew, working from the ground up to write a brand-new piece of performance software. And second, the piece had only been interpreted by one musician since its creation, Geoffroy. De Mey notes that Geoffroy influenced him greatly in both the musical and visual aspects of the piece.4 This is logical, especially when a piece has only been performed by one person and all the updates and revisions were aimed to improve his performance and the audience’s appreciation thereof. By profession, Geoffroy is a percussionist and the trained and acquired movement repertoire of a percussionist is ubiquitous in his interpretation of Light Music. However, the piece is for solo-conductor; and this is what initially drew my attention. I was motivated to take part in this collaborative reimagining of the piece in order to find a way for it to reflect the performance practice of a conductor. De Mey and I, therefore, purposefully approached it with the conductor's movement repertoire as the preferred medium. We began by first rethinking how each notated gesture could be conducted instead of beaten or struck. My timing needed to be exact, like a percussionist’s would be, but the audience would instead need to discern my movements ‘not as generating sound, but as directing an external sound source’.5

Light Music performed by Thomas R. Moore © Melissa Portaels

This study of Light Music arose within a larger artistic research project in which I am currently examining the artistic and socio-economic motivations for employing conductors in new music ensembles specialized in performing integrated concerts, i.e. concerts in which, amongst other aspects of a performance, video, light and sound design (e.g. live electronics), decor, and utilization of a conductor are all integral parts of the concert curation and/or programming.6 In-depth interviews, score analysis, and my experience as a performer thus far suggest that De Mey is not alone amongst contemporary composers who are more than willing to utilize, and even instrumentalize, conductors (and their role) for various artistic and socio-economic reasons and motivations.7 Examples of artistic considerations included a reframing of movement repertoire and reliance on performance ritual.8 I found socio-economic motivations such as the relatively new assignment by composers and/or artistic directors of responsibilities to conductors, such as a working knowledge9 of electronics and an ability to balance the intentions of living composers with the wishes of the curator and/or artistic director.10 In a previous case study, Pascal Gielen and I examined Simon Steen-Andersen’s deployment of the ‘image of the conductor’11 in his composition AMID.12 Here, we determined that a conductor must physically act as an extension of the musicians and politically negotiates, tactically and on an equal footing with the musicians. Steen-Andersen’s gesture-based, hyper-concrete score prescribed not only every minute gesture of the musicians, but also the conductor’s physical gestures.13 Steen-Andersen, however, admitted during an interview that the piece was not originally imagined with a conductor, even though it has now become accepted performance practice to rehearse and perform the piece with one.14

Therefore, to further my research, I sought to explore works that specifically (and not inherently) harness the role of the conductor. Light Music provides an excellent opportunity because De Mey openly instrumentalizes a conductor as a solo performer as well as patently contributes to the continued development of the artistic utilization of generally recognizable movement repertoire. To define instrumentalization I borrowed from Giuseppe Torre and Kristina Andersen, who in their paper on designing digital musical instruments, designate instruments as tools which (and people who) are ‘developed and continuously redefined by the artist to fulfil artistic and musical need’.15 Summarizing De Mey’s programme notes:16 the composer explicitly intended to employ the ‘simple movement’ of the solo conductor’s characteristic gestures to reach artistic goals such as playing ‘with a certain poetic duality of gesture’ and exploring the ‘state of tension at the border between (…) choreographic writing and music’. The composer’s reliance on performance ritual is also evident. His conductor ‘acts as an interface (…) between the choreographic writing and the score [and] between the movements of the conductor and the musical execution of the orchestra’. By performing and analysing the manner(s) in which De Mey instrumentalizes the conductor and especially how he casts the conductor in a solo role, I aim to contribute to a better understanding of how we, as performers and conductors, can approach, prepare, and perform this piece, and more broadly, to pieces of a similar genre and level of instrumentalization.

My study of Light Music occurred in three phases. It began with a collaborative revision of the piece and the electronics with the computer scientists at Centre Henri Pousseur and in direct consultation with the composer, Thierry De Mey. Secondly, I examined the ‘sub-roles’17 played by the conductor throughout the piece. And lastly, we performed the newly revised piece for new audiences. In this paper, I will discuss the second phase, delving into the specific manner in which De Mey cast the solo conductor and how that evolves throughout the piece, explaining first the partnership between conductor and technician before handling the soloist’s development. The revision process and its documentation are ongoing. However, a recording of my performance is already available on YouTube.18 Though not covered in depth in this article, it should be understood that both the revision process and having performed the piece offered valuable insights into my understanding of the soloist’s sub-roles in Light Music. For example, my analysis of the partnership between conductor and technician described below is based both on a recording of the performance I made in April 2022 and the many days spent working together on the electronics in Centre Henri Pousseur’s studios in Liège, Belgium.

The technical side

Light Music is composed for a solo-performer and live electronics. The electronics themselves are quite complicated and neither my expertise, nor does my research reach far enough to explain their technical functioning thoroughly. Instead, I will give a short summary, explain their performance practice, and examine the role of both the technician who accompanies each performance and the live electronics themselves. This analysis concerns the newly revised version of Light Music that was made in 2021.

Throughout the performance all the lighting, sound, video and spatialization, and effects thereof are controlled by one computer running two Max patches, one for video and sound, and the other for light. The computer receives external data via a camera focused on the conductor and Wi-Fi sensors attached to the conductor’s wrists. Both are used for motion capturing. The settings for the three technical domains (light, video, and sound) change throughout the piece in what is called presets in technical jargon. The 2021 revised version of the piece has 69 presets. Some of the presets have sub-presets, so if we include those in the count, there are, in total, 107 presets. Each preset is cued (or triggered) by one of three actors: manually by the technician, gesturally by the conductor, or automatically by the computer. The technician triggers a preset by pressing the spacebar. The conductor can either trigger by sending a signal via the Wi-Fi sensors or by moving in a prearranged space within the camera’s viewfinder. The computer triggers a preset based on specific coding similar to a timer counting down.

The triggering actor evolves in Light Music. The piece is divided into five distinct parts and by the end of the first part, all the cues have been given by the technician. By the end of the second part, 64% of the presets are triggered by the technician; and the conductor and computer each cue 18%. The longest section is the third part, which also begins the levelling out of the triggering responsibilities. By the end of the third part, the technician has cued just 36% of the total presets, the conductor 25%, and the computer takes a short-lived lead with 38%. At the end of the fourth section, the technician has triggered 34%, the conductor 32%, and the computer 34%. By the end of the piece the conductor and the computer pull ahead of the technician with respectively 36% and 35% and the technician finishes with just 25% of the total presets cued manually.

Light Music begins with the performer exploring the tools that De Mey has offered: the hands, the Wi-Fi sensors, and the light field.

During rehearsals (and subsequent analysis) of the piece, I realized that nearly all the automatically triggered presets are either subsequent to a conductor-triggered preset or immediately prior to one. Most often, they are used to arm the conductor’s Wi-Fi sensors and/or clear the projection screen. Because the timing of these cues (by either leaving a computer-triggered cue or entering into one) lies squarely in the performer’s hands. It is thus conceivable to consider the computer’s automatic cues to actually be within the scope of the live performer’s responsibilities. When viewed from this perspective, I began to perform the piece as a progression from a manually controlled, technician-cued work to that of a conducted one. In other words, my movements, as the solo conductor, began by ‘generating sound’ (like an instrumentalist) and quickly progressed towards ‘directing an external sound source’.19

Reading a series of percentages is somewhat abstract, so I have coalesced the data cited above into an animated bar graph that can be found via the link in the notes.20 This animated graph demonstrates the movement described above; from a technician driven piece to one in which the performer holds an equal (if not greater) responsibility.

The roles of the solo-chef

I have been able to discern and assign five distinct sub-roles for the performer in Light Music and I was able to further divide those roles into two broader categories. The first category includes a sound creator, painter, and conductor. I grouped these three sub-roles together based on the characteristic freedom in timing I experienced in all three throughout the piece. The second category of roles is bound by fixed media (a series of soundtracks). Here I grouped two sub-roles: the fake conductor (who employs either the percussionists’ or conductors’ movement repertoire) and the rhythmical painter. From my standpoint as a performer, these roles and categories are mutually exclusive, and some are featured for only short moments in the piece. I will begin by detailing the roles of the first category and then the second. I will then examine how these roles evolve during Light Music.

Throughout the whole piece, De Mey asked me, as the solo conductor, to use gestures that conceivably can be found in the functional and generally recognizable conductor’s movement repertoire. However, very little of that repertoire is applied in what could be considered a functional manner. Gestures to mark the tempo and cue musicians take on new meanings in Light Music and, as I discovered, can often change meanings depending on the performed sub-role. For example, a wrist-shock as a sound-creator generated passing notes. However, when playing the role of the conductor, wrist-shocks cued soundtracks and sequences of visual electronics. This study contributed to my deeper insight into the manner in which a conductor can be instrumentalized as a soloist in general, as well as provided me with useful tools to specifically interpret De Mey’s composition.

Category 1 – General freedom

The conductor first takes on the role of the sound creator and it is also most prominent in the first part of the piece. By moving their hands within a specific field – and depending on the amount of light the hands reflect – the soloist stimulates a specific video and audio response. The motions and light are all captured via a camera focused on the performer. The performer can also create sound by making shocking gestures that are transmitted through the Wi-Fi sensors. As the name of the role suggests, the sounds the audience hears are a direct result of the solo-conductor’s gestures.

Throughout the entire piece, the conductor’s hands are tracked while they move through a specifically lit field. That field is roughly 9 square metres (3 x 3m) and extends vertically from the floor just in front of the player’s position. While the hands are in the field, the camera records them and processes the image in real time (with a slightly noticeable latency) before projecting it on a screen above and behind the conductor. Depending on the preset, the hands are more or less visible, more or less sharply focused, and the gestures leave more or less remanence. In the third and fourth part of Light Music, De Mey instructs the performer to act in a manner that I have dubbed a painter, using the field, preset with a high degree of remanence, to draw recognizable objects, figures, and letters on the projection screen.

With the notable exception of two presets in parts one and two, during the first four parts of the piece, the soloist plays the part of a conductor only in so much as they command temporal progression (timing) of the piece. Based on readings, in-depth interviews, and personal experience, this is arguably an inherent responsibility and expectation of the conductor,21 which De Mey seems to be more than willing to put to good use. In parts one through four, when the performer acts as a conductor, they trigger the presets using small gestures in the light field or with wrist-shocks. I learned to time these cues by relying on intuition developed throughout the rehearsals. During the two previously mentioned exceptional situations (in which gestures for a beating heart are made), the performer utilizes recognizable conductor’s movement repertoire such as marking time and giving cues. Once we get into the fifth and final part of the piece, De Mey combines those recognizable gestures with short presets in which every beat of the arm triggers a new sound, video, and light sequence.

Category 2 – Fixed media

In parts two, four, and briefly in part five, the solo conductor implements recognizable conducting gestures executing an extremely detailed score that matches a strict pre-recorded tape, thus my title for this sub-role: fake conductor. De Mey’s score divides the body in two, using the right side to show a simple 5-beat pattern and the left side to alternate between cues and percussion-like strikes. Though the timing of the gestures is exact, the sound is not created by the performer. However, it may appear to the audience to be a result of the soloist’s gestures,22 thus my choice to label this role conductor. However, I have modified the label with the word fake because as a performer, my gestures had no actual influence on the sounds themselves.

The final role I identified in Light Music is that of a rhythmical painter. Five times throughout the piece, the performer must paint pictures in an exact rhythmical timing. Both in the audio electronics (a pre-recorded sequence) and the score, De Mey has indicated the object and precise timing by which the conductor must paint in the light field.


The following trajectory is sketched based on a contextual analysis of the score, conversations I had with De Mey, and after having reviewed the recording of the premiere performance of the 2021 revised version of Light Music I performed in deSingel International Arts Centre on May 3, 2021.23 More specifically, the recording allowed me to notate the length of time spent in each of the sub-roles and tabulate the results in an animated bar graph that can be found via the link in the endnotes.24 I created this graph to visualize the evolution of time spent in each role throughout the entire piece. It is grouped per part (according to De Mey’s own notation) and progresses linearly throughout the piece. In general, the animation illustrates the overall arc and analysis of the piece as described below.

As the performer, my focus at the beginning of Light Music was on exploring the tools that De Mey offered: my hands, the Wi-Fi sensors, and the light field. I allowed the audience at first only to see hesitant approaches using the fingertips of one hand that just barely brush the edge of the light. My wrist-shocks were also simple and singular. As the first part progresses, the movements and shocks grew more complex, my hands moved fully into the light, and both were almost always essential. There is one limitation though. No matter how complex, I must perform all the gestures along the same horizontal axis. When this plain was finally broken, it announced the departure from part one and the start of part two.

Light Music performed by Thomas R. Moore © Thierry De Mey

In part two, De Mey relies on key-gestures25 and performance ritual26 to establish for the audience that the performer in Light Music is a conductor. The key-gestures the composer deploys come from the conductor’s movement repertoire and include a recognizable metred pattern (5/4) and cueing of specific sounds. He also uses key-gestures from the percussionist’s repertoire, such as playing the bongos and other hand drums. Part two begins with a clear 5/4 pattern marked with the right hand and simultaneously a 3/4 pattern with the left. The left hand then shifts to performing a percussion-style part that also includes cueing other instrumentalists. This first preset (number 10) of conducting occurs in total silence. Personally, this allowed me to once again explore a new form of communication at my own pace. However, once this form is established, De Mey then binds the performer to a pre-recorded sequence, matching gesture to sound. Because ‘most people understand what a conductor does’,27 a visually attentive audience may begin to recognize a pattern between the conductor’s gestures and the sounds in the sequence. Here, the left hand moves in a one-to-one correlation between gesture and sound. De Mey suggests that it should appear as if the conductor is ‘in fact playing the percussion himself’.28 The composer pushes this form of communication to an extreme speed, increasing it twice according to a 3:5 ratio. This final escalation of tempo is so fast and so sudden, that I felt as though De Mey was both testing my technical capabilities as well as the audience’s capacity to comprehend it. At the fastest point, the technician cuts the conductor off with a flash of light and sound, ending part two and ushering in part three.

De Mey pivots in part three to yet another form of manual communication, one that seems logical given the available tools, namely painting. This section begins with abstract drawings of dots and lines and evolves to objects that grow successively in complexity. Throughout this part, the performer’s movements alternate between creating sounds, moving rhythmically according to a specific tape, or painting freely. The part ends with a poignant act depicting three beating hearts in three tempos.

I alternated rapidly between two styles of communication in part four, conducting and painting. And like in part two, it seemed to me as if De Mey was looking for the extreme edges of possibility, even pushing the electronics to do its utmost. Nearly every gesture I made in this part was recorded and entered into a continuously playing palindromic video loop. Though this section also ends with a flash, unlike part two, it was I who called it to a halt.

In part five, De Mey utilizes two more forms of manual communication, though these two are far more concrete in nature. The performer begins this part by writing the word SILENCE for the audience. The conductor then proceeds to use French sign language to quote Nietzsche, ‘Il faut avoir un chaos à l’intérieur de soi pour enfanter une étoile qui danse.’29 The piece ends in a kind of coda, where, when performing the piece, I sensed a clear return to the role of a conductor. Once this mantle was taken up, the control of the piece solidified in my hands, with every single gesture I made directly manipulating sound, video, and even light.


I decided to study, revise, and perform Light Music because I felt creatively drawn to works in which the role of the conductor was explicitly instrumentalized as a soloist; and I wanted to better understand how to approach them. De Mey’s piece is a clear example of this practice. Both the conductor’s inherent responsibilities towards timing and key-gestures, such as recognizable movement repertoire, were developed and reshaped to meet the composer’s artistic needs. The conductor; and more specifically their hands are deployed as an instrument that can ‘trigger sounds and musical sequences, make them resonate, tear them apart and manipulate them in space’.30

For Light Music, I have suggested that the solo-role of the performer contains five sub-roles (in order of their appearance): sound creator, conductor, painter, fake conductor, and rhythmical painter. All these roles represent both abstract and concrete forms of manual communication and De Mey has found ways to deploy them in virtuosic manners, be that through exactness, speed, dexterity, or timing. As the performer, I found that I needed to become very comfortable with the timed sequences in order to be perfectly synchronized with the pre-recorded material. I also had to learn, interpret, and internalize De Mey’s choreographic notation, a skill that is not normally associated with the conductor’s conventional repertoire. In addition, Light Music is performed in the dark so it must be performed by memory. And finally, though the piece is considered a solo work, I have argued above that it is a collaborative performance with the accompanying technician. There is a shared responsibility for the temporal progression of the piece that must be rehearsed and, in order to maintain the live feeling, a certain level of mutual trust must be created between performer and technician to allow for impromptu performances.31

During this case study, I delved into De Mey’s instrumentalization of the conductor, both of its role and the artistic deployment of movement repertoire. I was also able to trace an evolution in both the conductor’s interaction with the technician and throughout the five distinct sub-roles I discerned and then was able to label in the piece. However, because of the narrow focus, just one piece by one composer, certain specificities of this study will not be applicable across a broader field. For example, not every work for solo conductor will contain multiple and/or shifting sub-roles. However, the search for and study of sub-roles could prove helpful for a conductor to learn pieces for solo-conductor such as Dieter Schnebel’s iconic Nostalgie (1962). In this work, performing conductors must wind their way through an imitative tapestry of famous contemporary conductors’ mannerisms. The soloist in Alexander Khubeev’s Ghost of Dystopia (2014, revised 2019) plays just one role, though, like in Light Music, it also undergoes a clear evolution, this time from ‘peer to dictator’.32 To perform Khubeev’s role convincingly would thus also arguably require sufficient study of the piece’s inherent sub-roles.

There is a shared responsibility for the temporal progression of the piece that must be rehearsed and, in order to maintain the live feeling, a certain level of mutual trust must be created between performer and technician to allow for impromptu performances.

Not every work in which a composer may instrumentalize the gestures of the conductor will use them to literally generate sound, such as what we find at the beginning and end of Light Music. Composer Stefan Prins, in his Third Space (2017) for dancers, ensemble, electronics, and video, manipulated the conductor’s gestures to instead create a sense of vulnerability and generate intimacy in performances. In that same piece, choreographer Daniel Linehan let himself be inspired by the conductor’s movements, incorporating ‘the physicality of [the conductor’s] gestures [into] the choreographed material. [Prins and Linehan] weaponised his gestures’.33 Returning to Ghost of Dystopia, one can observe a very deliberate application of conducting gestures to generate sound. Khubeev literally bound the solo-conductor’s hand and foot to a self-made instrument, his ‘acoustic sensors’:34 sixteen plastic boxes that scrape across eight glass plates to create ‘grungy multiphonics’.35 Notably, in each of these pieces, the composer analysed, apportioned, and then developed and customized the conductor, its role, and movement repertoire to meet specific artistic and/or socio-economic needs.36 By studying the composer-led application of movement repertoire as a versatile instrument, a conductor conceivably can then more dexterously step from one customized role to the next.

I conducted this particular in-depth study of Light Music to acquire and broaden my personal set of both physical and artistic tools with which I could approach not only this piece, but new works in which the conductor has been instrumentalized as well. Thanks to this study, the physical tools I have now been able to incorporate in my own general practice include new combinations of percussion and conducting gestures that were found in the fake conductor passages as well as timed cues found in the rhythmical painter section. Artistically, the sub-roles I discerned in this piece bid new meanings to recognizable conductors’ movement repertoire. In this way, the Light Music approach could be applied towards Third Space in the sense that in both pieces conducted gestures are used to mark time, a conventional application,37 and utilized as choreographed movement. The conductor’s gestures are not only functional for the musicians or serve as a frame for the audience, they can also be seen as acting in multiple artistic realms. In both Light Music and Ghost of Dystopia all of the conductor’s gestures are strictly notated, thus sharing a similar requirement of the conductor-soloists to learn (new) ways in which conductor’s movement repertoire can be notated. In Ghost of Dystopia, Khubeev choreographs downbeats, which appear for the audience to have a direct effect on the musicians’ temporal performance (even though that is not actually the case, as the musicians are synchronized by a click-track).38 Those same gestures (downbeats) have been applied in Light Music to trigger electronics, something that can also be found, for example, in Alexander Schubert’s Point Ones (2012) for small ensemble and augmented conductor and as well as his Serious Smile (2018) for augmented ensemble.

The composers of each of the pieces cited in this paper, as well as others that I have come across in my study, all instrumentalize the conductor in a specific manner, parsing the role, and applying it à la carte to each new situation.39 This relatively new development has led me to now first determine, at least to a degree, the artistic and socio-economic reasons for my deployment as conductor when approaching new solo or ensemble works, in most circumstances, in direct consultation with the artistic director and composer. It is only then, having first established my role and any possible instrumentalization thereof, that I can put together a piece-specific toolkit or performance practice. This requires a new level of research for each (new) piece. Every situation is different and has its own relation to the tradition of the ensemble conductor, therefore, each time the role of the conductor is instrumentalized, it is for unique reasons and requires a unique performance practice. With this study of Light Music, I aim to contribute tools for developing these unique practices.


Thomas R. Moore

studied music performance at Indiana University (1998-2002) and the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp (2004-2007). He is currently a member of Nadar Ensemble and works as a researcher and brass department chair at both the Royal Conservatoire and University of Antwerp, where he also attained his PhD.



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  5. Mark Delaere, personal e-mail conversation, 2021.
  6. The definition of integrated concerts derived from the research of Tanja Orning, Martijn Mulder, and Iga Batog and from personal conversations with Pieter Matthyssens (artistic co-director Nadar Ensemble), Bas Wiegers (principal guest conductor Klangforum Wien), Koen Kessels (music director Royal Ballet, London), and Nico Couck (professor guitar, Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp) between 2017-2020.

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