Last week I had the pleasure of being involved in the creation of a new music and movement performance piece called ‘Babeldance’. Taking place in Wales in the beautiful setting of Studio Felin Fach (http://www.taithrecords.co.uk/studio) which is overlooked by the Black Mountains. Gill Stevens, musician, composer and music therapist (http://www.composer.co.uk/composers/stevens.html) had invited 7 musicians including myself to take part in a four day workshop session to improvise and compose the beginnings of a wordless, movement opera. Finnish choreographer Paivi Javinen (http://paiviarts.net) facilitated the four days, together with Gill Stevens, directing and encouraging the musicians to explore movement as a natural extension of music making and the use of non-verbal communication through the devising of babbled words and musical phrases.
The musicians came from a variety of backgrounds, such as jazz, classical and folk, which created a rich and intense experience. Many were trained music therapists as well as performing musicians. Gill provided beautiful accommodation, in the watermill restored by herself and partner and acoustic musician Dylan Fowler (http://www.taithrecords.co.uk/dylanfowler). living in a temporary community, cooking and eating together (with some people coming and going) facilitated collaborative working and made it easier to connect together more quickly in improvisation and sharing of ourselves and our creative ideas.
The theme of the project was non-verbal communication through body movement, music and sounds. It also explored how words without semantic meaning can still be used for communication (hence the title ‘Babeldance’). Gill Stevens drew on her experience as a music therapist working with people with learning disabilities without language, and wanted to express in the piece the experience of these people, and how they might feel living in a world of verbal language, without being able to use expressive language. At one point the musicians were asked to create a musical dialogue over a member of the group crouched on the floor, ignoring them and ‘talking/musiking’ over them. This felt like a powerful portrayal of the experience of someone in a wheel chair or with learning disabilities who is frequently ignored, or ‘talked over/about’ by other people as if they don’t exist. This is something I have witnessed many times in my work as a music therapist, and have even done myself without thinking. Gill also wanted to explore how made up words can still be used to communicate meaning, and cited the experience of going to an opera which is sung in another language and how its possible to still understand the story and plot without knowing the meaning of the words. Choreographer Paivi Javinen also brought the key theme of how the natural movement of musicians can be extended, and wanted the musicians to explore this as much as possible. Gill and Paivi had previously developed the ideas in Helsinki with a group of Finnish musicians and movers and this was the second devising session. The first two days consisted of delving into improvised music and movement activities to create new potential material; which reminded me of Spolin’s drama games in which actors are invited to used their intuition in improvised drama to access and get in touch with their authentic selves (Spolin, 1963; Spolin Games Online, 2014). Gill studied music at York University under John Paynter and Peter Aston, the authors of a book on class room music projects which I recently wrote about in this blog, (https://skylarkarts.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/sound-and-silence/). Gill has briefly described Paynter’s and Aston’s influence on her work and the workshops did seem to reflect a similar ethos. Paynter and Aston were pioneers of music education in the 1960’s and 70’s and advocated artists across art forms working together in both education and performance. In ‘Sound and Silence’, several music and movement projects are described which have some similarities to the activities we undertook as musicians in the project, such as creating dialogues whilst playing and moving, and also moving quickly and slowly in and out of physical spaces. No doubt, Gill could expand further on how this part of her education influenced her work, and it would be interesting to hear what she experienced at University under the direction of John Paynter and Peter Aston.
A significant point in the workshops came on day two when Paivi asked us to image a beautiful landscape and move to the visual image of the landscape whilst listening to improvised music by Gill on the cello. This particular activity seemed to have the effect of opening up our awareness as movers. I felt particularly involved in this activity, and as I moved together with the other musicians, and listened, I felt like I was playing music even though I had no instrument in my hands and wasn’t making any sound. We moved together, some had eyes closed, some open, and we interacted together, through the movement and music. Afterwards, I tried to understand what it was I had experienced. It occurred to me that we, as experienced interactors, therapists and musicians were using our musicality in a holistic way, that the skills we use as musicians to interact, listen and respond to others were being utilised in our movements, rather than our sounds. The psychologist Daniel Stern (1998) writes about the idea of vitality affects, how musicality is interwoven in all modes and mediums, whether its movement, vision, touch, feelings or sound. This seemed to be what we were drawing on at this moment in the workshop. In connection with this, Pashman (2014) writes about the idea of kinesthetic patterns which are evolved through our emotions and then developed into the smallest movements in our cells and then our muscles and whole bodies. That emotions have a natural physical pattern, which are common to all cultures which we express through body shapes and movements. This idea of kinesthetic patterns could then be translated to musical shapes, vibrations of the air, the movement of musicians creating sound, the need to move in playing an instrument and singing. In this way, movement and music are intimately connected, and what Paivi was asking us to do in these workshops, was to remember this and become more intensely aware of it.
Paivi, also asked the musicians to be as fully aware as possible of our movements, sounds and to take full responsibility for our actions. It occurred to me that what she was asking for, was every movement to have a meaning, and every sound to have a meaning. This reminded me of improvising with a good friend who is a Korean music therapist (now living in Australia), she taught me to value every sound I made in improvisation and not to throw away any notes. Paivi’s intention to help us focus on our actions and sounds, was like trying to value everything that was done. This is not dissimilar to the idea in music therapy, when every sound and action that a client makes has a meaning and is considered carefully by the therapist. So in practice, this meant even getting up from the floor, after sitting down, had to be done with consideration and careful thought, to embody it into our performance of sounds and music. I found this a challenging way of thinking, as did some of fellow musicians, since it was new way of being, and required a conscious, cognitive effort (rather like the early stages of learning to play an instrument, and mastering the movements required to manipulate the sound).
The workshops ended with two ‘showing sessions’ to a small select group of listeners (the term audience seems wrong in this context). The two showings were half an hour long, and in six sections which had been pre-planned on the previous day. This provided its own challenges, involving remembering all the different directions and the sequences of events. The showings began with each musician having an individual emotional phrase and expressing this as they walked across the room; this then changed to the phrases and movements becoming merged and connected together in a type of minimalist rhythmic music. As the musicians sat conjoined back to back on the floor, one member attempted to disrupt the flow, trying to use vocal sounds to create disconnection. The musicians dispersed and then sat with their backs to the audience. Three of the musicians moved out into the performance space, expressing different aspects of communication. I was using my trombone, and moved out into the audience, inviting them to interact with me, through body language and trombone music. Paivi, had also asked me to emphasise the natural reaching out movements of the trombone, and I did this using my whole body, as well as my arms. Another musician played the flute, emphasising moving up and down (right down to the floor), and yet another sang a hauntingly beautiful vocal solo, moving up above everyone’s physical space standing on a tall stool. In this way, we as musicians, were exploring our natural movements in making music as well as the physical space of the studio (the studio had several rooms and was a beautiful wooden building). Other parts of the showing, involved creating dialogues which ignored an outsider (which I refer to in paragraph three); expression of frustration through using Taiko drumming; the interweaving of music and movement together, in a mutual interactional quartet of movers and sound makers, and the use of musical phrases and intuited stillness and movement to created the experience of a whole group operating together, weaving sounds in and out of each other (using our instruments, voices and bodies).
The listeners had different reactions, many expressed being confused by what was happening (especially at the start of the performance). This was viewed as positive since Gill had wanted to explore the experience of people living without language in world where language is a major form of communication. The listeners also said that they felt moved by the showing and that it had given them a lot to digest and think about in a deep way. The meaning behind the showings was not explicit, and so listeners were free to interpret them in an individual way.
The project may develop more depending on funding, and both Gill and Paivi would like to extend it to a larger setting, combing the work from the Finnish and British musicians together, with possible performances in Wales and Helsinki. It was privilege to be part of the workshop, and what will stay with me is meeting new musical-movement friends and the new relationships and old relationships that have been renewed and developed. This blog has just reflected a small part of the content of the few days, and is my own personal point of view. I am sure all involved felt enriched and enlivened by the experience. I would like to thank Gill Stevens for asking me to take part in the project and her skilled compositional directing, and Paivi Javinen for her skilled choreography, also to my fellow musicians who it was a great pleasure to meet and work with.
Pashman, S, E. (2014) When the music moves you: Revisiting the classics in the company of neuroscience. Journal of Music and Dance, Vol 4(2), pp, 10 – 24. Available at: http://www.academicjournals.org/journal/JMD/article-abstract/F18961E47314 [Accessed 2/11/14].
Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence, Classroom Projects in Creative Music. Cambridge, London, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Spolin, V. (1963) Improvisation for the Theatre: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Spolin Games Online. (2014) Spolin Games Online. Available at: http://www.spolingamesonline.org [Accessed 6th November 2014].
Stern, D. (1998) The Interpersonal World of the Infant, a view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. London, New York: Karnac Books.
Bibliography not quoted in the blog:
Pavlicevic, M. (1997) Music Therapy in Context, Music, Meaning and Relationship. London and Philadelphia: Jessical Kingsley Publishers.
(Read in relation to Mercedes Pavlicevic’s idea of ‘dynamic form’ in music therapy)