Saturday, 27 December 2008

Touchy feely

Some years ago I was involved in developing a project in a 'culturally deprived' rural area. The object was to provide an opportunity to explore the relationship between sound and movement. It was to be implemented by a group of local musicians and dance teachers.

One thing we were keen to do was free participants from their preconceptions about dance and music. On a movement level this meant exploring responses to sound other than the usual disco clich├ęs. On a sound level we wanted participants, mostly with very limited previous exposure to music-making, to feel they could create a valid soundscape. There was no point giving them instruments like violins, flutes or guitars. These come with large amounts of cultural baggage about how, and how not, to play them; about the sort of sounds they should make. They are intimidating and can stifle creativity. Instead it was decided that we would present them with instruments that would allow for genuine exploration. Odd instruments from around the world that participants were unlikely to have seen played before; that had no obvious right or wrong way of playing; that may even inspire dance and movement just by their appearance and tactile qualities. And, most importantly, provide a level playing field for all.

It fell to me to choose the instruments. This all happened just before the turn of the millennium and the dissemination of information was not what it is now. However, a catalogue duly arrived from Knock On Wood in Harrogate full of exciting looking items from all corners of the globe. Our budget was tight but we managed to procure an enormous ocean drum, a kokiriko, a couple of tongue drums and one or two other things the names of which I've forgotten. Perhaps the biggest hit was the Indonesian angklung (pictured) which took ages to set up but was so different from anything anyone had seen before that it was always worth it. Also popular were the mbira (East African thumb pianos), large and small, that I tuned to a Japanese scale, one an octave higher than the other. A cursory glance at Knock On Wood's online catalogue shows that, while not everything we bought is currently available, there is plenty of new stock to browse.

The workshops were, in my opinion, a great success and justified their funding. Of course it's hard to be objective about these things (and there were fewer self-assessment forms to fill in then). What pleased me most about the project was that it encouraged a sonic exploration of objects, from violins to milk bottles, objectively and without prejudice or fear. This is an approach that a classical education encourages all too rarely. My book, Adventures in Sound, contains a number of games devised with just this purpose in mind and December's free game, Copycat, at is an example.

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