Monday, July 8, 2013

Exhibit Inspirations: Kinesynesthesia (II)

I have been tragically neglectful of this blog, which seems to be the refrain haunting the beginning of every one of my rare posts these days. This is because I am actually working at a museum, a job so intellectually rich and all-encompassing that I have been essentially distracted from daydreaming about imaginary exhibits by actually learning how museums work. The nuts and bolts of development, membership, exhibit-making, grants cycles, visitor experience, outreach, ADA requirements...all incredibly useful things for a museum-minded gal like me, but they haven't left much space for reverie.

Until recently. I've been so busy that I've had very little time for dance, which is terrible and tragic and generally doubleplusungood. And it's started getting to me. My body has its own set of interests and desires, which don't always mesh exactly with my intellect's ideas of what I'm supposed to be doing right now. If I go too long without dancing, I get restless. Physically, spiritually, emotionally. I can't sit still. I feel subtly wrong all over. I don't even like food as much, which is really saying something, because I always like food. And by dancing I don't mean dancing around my living room (I do plenty of that) -- I mean dedicating myself seriously to a practice that asks me to think with my body. Donna Mejia introduced me to the idea that the body is an intelligent life companion a long time ago, and I've been grateful to her ever since, because it's just true: the body has its own intelligence, its own ways of knowing and perceiving, its own nuanced understanding of and interaction with the world, and I spend a lot of time forgetting that because I am a very thinky person who likes words like "reification" and reads Roland Barthes for fun. But when I pay attention to my body like it's actually an intelligent being, an ally who can tell me things my rational mind can't see or grasp, I'm always, always glad I did.

Sure, it's a cliched image. But Da Vinci created this image
based on Vitruvius's ideas about the human body as
the source of proportion in Classical architecture -
an example of  the kinds of knowing that belong to
 the body, if you ask me.
I think of joy as being very much in the realm of things the body understands better than the mind. For example, I'm listening to Mozart's Requiem as I write this, and I don't understand how this progression of sound waves buzzing out my tinny little speakers could possibly move me so much. It's just sounds. But I have ALL THE FEELINGS listening to them. Why? What's going on, as the signs at the museum say? My mind's grasp comes second to my body's in matters of music. That's what music does -- it moves us. We use the language of the body to describe it for a reason. The mind can understand music rationally, can contruct it and deconstruct it intellectually, and that's a noble and beautiful thing -- but it happens after the first thing, which is that we feel that movement. And I am tempted to say that it's also precisely that movement, harnessed and refined, that is really at the roots of what we call dance.

We often think of knowing, of knowledge and understanding, as being something that happens up top - a brain thing, a mind thing. I was therefore utterly delighted to come across this article about Hellen Keller meeting Merce Cunningham. It describes her lightly touching his waist as he leaps. "For the first time in her life, she is experiencing dance," Craig Brown writes. "'Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is!' she exclaims when he stops." Dance is like thought. It's not just a cute analogy for the leaping and flashing of a quick-witted intellect, though: through dance, we understand things we can't otherwise understand.

I believe that one of the things dance can illuminate for us is music, and that dance can serve to help us know precisely that which the intellect can't grasp in matters of music. I wrote a long piece about six months ago about something I was tentatively calling kinesynesthesia, from kine (motion) + synesthesia (the neurological disordering of sensory input that allows for a commingling of sensory experiences, such as tasting a color) - basically, a specific form of synesthesia that involved seeing music, literally. For me, I explained, a symphony might look like this:

By Affinity (Vatra Spinning Fire) [CC-BY-2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

This is a photo of movement -- the movement of someone spinning a ball of fire through space. It is exactly the way I see the movement of violins in a symphony. Movement in space (violins specifically are usually red-gold) is how my body understands music. Not all music looks so simple; indie rock, for example, is a much more muddled picture of colors, tones, and textures, often too messy for me to sort out into the fine lines and shapes I hear in classical music. But I feel it, often literally, by which I mean that textures in music appear to me like glitter, velvet, metal, and glass. Look around you for something with a strong texture -- a rough towel, say, or your fluffy cat. As soon as you see that texture, you are already aware of how it feels; there's an echo, a resonance, of the actual feeling of it under your fingers that gets stored in the body, so that just looking at it you're already halfway there, ghost-feeling it. I hear like that. Music is full of those ghost-textures. And what's more, I'm very sure it isn't just me. In fact, I think many, many people experience music that way, people who would not otherwise consider themselves synesthetic. Those textures, that movement, is felt in the body even if you don't have a language for it; it's part of why we love music, because it makes us feel.

So now I want to develop a dance form that speaks specifically to that kinesynesthesia, that movement inherent and yet so often ignored in the basic act of perceiving. The idea of making music visible fascinates me completely. As I said, I believe that dance is the natural outcome of the fact that music moves us; I think, however, that that has been pushed aside over the history of dance, especially in the West, in part because the Western world has always been suspicious of the body, its knowledge and joys. (After all, you can't get people to focus on Heaven if they're too busy enjoying their flesh.) I don't mean I want to make up some atavistic primitivist thing; I mean I want to conceptualize and develop a way of teaching and learning dance that focuses on the idea that many people connect to music because of a nascent kinesynesthesia, and that interesting and beautiful things might happen if that sensory commingling was made explicitly visible. I'd like to learn, and help others learn, to distill the movement we feel in music into a literal movement.

The question of what we could learn from seeing a piece of music intrigues me. I was listening to this incredible version of Arvo Part's Fratres with a pianist yesterday, and he was explaining to me that although he liked the music fine, he was unable to enjoy it as much as he had the first time, because after listening to it once he understood the structure too well, and it got sort of simplistic for him. He had grasped it intellectually, and it no longer moved him. Okay, I said, but what if there were dancers here, dancers who were pulling out layers and elements of the music? (I see the whole thing as a duet, on a totally dark stage -- mainly a single woman dancer, in white flowing clothes that look almost like a Pierrot's costume, and a single male dancer, dressed in dark clothes, who appears with the crazy swoons and bangs of that f!@&ing piano.)  All of a sudden you're seeing what's in the music. At 9:50, that faint grating, fluting whistle - imagine seeing a person's body acting like that sound. All of a sudden you're understanding with your body, not your mind, and you're moved again.

His eyes lit up. I see what you mean, he said. I do hear it differently.

What does music look like? Something about this question feels almost forbidden, because music is a sound. It's like asking to see infrared or ultraviolet or any of the million colors of the thermonuclear bomb of light and beauty a mantis shrimp can see. You just can't have that. Except I can. And you can. And when we see something we can usually only perceive with other senses, we learn something rich and radiant about that thing. I remember a friend of mine took mushrooms once and told me about hearing the weight of a lemon. (Yes, it was really a friend. When I took mushrooms I saw trees breathing.) She knew something about lemons after that, something extra, something deeper, a different dimension of lemonness. I want that out of music. I want to know about music that which only dance can teach me, goddammit. My body is a ship on a very magical sea and I'm going to sail it straight into the sunset. It's going to sound like a symphony.

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