Sound not music

Asoka Mendis de Zoysa, a participant at the Writing on Dance Lab, looks at the changes in the music to accompanying dance work to the use of sound to create ambience and atmosphere in contemporary dance.

Does the music govern the mood, atmosphere and ambience in contemporary dance as in classical ballet and modern dance? In the European history of dance, readymade, composed music was often used, musical scores by names like Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and Hindemith, for whom melody, rhythm and orchestration was important.

Then with John Cage working with dance-maker Merce Cunningham, composition took a turn for the melodic and minimal. And presto, we arrive at the electronic, mechanical sound that has become synonymous with contemporary dance.

In the 60s, visual artists, performers, choreographers and composers worked closely, often living together to creating dance work organically with the costume design and music growing alongside the movement. Maybe, the limitations of time and funding economics don’t permit such interactions that would enable the music and the body movements to develop in a simultaneous creative process. At times, one has heard of the complete music for the work being handed to the performer on the day of technical rehearsal. And the label, “work-in-progress” seems to excuse all involved in an ill-matched, half-baked performance that stemmed from a shoddy creative process.

The motivation for writing this article focusing on the sound produced for movement at the Attakkalari India Biennial 2015 is not one long lament that “music” is heard lesser and lesser in contemporary dance work and seems to be replaced by “sound”. This piece is also to examine the place of the sound designer in the work or are they simply responding to catch phrases that seem to attach themselves to contemporary dance such as “questioning the status quo” and “creating discomfort” among a passive audience.

Soo hyun performing at FACETS

Most South Asian dance traditions expect the dancer to well-versed in the accompanying singing/chanting, percussion and costume design. This requirement of versatility in the skills of the dancer can be seen in all the three major Sri Lankan dance traditions. In these forms, the dancer is also given training in drums which layer the vocal component of the music. The accompanying beats of traditional dance forms seem to be primal with melodies that reverberate. I wonder, why does the audience have to listen to computer-generated sounds when watching a contemporary dance works? Does the contemporary dancer still to this sort of music in his or her free time?The soundtrack to most of the FACETS Choreography residency presentations were created by sound designers Martin Lutz and Samar Grewal, even taking into account the style of these artists, there seemed to be a clear leaning towards electronic, machine-like sounds to the works, which begged the question on the autonomy of the choreographers of the works. Though, I come from a different school of music appreciation, I’ve come to terms with the anxiety in contemporary dance to use music that is not descriptive, there seems to be the overriding notion that music with the power to narrate is outdated. There also seems to be care taken to not be influence or reference popular music from the entertainment industry, which is so much a part of our contemporary aural experiences. Any music that is reminiscent of this genre seems taboo because of it is “too kitschy” or “too retro”. There seems to be marked avoidance of music that allows the audience to keep time or tap their feet. The driving mantra of sound design seems to be – no melody please, this is contemporary dance.

Over the past few years, the sounds of cars, tuk-tuks, lorries and buses, human voices in the bazaars formed the multi-layered sound of work created by visiting artists mesmerised by the buzzing cities in India. The call of birds like the crow, the honking of an auto-rickshaw, the singing siren of an ambulance has come to be mainstays in layers of the sound. There were also moments of music created in these works that were pre-recorded grabs of heartbeats, heavy breathing, sighing or even weeping that added the quality of the personal and intimate to the works. There seems to be hesitance with using music that could be heard as fusion because it is seen as music that plays at beauty parlours and spas. The “cool music” for the contemporary dancer today seems to be in line with the “cool sets” of black and grey. The light designers seem to prefer “cold light” that seems to turn the dancer’s skin grey too. The mechanical interaction between the dancer and these peripheral technologies seems to reflect contemporary dance’s comment on our present-day. I recall that in the previous edition of the Biennial, there was more Western classical music with works having excerpts from Stabat Mater, a 13th-century Catholic hymn to Mary, composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, others had Vivaldi’s compositions – this was recieved as uncool. There was also Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun, which used Debussy’s “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune”. Even, the soft, purring machine sounds in Cindy Van Acker’s Lanx/Obtus was complementary to the movements.

A repetitive, hypnotic chorus of chants rendered in a percussive manner formed the soundscape of 4, the first work presented by the Tao Dance Theatre, which formed the governing rhythm of the stamping movements of the four dancers in the work. In keeping with the minimalist nature of the choreographer Tao Ye’s work, the next one, 5, had an increasing, building drone sound with the occasional plucking of a metallic string, it seemed. The music did change through the progression of the works but it didn’t take on a coherent structure. The music replicated the “martial movements” of the four dancers in the first work and turned more lyrical in the second work with five dancers, which had “moments of sensual memory” according to a colleague from the Writing on Dance Lab. In these works, at the times, when the visual design didn’t have an impact, the music by Xiao He kept me hooked to the work with each change in music making me attempt to guess the next change or interval. The dissonance and electronic quality of Tao Dance Theater’s music didn’t disturb me. For me, music is one of those elements that allow for me to grapple, experience and enter contemporary dance and Xiao He’s music could’ve been listened to for its own merit.

Nicole Beutler in her 4: Still Life at times repeated two bars of a catchy tune not to the extent of tiring the audience with its minimalism or repetitive contemporariness. Often the repetition of two notes overlaid with other repeated notes created a gamalan-like texture and morphed into an overall rhythm that was infectious to the ear hungry for a melody line. The sections of this work made references to the geometry of a couple engaged in Social Dancing – creating a circle, square and triangle – her composer Gary Shepard abstained from using the music of the directly associated with the danced genre. It was Beutler’s choreography that made visually made the reference points.

Karl Biscuit’s New Age music for Les Chants des L’Umai sounded like it was from the 60s and paired well with the sci-fi visuals that seemed to hark back to the time when the West visited the exotic East over land. While the choreographer-performer Marcia Barcellos sang and performed myths and chants from Africa and India, the music itself seemed to reference the “romantic music” of the 19th century. It reminded me at times of the stringy texture that I know from Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from the film Death in Venice or the opening bars of the flamboyant arias of Puccini. In her performance, Barcellos matched the eternal search that is embedded in the myths and chants of Africa and India. Her style of singing didn’t change at any point, even when she sang well-known hymns, which was well and good. The music didn’t disturb but rather soothe the audience that seemed weary of the mechanical, engine room sounds heard in Alexander Whitley Dance Company’s The Measures Taken.

Oscar Bianchi’s music for The Past shifted between standard, populist music that one would hear at art galleries to being able to comment on the slapstick humour on stage. The superb percussion and sound played by the musicians Yuka Ohta and Miako Klein gave us the opportunity to see the engagement between contemporary music and contemporary dance. The work that dealt with memory and cities didn’t aspire for an overall cohesion but we, the audience, were treated to high quality performances both in the music and the movement.

The Indian tradition requires the musicians to be present on the stage. The western classical tradition hides the orchestra in the Orchestra Pit. Only the conductor representing the music appears on stage for the curtain call. He is at par with the choreographer. I was surprised that the musician in Shilpika Bordoli’s excerpt from Majuli was not honored in the Indian tradition. We has also been informed that she is engaged in preserving the musical traditions of Assam. To me, the musician performing on these indigenous instruments was an integral part of the performance and should’ve been foregrounded. The Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company was a favourite among the audiences that seem to appreciate the classical Indian dance form fusing with these modern renditions of Hindustani music or use of musicians. The footwork of kathak added to musicality of the work except they might have worked better if synchronised. The combination of live and recorded vocals in this work didn’t add to experiencing the work but rather created a dissonance. I wonder – if it would make sense for contemporary dance to bring its musicians on stage like so many traditional dance practices? I wonder – if the sound designer can be present to make spontaneous interventions like the digital video aspect to the work? I wonder – if this could allow someone like me invested in the melody of the music to sense and enter the soundscape?

Asoka Mendis de Zoysa
Darshan Manakkal & Richa Bhavanam


Ligament, the online dance journal, has been launched to reflect the keen rise in the interest to contextualise, reflect and voice the goings-on around contemporary dance practices in the South Asian region. It has been envisioned as an avenue that is aimed at prompting and encouraging a sustained engagement between contemporary dance practitioners, thinkers, writers, artistic practitioners from other mediums, stakeholders and the wider public. Over the past editions of the Attakkalari Dance Biennial, there has been a continuous effort to create a space for writing on dance; and with this squarely in mind, Ligament has been conceived as a platform to facilitate the much-needed articulation and thinking through this evolving language. We hope to accomplish this by looking at this artistic practice through the perspective of historical threads that helped shape, through practice and creation of work, which is adding and solidifying the ever-changing lexicon and its presentation, or even through research and scholarship. The endeavour is to make this an open, creative and vibrant forum that invites ideas, contributions and suggestions allowing for the collective development of this artistic practice in the South Asian context; as well as mapping its links and impacts on contemporary dance as a whole. On one hand, it is about looking at contemporary dance as a growing repository of our present realities and on the other hand delving into our rich heritage of physical and performative traditions in an attempt to seek continuum and elucidate the now. In an attempt to ravel the medium of contemporary dance, We aren’t simply interested in text as a mode of expressing, reading, examining and looking at contemporary dance but to reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of the movement arts, we are also looking towards image, sound and video and the practitioners of these mediums to create and catalyse conversations. We hope that dialogue and discourse enabled through Ligament opens various entry points into the ongoing shifts in contemporary dance for its lovers, practitioners, enablers and its future.

- Jayachandran Palazhy
Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts

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