Posted by: Janice | February 14, 2008

Music Redux, Part 1

As it turned out, we got to spend one more week with music before moving into words and poetry. The teachers took the work with music even further, bringing about some powerful encounters between the musical and the dramatic.

On Monday, Thomas played us the Bela Bartok piece again, but this time, instead of simply trying to be moved by the music, you fight it. It is as if the music is a malevolent presence that one has to fight in order to drive away. As usual, he had us improvise on our own, before asking us to come out into the space one by one. The assignment? To fight the music in the space as it enters, using your body, and your words.

For the longest time, I had felt that I lacked courage in improvisation classes to go first, so this night, I pushed myself to be the guinea pig, even though I honestly had no idea what to do. There was first the problem of seeing the music in the space. I already had trouble picturing it as a separate presence, so how was I supposed to fight something I could not even see? Then, there was the issue of talking to the music. In general, I feel I can do lots of different things using my physicality; I have no trouble improvising only with my body. There is a confidence that comes with years of dance and movement theater training. By contrast, I have not done much work with text at all, and I tend to be rather hesitant when it comes to using words in improvisations. I worry about not making sense, and often, end up censoring myself before I can say anything. As such, I was feeling quite apprehensive there when I stepped out to do this improv. I was scared.

When Thomas started the music, I concentrated hard, trying to really see it in the space, and where it might be coming from. My first reaction was as if it were a demon. The music has such a slithering, sinister, spiraling quality that I can’t help but think it is some sort of evil spirit, one that was intent on possessing my soul. At this point the fact that I was scared helped me, as I was able to channel some of that nervous energy into adrenaline, using it to push against the music. When I was in the improvisation, I could see the music better, but it kept eluding me. Every time I thought I saw the music, and tried to touch it, it would go somewhere else. It was both everywhere and nowhere. It didn’t help that I was hardly able to talk at all – I was so nervous and caught up with fighting the music that words were barely coming into my brain. And even the words that did come, I lacked the courage to say. After awhile, I started to feel terrified, as if nothing I did was working, and the only thing I could do was concentrate on running away, so the monster could not pull me into its clutches. Thankfully, near the end, the music gave me a space with which I was able to pull free and escape. There was an explosion in the sounds, and in the chaotic aftermath I was able to break free, unscathed.

When it was all over, Thomas remarked that my battle had been small – I hadn’t used my whole body to fight the music, and with a music this big and sinister, I would’ve really needed to use all I’ve got to defeat it. If something wasn’t working, then I would’ve needed to switch to different tactics, building the battle as the music itself got bigger and bigger. Perhaps I could have thrown myself on it, or pinned it to the ground, kicking and screaming, etc. I felt that Thomas’s critique was justified, yet I also felt that I had done the best I could, given the circumstances. The only thing I wasn’t happy with was how I was unable to let go when it comes to language. There is a bigger block there; somehow I wasn’t able to say whatever came to my mind in improvisation. I’m sure that was part of the reason why the fight had seemed small.

Later on in class, Thomas made the abstract more concrete, telling us to imagine the music as an unpleasant visitor who had come into your house. The ensuing encounter between you and this person, will be the fight with the music. This opened up the improvisation into a much more dramatic territory, inviting a greater use of text, structure, and characterization. In a way, it made it both easier and harder to do. Anitha, a woman from India, was up next, and when she did her improv, an interesting thing happened. She started by speaking in English, to an ex-lover who was now making unwelcome advances. Then Thomas stopped her, and asked her to use her mother tongue, Tamil. The second time around, she started speaking in Tamil, but then would switch to English every so often. When asked why she had done that, she said that for her, it was easier to find some words in English than in Tamil. Thomas looked at her for a moment, then said “I think for those of us who speak more than one language, it is definitely easier to talk about emotions and things that are close to the heart in a second language. When you use your mother tongue, no matter what the subject matter is, it is bound to come straight from the gut. So I would like to ask you, to try to do the entire improvisation using only your mother tongue.”

What followed was an intense confrontation between her and the music. We saw her talking to a man who had once been a lover, who is now making unwelcome sexual advances. We saw her having to deal with a man who had returned to make her life miserable. Even though we could not understand the language, we could tell that she was repeatedly asking him to leave. Yet, he stayed, toying with her, aware that he is more powerful than she is. Several times, she seemed on the brink of tears. If Thomas had not asked her to stop, I felt something extremely unpleasant would have happened.

I wonder what it would have been like if I had to do the improvisation in Cantonese. I wonder if I would be able to say anything at all. Given that I have been using English for the last five years of my life, and that all my romantic relationships have been English-speaking ones, I wonder – would I be able to access all my emotions, all my senses of sensuality and sexuality, with Cantonese? And, if Cantonese is the language that is more connected to my gut, would it actually be the key that will help me unlock everything that I have hidden away inside?

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