Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Museum Musings: Les Correspondances, Heavy on the Dance

Via Nijeholt at nl.wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]
Via Wikimedia Commons
So I really like it when I discover radically deep affinities between supposedly unrelated things in unlikely places. I like 'em especially when they come in the form of slightly mystical connections - you know, intuitive and evocative relationships between sensory experiences and states of mind, which the poet Baudelaire called correspondances and wrote about so awesomely that he basically spawned an entire art movement all by himself. (Okay, not by himself. But Baudelaire is the reason I do pretty much everything I do - yes, really - so I like giving him sweeping credit for things whenever possible. Also, side note: I prefer the French to the English "correspondence," of course, because hey wait a minute the word dance was perfectly happy in there, ya know.) (And now, as usual, my parenthetical is eclipsing my actual paragraph. Le sigh.) The reason I want to blog about it is the fact that it's often the chimerical and unexpected relationships between supposedly unrelated things (or projects, or ideas) that leads to great and beautiful things falling into place. When looking for sources of joy, I'm hard-pressed to find anything so immediate and satisfying as the feeling of discovering these fine threads of connection, the way a spiderweb suddenly appears from apparent invisibility when you look from just the right perspective. Only, you know, the strands are your LIFE, or whatever.

It's been happening to me rather a lot lately around my kinesynesthesia project, in some mildly marvelous ways. First, I've been working with Carlos Aguirre, a really stellar beatboxer, to create a live, improvised duet that builds on the very old and basic concept of the drum solo - a tradition in bellydance where a drummer and a dancer perform together, with the drummer throwing out variations on different basic rhythms and the dancer doing her best to catch and interpret each as it comes. The live duet has a playfulness to it that recorded music simply can't provide. Even if the dancer is improvising, when a recording is used, the response can obviously only go one way; the music cannot adapt itself to the dancer, and so even the most beautiful and spontaneous dance piece is going to be very different than one that is produced in genuine collaboration with a live musician. Here's a great example of a live duet.

Chris Phillips and Sahina. Used with permission.

Of course, Sahina's zils (finger cymbals) make her into an answering instrument as well, which adds an extra dimension of dialogue to the duet. I am woefully and embarrassingly terrible with zils, so those will have to be left out of the piece I'm working on with Carlos. Other than that, however, this type of duet is very much what I had in mind. I figured, though, that Carlos & I would have a lot of adjusting to do in terms of getting our very disparate styles in sync. Although hip-hop does get dialogued with fusion bellydance, I'm not trained in it at all (at this point you may be getting the impression that I'm not trained in ANYTHING, but I am a decent dancer I swear no really) and wouldn't attempt to fake my way through it; Carlos, similarly, doesn't have a background in Middle Eastern percussion. The idea when we first got together was to see how smoothly my movement vocabulary would dovetail with his musical vocabulary, and go from there. So he began to improv and I began to dance - and to our shared surprise, I could anticipate him with the same clarity and exactness I can anticipate the hits made by a drummer playing a rhythm with which I am intimately familiar.

In the video above, it's hard to tell in places that there's a live improvisation going on, because Sahina's movements so closely mirror Chris's playing. How does she know what he's going to play? Well, she doesn't -- not exactly. A combination of experience, knowledge of rhythm, sensitivity to body language, and super speedy reflexes are what enables her to appear to be manifesting the music as it is played.  To my delight & astonishment, despite the differences in sound and style between Carlos's beatbox rhythms and the classical rhythms of Middle Eastern music, there was no real perceivable difference for me in how my body heard, interpreted, and responded to the percussive instrument of his voice, so that working with him really felt like dancing to the world's most living, breathing drum. Perhaps the simplicity of this translation between styles comes as no surprise to anyone with a musical background, but for me it was a kind of revelation. If anything, I could respond faster to Carlos than I can to a drummer, because his whole body is caught up in the beat. I could see/hear what he was going to do almost before he did it.

I want to see an fMRI of this process. What would light up??
Except you can't dance in an MRI scanner. ONE DAY,
SCIENCE. ONE DAY. (I wonder what would happen if I
 thought about dance? Or imagined dancing? Hmmm...)
(via Wikimedia Commons)
See/hear? Yes -- I don't know which. It's my eyes that process his body language, but the distinction, or transition, between seeing the gesture in his body that's about to lead to a sound, my ear (brain?) anticipating actually hearing the sound, my body responding to the anticipated/heard sound with a movement, and the actual sound itself emerging from his vocal cords is so much faster than my conscious mind can process that it feels as if it's all happening simultaneously. (I would love to see a video of a duet like this slowed down enough to be able to see what the reaction time actually is. In fact, I wonder how much of the time the movements are a reaction, and how much of the time they are actually simultaneous with the rhythm and produced based on the dancer's inferring what comes next.)

The joy of discovering this strange (to me, at least) affinity between the way I experience a maqsoum or saidi rhythm and the way I experience the vocal antics of a beatboxer has a lot to do with that feeling of correspondances, the wonderful echoes and resonances that exist between things without being specifically articulated. Of course, Baudelaire was talking about the relationship between the world of the senses and the world of the spirit, and the ways that immersive sensory experiences, especially when mingled (fragrance, color, light, music), can transport us to a kind of otherworldly plane of being. But there's still an element of that for me here. First of all, because dancing to live music is absolutely an immersive sensory experience, and it induces a joyous, trancelike state in me that may not be quite what Baudelaire had in mind (he was a pretty melancholy dude, I don't think he danced much) but is nevertheless fairly transcendent.

And secondly, because I think of les correspondances as being essentially felt affinities, connections that are experienced on the level of intuition or non-verbal perception. What exactly is the correspondence between evocative stimuli (smells, a haunting piece of music, the sound of the rain) and the responses they evoke (memory, longing, remembrance, reverie)? It's not a thing we can articulate; it's rather a relationship that we feel. And that, too, is present here. I'm sure there's a precise and scientific, or maybe mathematical, way to describe the actual relationship between the Middle Eastern rhythms I've been using for years and the rhythms and beats Carlos produces. But I don't know the details of that relationship. I can just feel its existence, the clear, experiential correlation between the way my body responds to two mostly unrelated musical traditions. (For a quick glance at the rather wild difference between Western and Middle Eastern percussion, check out this highly informative page.) My body knows there's a relationship, a thread of connection, even if my brain is wholly incapable of explaining why.

Although I love knowledge and I'm all for scientific explanation and rational exploration, there is a special pleasure in this wordless, embodied, intellectually inarticulate sensation of being able to grasp relationships through a leap of feeling rather than a linear logic-based thought process. It feels good. It feels like a surprise, a discovery, a kind of treat, when I unearth these roots and tendrils of resonance - or, perhaps, when they unearth themselves to me, which is how it sometimes feels. Spontaneity is, I believe, a major element of many of our experiences of joy, and thus I also believe that it's partly because the linear thought process is so very step-by-step that the feeling of les correspondances ignites in us a special kind of exhilaration or exaltation. Sometimes it is good to just know, in yer gut rather than yer brain, that things are connected in strange and mysterious ways, that the world is bound in secret knots, that understanding comes in leaps and bounds as well as drips and whispers.


  1. Actually, it sounds like you're an intuitive person (as opposed to being an intellectual or an emotional, the three basic ways that people respond to their environment). People that are not intuitives may react completely differently. For instance, intellectuals may not find the same sense of joy you do in these same kinds of circumstances.
    It would be interesting to find out.

    1. Well, I'm not sure I can agree that I am an intuitive rather than an intellectual. (I almost wrote a section about how much I love writing analytical essays, but couldn't for the life of me figure out how to make it sound even remotely interesting.) Of course other people may not react the same way I do under the same circumstances. I suppose I'm trying more to shed light on the intricacies of the joy that exists for those who do share this way of reacting than to make some generalized and sweeping point about how joy works for everybody.

      Maybe I should use more I-statements?

    2. You should take an enneagram test. There are 9 personality types on it; each group of three is one of those three things I mentioned. I'm a type 1: the perfectionist, which is an intuitive type, although, intuitively, it seems and looks like it is an intellectual type. Analysis is part of intuition, because you gather data, but, then, go with a gut reaction to the evidence.
      An intellectual type would be someone that would make pro/con lists and really weigh out all the points and make a purely data oriented decision.


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