How Dance Helped Me Improvise Music Better. Drawing Upon 'Contact Improvisation'.
Updated: May 26, 2020
In contact with 'Contact Improvisation'
During my recent journey through India, I had the chance to visit Goa. A state located on the western coast of the country that is flourishing with arts and spirituality. Being there for about a month, I exposed myself to various types of art; many of which I was unfamiliar with and even a little bit prejudiced against.
At first glance, it seemed that most of them would fit under this 'New Wave' umbrella, and looking at them through my academically trained eyes, it felt like they were lacking substance and even depth. That perception did not take long to change as I found my self interacting socially with a group of people that were involved with a dance form I had never heard of before.
Completely unknown to me at the time, ‘Contact Improvisation’ - a form of improvised dancing - sparked my interest in it due to the concepts and approaches it is based on. It can be danced in silence or with music, with or without an audience and used as a performance or as an experience. Dancers can vary from beginners to advanced and they can get involved regardless of their dance backgrounds. This allows them to draw approaches from those backgrounds and reuse them in this new context.
All of the above elements seemed somehow unusual, or at least different from what I would expect. But, they intrigued me in such a strong way that I was set on exploring the style further as I have always been interested in the relation between music and dance.
Through a Musical Perspective
As "Contact Improvisation" is a form of dance and therefore art, I could not help but wonder whether the concepts and approaches it is founded on could be applied in music. The technical aspects of the style that resonated with me the most, were the level of interaction between the dancers and how big of a role improvisation has.
Dance pairs not only rely on each other to draw inspiration and improvise, but they also use each other’s bodies and balance in a very harmonic way to accomplish moves and dance figures. Approaches that if analyzed with an open mind, in relation to music, can be used as great tools for musicians that engage with improvisation.
After expressing my interest and curiosity for the style, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a ‘Contact Jam’ and provide live music for the session. The purpose of these jams is to bring people who are involved with this particular community together, where they have the chance to collaborate and dance with each other.
-‘Whatever you want, just create an atmosphere, feel the vibe and interact with what’s going on in the room’.
Along those lines was the answer to my question: ‘What kind of music should I play?’. At the time, I only had an iPad and a Darbuka with me and nothing prepared. But, I had to make this work as I accepted to do it without giving it an extra thought.
I started thinking of ways to approach the session and I came up with the idea of improvising using a loop-station on the iPad (a combination of the ‘Moog’ Apps and ‘Garage Band’) and incorporate the Darbuka to change the landscape from time to time. Oddly enough it worked - according to the feedback I had gathered after the jams - despite the fact that I was sceptical about using the Darbuka, as its' sound is highly associated with a very specific eastern musical setting.
One of the biggest challenges I faced, was the style-free context that I had to create in and the limited guidelines I was given in regards to the musical direction of the performance. Despite how demanding this was, I was given the kind of freedom I sometimes miss as a ‘Popular’ session musician; where everything has to fit within a 'box'.
However, I discovered that too much freedom can 'kill' creativity just as much as having to be ‘square’. I found that context is what sometimes adds value to the improvisation itself. Having to improvise over a specific musical harmony, for example, is what defines the character of every single note being played. It also provides a strong foundation, something the musician and the listener can relate to at any given moment.
"Contact Jam - (Forgotten Land - Arambol Beach, Goa)"
The Blankest Canvas
On the other hand, going through this ‘blank canvas’ setting, as I call it, forced me to create in a ‘pan-stylistic’ way and start questioning and exploring my ideas in depth in order to be able to draw as much as I can from them. It enabled me to shift away from traditional techniques that I used to create music with up until then.
I started thinking sounds, colours and landscapes rather than styles, boxes and technicalities. This alternative perception allowed me to unlock different aspects of my creativity and it offered me an enhanced experience as an improviser.
Along with the freedom, I was also presented with a few characteristics that I had to try and avoid during the sessions. I could not play something that had an obvious reference to another style of music and I could not be predictable. If happened, it would lead to dancers being triggered and influenced by something they were familiar with and they would consciously or subconsciously dance based on that. Which, would potentially prevent them from reaching a state of unfiltered and unbiased improvisation.
'Listening' to the dancers
Another essential skill I had to use, was the ability to sense the overall energy of the space and create accordingly. I had to be able to read the dancers’ movements and interact with them. This interaction was, of course, bidirectional, as they had to listen to me as much as I would ‘listen’ to them.
The instance in which this skill impacted a session the most, was when I was called to participate in a live performance showcase with four dancers. This setting was quite different from the rest as I could only use my Darbuka and I was requested to move along with them across the stage, interacting not only musically but physically as well.
"Contact Improv Performance 2020 (Jungle Dance Theatre - Arambol, Goa)"
We all seek uniqueness in this mouthy era that we are living in and I believe that one of the best ways to accomplish that is by experiencing different perspectives, despite if they are related to what we do or not and how we might feel about them. A collection of perspectives and experiences is what defines our identity as people and consequently, as musicians.
My experience with ‘Contact Improvisation’ added to my musical perception and raised a lot of internal questions in regards to music as a mean to expression. Observing this form of dance, enabled me to witness something very real and pure in the way the dancers were able to express themselves through improvisation. Reaching a state of free flow coming from within, a state that I envy and I always seek to accomplish when I improvise. I found that interpreting and adopting approaches used in other forms of art is a great way to expand your knowledge and evolve as a musician and improviser.
*If you are interested in learning more about 'Contact Improvisation', here are some useful links:
*Dancers shown in the pictures and video: Guru Suraj (India) Adrianna Michalska (Poland) Ivan Gurianov (Russia) Shati (Russia)
*Special thanks to Guru Saraj and Nicole Jacobs for sharing their insights on the style.
*The above post is formed based on me witnessing, collaborating with, and talking to dancers. It is a reflection of my experience with this beautiful form of dance.