Wednesday, June 12th 2013
My basic plan for today was to begin constructing a Creation narrative with the group. We have worked already to create voices and characters, but we haven’t developed our story. My ‘safe zone’ as an individual creator is to think for a long time and then write, or to think through writing, or to think through music. I have done a sort of story-thinking through the body (or ‘PLAY’) in group improvisation settings with actors and dancers, but yesterday I felt anxious because I have never directed this kind of activity.
I knew that I didn’t want to facilitate a writing activity – I could envision the group getting stuck in all of their thinking, and I also worried about collectively writing a creation story that didn’t translate smoothly from words ‘on the page’ to a story ‘in the body’. By the time the workshop began, however, my only tool was a list of questions pertaining to Creation. I.e. ‘Why make a world?’ ‘How did it happen?’ Was there a Creator?’ ‘What does the world look like?’ ‘What kinds of beings live there?’ ‘How is the world habitable?’ ‘How did it become habitable?’ ‘Is this world in danger?’ etc. I also had a coconut shell as a potentially-inspiring object – the two halves are attached by a zipper, which can be opened to reveal a fabric pouch on the inside.
I started the workshop by asking participants to peek inside the shell and tell us about what they saw. In hindsight, this activity relates directly to a conversation that I had with Michael and Sonja on Monday. Quoting something he had recently read, Michael suggested that ‘Objects pull us out of ourselves and into the world’. An object therefore becomes a sort of membrane that forms the basis for interaction. In the case of the coconut, the shell acted as a seed within which an ecosystem could imaginatively grow. Our answers were:
– A happy world with peace. Wheat and grass grow here, and marijuana. There’s no crack and no cocaine, only plants that feed us, and peace and understanding (Marlene).
– A part of the world which is very silent – this a cave that I see in here. I am always interested in caves, and solitude. In our Eastern religion we talk about silence – from silence comes the Mystery, and Creativity (Yohan).
– I see the world renewing, and taking me back home. But the earth is a different colour – it’s not blue, it’s sort of red. There’s something happening in some distant part of the earth and it’s gotta be renewed. And I’m sorry for it, because it’s our fault (Michelle).
– I see a big dock with lots of water. I see a shoreline that is all bumpy with pine trees, and it reminds me of what it feels like to be a kid (Michael Burtt).
– I see a moon, and a meteorite goin’ past the moon, and the meteorite’s a dark colour with a little sparkle, and the moon is a crescent moon at that (Alice).
This was a beautiful activity, and it seemed to spark creativity while bringing us into a softly focussed, contemplative space.
At some point over the course of our coconut-peering, I arrived at an idea that I thought might solve my anxiety over how to improvise a world into being. I had been thinking earlier about physically acting out the story, and this didn’t feel right for me. Instead, I decided to see if we could sound out the beginning of the world. We sat with our eyes closed, and I asked the group to imagine early morning on the first day of the world. I then asked them to very quietly sound this out. This is what we came up with:
I then asked each person of the group different questions, such as who was walking around? Where did they come from? One person would contribute a thought, and then I would move on to the next question. We eventually came up with a character, a moon woman, who is walking around and singing, inviting the flowers and the mountains and the trees to come to life. The group collectively made sounds for each of these beings, so that it felt like the world was creakily growing, and breathing, through sound. One of the most stunning limits of the human voice is that it has to breathe: we have been using a lot of machine imagery lately, because we are building a machine, but our machine is called the ‘Living Machine’. I think that our choral activities form a strong basis for enlivening the machine, because at our most basic level we learn how to breathe together, and this act reminds us that even in our most efficient, coordinated moments we are still living beings and not machines.
The world is waking up:
After our sit, I facilitated narrative refinement with puppets. We made the same world-growing noises, but we brought the cone-puppets out and came up with movements. I then asked Alice to narrate, and I also asked her to sing the moon-woman song while the puppets grew. This is our first attempt:
I have been thinking lately about the joint process of creation and refinement within a group setting. On Monday we had a really focussed workshop that involved singing the same song again and again, and trying to get all of our notes in tune. Michael had suggested that perhaps this facilitation style was too ‘tight’ – too dependent on the facilitator, with not enough participant input. Today’s workshop was very different – as a facilitator I touched the group with questions, but we all created together. I had an interesting insight about this: at the beginning of the year (September/October), I tried to facilitate activities such as this one, involving group improvisation through sound. While they weren’t complete failures, I felt like I was herding sheep and very little progress was made. I feel that the other kind of work (detailed refinement), which takes an entirely different kind of discipline, has helped the group to form the trust and creative cohesion that is required in order to improvise collectively. In addition, the facilitator-heavy rehearsals are spaces wherein the group can relax into a clear structure, building up skills without being continuously subject to the vulnerability of original creation.
The idea of building hard skills as a group (ie. being able to sing in tune) reminds me of something that my university music-improvisation teacher, Casey Sokol, often spoke about. He was concerned with the idea of ‘practicing for improvisation’ – How does a person practice with the aim of pulling magical threads from the air? Maybe a metaphor of ritual can be applied here. How does the shaman or otherwise-named leader of ritual learn the structures that will enable the transformative element to occur during the act itself? They can’t always be inviting magic in – this would be creatively exhausting, and the magic only happens when the other structures are performed correctly. And, how do the ritual-participants learn these structures, preparing themselves to be ceremonially moved?
In musical terms we sometimes speak of ‘instrument geography’ – knowing your fingerboard or your keyboard so well that you can make your way around it without a map. There is also something that could be called the geography of a tradition – knowing the notes and the phrasing and all the other technical elements so well that you no longer require a teacher or a guidebook. This concept applies to the performer and also to the audience members. If the audience members have no knowledge surrounding the formal structures of the tradition they are witnessing, it is less likely that they will feel moved in the intangible sense. Blues music, for instance, all sounded the same to me (boring and repetitive) until I started learning how to play it, at which point it became an impossibly expansive world unto itself. This is why context is so important when learning about traditions outside those that the performer/audience member has been raised in.
Grist for the mill.