A&HHE Special Issue August 2016AHHELogo-300x300

Sounding bodies – moving sounds: Encounters in improvised play across disciplines and cultures

Jan C Schacher and Angela Stoecklin
Artesis Plantin University College Antwerp and Zurich University of the Arts


Music and dance share a performative space and can bridge cultures as well as practices. This article explores how the two domains intertwine and may cross boundaries. An interdisciplinary project between music and dance in open improvised form is extended to intercultural exchange in transmission and collaboration. The specific gains and the problems encountered in this constellation form the basis for a reflection on how performance practices and activities lived through encounters can be considered as research, and what it is they generate in terms of ‘insights and understanding’.


improvisation, interdisciplinary, intercultural, play, artistic research

Contextualising improved music and dance

How do exploratory performance- and experience-based music and dance connect, converse, translate, and interact with other modes of sounding, listening, moving, creating and communicating? What implications do interdisciplinary encounters carry, particularly in intercultural contexts, where additional dimensions of (mis-) understanding arise? Can the mixed practices between instant composition, performance, sound and music, materials and people be seen as a coherent exploratory, experimental research?

Our particular practice between music and dance shows these complex, interwoven relationships. The methods, practices and attitudes are those of improvised, exploratory ‘play’ (Huizinga, 1955) where the intention is to compose during performance, and to do so in a cyclic pattern of experience and application of experience (Schon, 1983), generating a process informed by knowledge and prior experiences of forms and interactions that originate in the contingent space of performance. “Fundamentally, performance is not about acting differently, but … about being different … It is not about inserting a splice between reality and fiction; it is about their deep entwinement.” (Kozel, 2007:66) Improvised music and dance share fundamental elements such as time, dynamics, form, and phrase. Within this space they deal with the ephemeral merging of composing and performing. Built from individual memories and cultural imprints, the moment is charged with “play across memory, history, embodiment, and a culturally situated consciousness.” (Hogg, 2011) Our artistic process is situated in an interstitial space of styles, practices and forms, which is characteristic of interdisciplinary work. The resulting reflection and communication about these processes, however, falls into the domain of artistic research. By collecting traces of the processes through images, videos, and words, the fleeting moment of ‘play’ and experience is partially captured. New insights arise from these materials, and the reflections they enable constitute the core of the research. This generates further opportunities for resonance, and understanding, and dissemination. At the same time, each stage of verbalised reflection in discussions and by working on the collected materials in-between performances, flows back into the next rehearsal, the next performance, creating a self-enforcing adaptive loop that is based on cognitive insight as well as experiential knowledge.

Intercultural experiences

The project ‘Sounding Bodies–Moving Sounds’ was carried out in New Delhi, India in November 2013 and in La Habana, Cuba in October 2014 and consisted of a combination of workshops, collaborative artistic work and shows, centred around Improvisation and Instant Composition as interdisciplinary and intercultural encounters. In Delhi we taught young and established contemporary dancers[i] (Figure 1 & 2), collaborated with renowned Kathak Dancer Namrata Pamnani and electronic musician Da-Saz, did a show at the Sound Reasons Festival (Figure 3), which resulted in a continued collaboration (Figure 4). In La Habana we taught students from dance, music and fine-arts at the ‘Instituto Superior de Arte’ (Figure 5) and collaborated with three masters-level dance and music students for a performance at the Teatro del Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Figure 6).[ii]

Both experiences challenged us as artists and teachers by questioning the certainties of practice from our home context. Notable were the moments of intuitive understanding across cultures that arose from the shared artistic practice, permitting communication without prior knowledge of the other’s idiom. It was interesting to observe how the notion of fixity of materials, musical or choreographical, is influenced by the performance modes prevalent in a culture. In classical North-Indian music, phrase-form is free (Clarke and Kini, 2011) and resembles free play in the European tradition (Bailey, 1992:7). The corresponding dance style (e.g. Kathak (Schechner, 2012)) has open flow-based elements, but also contains rhythmical patterns that are formalised. In Cuban music the Afro-Cuban influence of drumming can be felt, phrase-forms get modulated, and cycles of rhythms repeated.

Moments of play

Moments of improvised ‘play’ on stage reveal a density of being, which is perceived through heightened states of concentration and focus. Getting into these states by creating an elongated or on-going present (Sheets-Johnstone, 2009:35) is dependent on inner as well as outer factors. The outer factors play an important role in defining the moment of performance; they contribute considerably to the feeling of intensity of a stage situation. The social import and the questions of status and ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu, 2000) that are implied in a concert situation frame the performative event (Dewsbury, 2000), they act as principal influence of (intrinsic) pressure, and colour the moment in an undercurrent of social, as well as cultural and artistic meanings (Serres, 2011). The inner, elusive state in performance enfolds attitudes, perceptions and reflections: “Performance entails a … decision to see/feel/hear herself as performing while she is performing, a decision to see/feel/hear others performing while she watches them perform.” (Kozel, 2007:69) Ultimately in an extended stylistic, trans-disciplinary, cross-cultural situation, shared knowledge and experience are less stable, yet every person contributes a different background, and unique sets of values and expectations.

Intertwined strata

The different practices involved can be divided into the domains of the individual, the interpersonal, the interdisciplinary, and social and intercultural processes. In musical and cross-disciplinary improvised performance, all these elements are thickly interwoven and influence each other in a multitude of ways.

The individual level of practice covers the preparations for working with instruments, sound models, interaction models, and the reflection and continuous adaptation of the sonic, musical, spatial and physical materials that form the basis of a performer’s actions. The activities are always-already informed by the personal history of skill development stabilising their inner image, or imagination (Steeves, 2004), of what is performed. Improvised ‘play’ questions certainties by transcending trained forms and models. When interacting, the focus shifts from purely idiomatic materials–what to play, how to move–to communicative processes of perceiving the other and the achieved results. This interpersonal domain is concerned with the issues of dialogue and communications that envelop the practice, and need to be developed around the moment of performing.

Improvised, exploratory performance is embedded within a social context, and is significant beyond the immediate artistic expression. It poses questions of low and high culture, of agency as artists within economical structures and of the position of the performer vis-à-vis the audience (Latour, 2005). Improvised ‘play’ within Western European tradition carries a baggage of meaning that belongs to a scene or style, both in music and dance (Bailey, 1992; Sheets-Johnstone, 2009). In other cultures, specifically in contemporary India and communist Cuba, the emerging performing artists might be exposed to contemporary Western practices without a personal experience of the style. General audiences, even if exposed to Western arts practices through mass media and the global entertainment industries, do not possess any points of reference for understanding these practices. Thus the intercultural encounters are charged with issues of mutual respect and understanding that precede the artistic practice, but are helped by the common ground provided by the shared disciplines and experiences between the artists.

Practise, transmission, and research

The described project and resulting reflections provide a specific point of view on interdisciplinary artistic work. They reflect an expanded practice that on the one hand encompasses different disciplines, and on the other hand bridges practice with transmission, the communicative act of teaching with artistic processes, and exposes emerging artists to new artistic approaches.

By extending a hybrid practice into a boundary-crossing context, the perspective of improvised ‘play’ can be transferred from focussing on the performing practice itself to the way inter-cultural projects are run. The openness, adaptability and willingness to understand the other are key qualities in the encounter with artists in new cultural contexts. The processes of carrying out projects, of learning from each other, can be considered to belong to standard artistic practice. We claim, however, that the reflections originating from these processes and the insights we are capable of articulating thanks to the accumulated experiences constitute valid results of artistic research, comparable to analyses in scientific experiments or interpretations in scholarly work. Without unfolding the entire debate about practice-led and artistic research (Coessens et al., 2009; Borgdorff, 2011), we consider this project–in its endeavour to cross boundaries–to constitute a valid experimental process of artistic research. It represents an investigation into how the domains of practice mesh with social concerns, how communications among artists carry cross-cultural significance, and how ‘insights and understanding’ that arise out of improvised performance can produce an impact on the individual as well as the social practice of an artist. Furthermore, the blending of transmission with collaboration, and the necessarily continuous redefinition of the processes in their contingent environments, be they schools, dance studios, individual performances or festivals, exhibits all the hallmarks of experimental work. Finally, by giving the reflective side (Schon, 1983) an emphasis which exceeds the scope of dialogue in rehearsal space and connects to core discourses beyond those held in music and dance, we believe that we make meaningful contribution to positioning improvised ‘play’ in open-form performance as reflective practice and as a way to carry out experimental research in the arts.

These topics need to be elaborated on and investigated more deeply in a full article. The goal of this brief overview was to connect the elements of interdisciplinary and intercultural ‘play’ and propose our specific perspective and methodology as a model for artistic research.

All photographs and videos (c) 2013–2014 by Jan Schacher (except where otherwise noted).

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Figure 1: Workshop at the DanceworX Academy, Delhi, India

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Figure 2: Workshop at the Gati Dance Forum, Delhi, India

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Figure 3: Performance at the Sound Reasons Festival 2013, Delhi, India

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Figure 4: performance at Corner College, Zurich, Switzerland

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Figure 5: Workshop at the Instituto Superior de Arte ISA, La Habana, Cuba.

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Figure 6: Performance at the Teatro Bellas Artes, La Habana, Cuba. (Photography: Viviana Ramos, used by permisssion)


[i] http://gatidance.com/

[ii] For more details and videos see: http://www.jasch.ch/sounding_bodies.html


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