Some Thoughts on the Role of Dance in NIMEs:

I have been visiting electroacoutic gatherings (NIME, ICMC, SEAMUS, ..) for decades and I have often wondered why there are so few choreographers in attendance.  I am sometimes the only one! It strikes me that if one wanted to connect movement and music -- what is surely not an entirely strange idea for a choreographer -- then what better place to find new ways to do it than among music interface experts. I see our work as two sides of a coin.

Indeed, many participants at these things are not only interested in the way music sounds, but in its process, where it comes from -- what is very often the human body in motion. Movements are expressive, visually as aurally. And though we English speakers may not have a word for it, there is something that lies _between_ expressive movement and expressive sound, i.e. dance and music. The sum of the two is not equal to the parts.

This of course bespeaks a deeper truth: that these things are intimately related within the human psyche. So much so that we sometimes cannot tell them apart! I remember early on in my dance career, noticing that audience members could very often confuse what they saw, with what they heard. This experience, which is on some level a form of synaesthesia, is something we might almost take for granted, but while practitioners of both music and dance freely admit that it happens, it is rarely well-appreciated -- at least not in most Western cultures.

We in the West like to say, "I am a musician. I am not a musician. I am a dancer. I am not a dancer. ", and yet to most cultures of the world, to say such thing hardly makes sense. They see being a dancer or musician simply as part of what it means to be human. It is not something special that one can become, rather it is something we all bring to the act of becoming; a person can be a master at it, or not; children might do it energetically and unpolished, the old might do it delicately and with finesse, but it is practiced by everyone. It is inclusive and ubiquitous.

Most languages have a single word for both dance and music (English and most other Western languages do not). According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, language effects our conceptualization the world. An often-cited example is the Hopi Indians, whose language does not have tenses. Thus, it is said, they are able to perceive time not as a line, but as a circle, and this shapes their religion and philosophy.

Thus too we Westerners, lacking a word for music/dance, might have difficulty to sense what it is, or to perceive that it comes from a single human impulse. When I saw Scott Deal perform Elainie Lillios's, "The Rush of the Brook Stills the Mind" in the final concert, I was probably not alone in experiencing it as music/dance. À la Yeats, form can merge with content:


O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

Did Scott's way of moving effect how the music sounded? Of course! I am sure I am preaching to the choir when I say, a music performance is more than the sounds we hear. But beyond this, we have to see that music-making and dance-making have been torn apart. We no longer even have a word for it! How sad is that. We can see that they interconnect, but their essential amalgamation is largely overlooked. In the modern age we are homogenized, conforming to notions we have learned at our conservatories and elsewhere, concerning what is desirable, growing out of the same old generalized puritanical fears concerning exposure and enjoyment of the body.

So against this backdrop, we of the Digital Age face an interesting challenge. I think of it like this: the first digital age brought us sensations -- images and sounds that dazzled our senses. What we lost though was the body. We were told that the new machines would become prosthetic extensions to our bodies. Instead, the opposite happened. It is we that have become prosthetic extensions of them. Type, type, mouse click, mouse click, sit on ass, sit on ass... Now is time for the dawn of a Second Digital Age, one which re-discovers the body and the richness of human movement expression.

What NIMEs and their makers offer is surely more than music. It is process. They deconstruct the entire paradigm -- exactly what is needed!  We can trace the energy as it goes from mind, to body, to technology, to vibrations of air and back to the body's senses and sensibilities. We are ready to choreograph a new role for human expression which un-learns what the last few centuries of Western music and dance have taught us.

The NIME2015 catalog said, "An oft-quoted critique about creating a new interface for musical expression is that once it is realized, the creator is the one and only master of the instrument." But seen in this light, I do not think this is needs to be a bad thing. That is, mastery is not the only purpose of creation. Empowering "non-musician" dancers, for example, or "non-dancer" musicians, etc. is a great thing. Do it in ways that make some aesthetic sense and the idea can have real power.

-Robert Wechsler

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