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  • Jamie McCarthy

The Is-ness of Sound (A Handout for Student Dancers).

12th January 2015.


Thinking About The Is-ness of Sound.

It can be very easy when listening or dancing to a sound to get caught in relating only to certain thoughts and assumptions we have about it, rather than to what the sound is actually doing. What do I mean by this? Well, sometimes, by relating to a label or a story we associate with the sound we kind of file it away as ‘this thing’ or ‘that thing’:

‘That’s the kind of music you hear in films when people are in smoky bars in the 1950’s’ …

and before we know it that’s the major thing we’re relating to … our story about the sound, rather than the sound itself.

Now there’s nothing wrong about relating to the cultural and narrative associations that we have with a piece of sound, it can be a really interesting and rich seam to mine, but it’s my feeling that if we stop at that level we can miss a hell of a lot of richness in the sound.

So …

‘That’s the kind of music you hear in films when people are in smoky bars in the 1950’s’ …

becomes a piece of choreography that focuses on the costumes, the narratives, the gestures and signifiers etc. suggested by the music, but doesn’t actually relate to what’s happening in the music – what’s happening in the sound from moment to moment … the ‘is-ness’ of the sound. What we can perceive of the sound when we let go of the labels and narratives that we hold about it – what the sound is in itself.

It’s like looking at a flower and instead of saying ‘That’s a flower’ and leaving it at that, you ask yourself ‘What can I see in front to of me?’ You might notice different, shapes, numbers of petals, different colours, different patterns etc. Once you let go of the label flower and observe the thing in front of you in it’s ‘is-ness’ you suddenly have a whole lot of extra stuff to relate to in the flower – a whole lot more detail. You can relate much more to the thing that’s the flower rather than (or maybe, in addition to) your idea of what a flower is.

It’s the same with music, but somehow if you haven’t had a musical training it can feel daunting to approach sound in this way, like you’re not ‘qualified’ to do it. Yet we wouldn’t feel we were unqualified to look consider a flower. What if we treated sound in the same way as the flower and allowed ourselves to feel ‘qualified’ to really notice what we’re hearing?


To notice the up-ness and down-ness of it?


The loudness and quietness of it?


The thickness and thin-ness of it?


The weight or lightness of it?


The openness or closedness of it?


The energy of it?


Where we feel it in or around the body?


What patterns and repetitions we notice in it?


The sounds and silences, stops and starts of it?


The changes and same-nesses of it?

And so on …

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