Live Music and Improvisation
July 29, 2019
Hello music lovers!
I have returned from my first visit to Mendocino Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp with a fire in my heart. Throughout the week, packed with classes, concerts, and cabarets, I tasted different concepts from various disciplines and traditions. Being surrounded by so much passion, knowledge, and talent in the redwood forest for a week felt like being in the university / adult summer camp I’ve always dreamed of attending and wish I never had to leave.
Each day I played odd meter rhythms on frame drum in an ensemble class lead by New York based jazz and Middle Eastern music legend, Souren Baronian. The experience of playing in a full ensemble was a treasure and I became friends with rhythms in 7, 9, and 10, played with an Armenian swing. I was exposed to the beauty of Armenian music, which I discovered moves me in a special way and inspires me to learn more about a culture of which I know little. Also with Souren teaching, I practiced opening and closing rhythms on the riq in a tambourine class where I became friends with rhythms in 5, 6, and 11.
These two classes opened something up in my mind. As a dancer, of course I’ve always been emotionally and physically moved by music but now I am intellectually stimulated by music for the first time! I’m listening with the ears of a musician as I try to understand the rhythmic phrases and melodic progressions in a new way. I am excited by how engaged I am and how much I have yet to learn. Though, this level of engagement is apparently dangerous because I got a speeding ticket this week as I was too thoroughly engrossed in Souren's Branching Out album. Whoops!
Unexpectedly, I learned Sephardic songs taught by Dr. Andrea Fishman (translated and accompanied on oud by Dr. Eric Ederer). Though I tried this class on a whim my second day, the melodies were so haunting, and the Ladino-Español words approachable enough to try to pronounce, that I was hooked for the rest of the week. Singing feels right and healing to me. Our bodies are instruments and our minds are poets. It’s so moving.
I have been taking frame drum classes from Marla Leigh through her Frame Drum Academy. She has urged her students to record themselves at the beginning of our musical journeys so we can observe our progress over time. Inspired by camp, I recorded myself singing the Sephardic lullaby I learned from Dr. Fishman, "Durme Durme." So, here is my 'before' video:
I’m just learning how to couple my voice with the drum. I took Marla’s advice and kept the rhythm very slow and simple. This video was my second take. In the first take I lifted my eyebrows and widened my eyes with the first high note. It was so funny! I should not have deleted it.
Though, the drum video I really need to make is one where I improvise with the techniques and rhythms I know. Improv is a uniquely vulnerable place for me that I want to more frequently and skillfully inhabit with ease. I’m actively working on it this year, in dance, music, and comedy.
At camp each morning I managed to wake up early enough to journal over tea, then make it to Ozgen’s class where we learned a fun sexy Turkish oryental choreography. I had too much fun stepping into the persona he encouraged us to embody with comments that helped us remember specific gestures like “I am the best!” and “Give me the keys to your car, look at what I offer *[touches body]*.”
I was like, yesssss I will wake up early on no sleep to play a caricature that I otherwise don't allow myself to play. It was fun to let go and let my shadow side take over. ...I’ve been dancing with my shadow a lot lately, an idea elucidated by the Robert Bly in his work on the human shadow (brought to my attention by compelling thinker/reader Angeliska). “Eating my shadow” has been messy and useful work that I’ll share more about another day.
I ended each day at camp by attending Sharhzad’s Persian dance class where we learned a languid surrendering classical Persian dance inspired by shared moments. I discovered that I feel very at home in Persian classical dance. The hypnotic 6 rhythm, the lasya movement, the momentum and arm carriage: it feels natural and soothing to my body and spirit. I am thrilled that I can continue studying Persian dance in Austin with Sharhzad’s colleagues and students because I would like to learn much more of this style of dance.
I also dropped into classes on Arabic Maqam with Dr. Scott Marcus, Arabic Singing with Georges Lammam, and Awalim and Ghawazee Movement with Aubre Hill. I have a firmer grasp on maqam now and I look forward to learning more about these Arabic melodic modes. I was struck by Dr. Marcus' explanation that Western music uses a lot of harmony whereas Arabic music showcases the evocative quality of the individual notes, one at a time, in delicate and ordered succession. The melodies sound like poetic phrases, like sentences and paragraphs of spoken words. It’s absorbing and enchanting ...and makes me begin to understand why some people complain about the prevalence of four on the floor electronic dance music (though, I still have a soft spot for that, too).
A highlight of the week was when I had the opportunity to perform in the cabaret. Dancing solo improvisation to live music is something I am working on but rarely have the opportunity to do. For my cabaret performance I resolved to enjoy the moments as they unfolded. Someone asked me after the show what was my intention/what was I experiencing.
Such a thoughtful question that, unfortunately for them, I answered truthfully in a moment of brazen unselfconsciousness. I could have said “I wanted to be radically present and connected with the musicians and audience.” But I said, “I wanted the musicians to make love to me with the notes they played and I wanted the audience to feel that ecstasy.” A silence fell over the few people present when I said that and then the topic of conversation changed. I was relieved when the inquisitor circled back to comment, “that’s a beautiful intention.” (In hindsight, that moment was so freaking hilarious!)
The feeling in the room during my performance and after was palpable. It was like swimming through the thick air of shared experience. I kind of wish I had just hung on to that feeling rather than watch a video of the dance, which either did not translate to cell phone video or was actually not very good. Maybe I'm tarnished because the first time I saw the video I was sitting next to a young dancer at breakfast who asked Aubre to show it to her. About 30 seconds in, the dancer said she was going to go swimming then left. I felt like, “yeah, I don’t blame you, that was pretty boring, haha.”
Anyway, if you watch this video, don’t watch it with the eyes you use to look at your instagram newsfeed, scanning for something remarkable to pop out and grab you. Watch it because you have some time and you are curious to see the relationships happening in the moment between the dancer, musicians, and audience. I feel I am at the beginning of my solo improv journey and this is as good a starting place as any.
Camp has a special place in my heart (and calendar) now. Although it was my first time to this gathering that has been running for 30 years(!), it felt somewhat like a family reunion. Friends from Texas and California were abundant. I saw old buddies Ayse, Shanti, Morgan, Henna, Devon, Alia, Karuna, Joachim, Ben, Alan, and Ron. I met a lot of new people who are extremely talented and I hope to keep up with them and follow their work. Despite being in over my head, I feel camp unlocked my power and my potential.
I had a professor in the World Arts and Cultures | Dance department at UCLA, David Shorter, who always asked the students: “How is what you’re doing interdisciplinary and cross-cultural?” I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately. The question is leading me into new territory and igniting old passions. There is so much I want to learn and so many ways I want to grow. I am humbled, inspired and extremely grateful every day for the opportunities I have to study and create. I’m also grateful to have a network of folks like YOU to share and connect with.