Can you give me some guidelines/suggestions for playing music at jams?

Music can be an incredibly powerful force in a contact improvisation jam. When played poorly it can be distracting, or even dangerous. It can affect your relationship to your partner and detract from physical awarenesses that keep you alert and safe. But when played well, music can have incredible power to affect and shape a jam, sometimes leading to unusually unified or transcendent experiences.

I’ve been playing music for contact jams for a long time, since about 2003. Some months ago, Paul Spielman from Boston asked me to write up my thoughts on the subject. It has been much harder than I thought. More of my ideas than I realized exist at a semi-intuitive level, not previously put into words and not easily accessible outside the moment.

But finally I wrote this post! Playing at the Earthdance New Year’s Jam last December brought some of my ideas to the surface, and helped me remember how and why I do certain things. And I’ve also given up on making a complete, comprehensive, fully-thought-out statement of my ideas on this. Although I think my aesthetic on music at jams is fairly figured out, I haven’t totally figured out how to express it. But for now, I thought it best to share some of these ideas as I conceive of them today, and revise later as I figure out how better to say things.

So, these are my thoughts on this subject, for now, a bit rambling, but hopefully containing some wisdom. I’ve structured this post in three parts: 1) General guidelines to playing music at jams; 2) Some concrete suggestions for actually carrying out the guidelines; and 3) Some advanced concepts. And I couldn’t resist adding 4) some more commentary at the end.

Richard’s Guidelines for Playing for Contact Jams

These are my most basic principles for playing music for contact jams. They are not particularly revolutionary.

  1. Be a partner to the dancers and the dancing (collectively, the dance). This means reacting, responding, and suggesting to the dance, sometimes leading, sometimes following, but not leading or following to the exclusion of the other.
  2. Avoid dictating to the dancers or creating a musical texture that locks the dance in. Above all else, do no harm — make sure that your contributions are not negatively interfering with a dance that could otherwise happen. Contact improvisation can exist perfectly well without music; music should only be used when at minimum it will not detract, and ideally only when it will be substantially additive.
  3. Use silence liberally.

Richard’s Very Strong Suggestions for Carrying Out the Guidelines

The devil is in the details. What follows is how I suggest that you follow the Guidelines above, and how I generally do. These are fairly prescriptive, and likely to spark some disagreement. Feel free to comment below.

  1. If at all humanly possible, improvise. Do not play songs or pieces from your repertoire. If you’re a jazz musician, try to avoid standards. Free yourself as much as possible from your fingers or muscle memory or musical memory telling you what to play, and open yourself to responding to what is happening in the dance in front of you.
  2. Look at the dancers. No, really. You need to be able to see them to relate to them. Open your eyes if you close them, look up from your hands or the floor if you look down. You should be looking at the dancers way more than most of the time. Like really, pretty close to all of the time.
  3. Avoid strongly-defined rhythmic pulses, particularly in a conventional meter. Contact improvisation, unlike 99% of social dancing, does not easily fit with a clearly-defined beat. Often the best music for jams does not have a rhythmic pulse, or obscures the pulse. If you throw in a strong rhythmic pulse, do so with much care, and be willing to let it go quickly if the room doesn’t respond enthusiastically.
  4. When in doubt, lay out. The jam can get along fine without you. Try to have more silence than sound. And go for long silences — two minutes, ten minutes, not just a few seconds between phrases. Another way to think about this is that your job is not to play sound, but to frame silence. (This is somewhat inspired by a comment by Lynn S. of my playing, that I sounded like I was “carving the silence.”)
  5. Never underestimate the power of a single note, followed by a substantial silence. It takes some courage and self-possession to make just one note, and then let that one note sink into the room. But it’s a totally baller move.
  6. Wait until you’re compelled to play. Wait for when the room seems to want or need music; try not to force your way in just because YOU want to play. This takes a lot of listening, and experience, and patience, but most of the time, sooner or later, the opportunity presents itself. If it doesn’t, then let it go. You can do much in your playing for contact jams if you can cultivate not ever needing to make sound.
  7. Be extraordinarily attentive if improvising with other musicians. When playing with other musicians at a jam, the tendency is to focus on the other musicians to the exclusion of the dancing — it’s SO much more comfortable. But you need to pay even more attention to the dancing when playing with other musicians. When in doubt, lay out.
  8. Be very, very careful of long, sustained tones on wind and string instruments. We have a tendency to space out on a held note — to sit on it while we’re figuring out what to do next. A held note should be dynamic and flexible, with the choice always to continue or to stop — and it’s better to err on the side of stopping.
  9. Be very careful of being too complex on the piano. Just because you can play eight notes at once doesn’t mean you should, and in fact, lots of notes are harder to relate to for a dancer. Try playing without the pedal. Try playing with just one hand. Try playing just single notes with one hand. Try playing just single notes with your left hand. Try playing just single notes with your left hand, but only above high C. The idea here is to get you to (1) simplify, (2) take you out of familiar patterns, and therefore (3) think about each note and make each note count.
  10. Avoid using loops. It can be tempting to use loops in order to create more sound and complicated textures, to fill the room. But loops are automatic and often inflexible, and commit you ahead of time to a certain musical texture. One note is all you need to influence dancers and fill the room.
  11. Bonus points for avoiding endings. After I’ve played for a while on a particular idea, I might bring that to a close, and want to sit out for a while. However, I find it’s a little nicer to come to an ambiguous or open-ended ending, instead of a strong conclusion. This not only avoids the scenario where dancers stop dancing and applaud, which can be a bit destructive to the flow of the jam, but by more gracefully transitioning between sounding and silence, you signal that the jam continues independent of the music, minimizing the music’s disruptiveness. Think of telling a child a bedtime story to get them to fall asleep. You want to keep telling the story, lulling the child through repetition, getting softer and softer, then when you notice the child is asleep, let your voice trail off, turn off the light, and tiptoe out of the room…
  12. Resist the temptation of toys and tchotkes. Are you one of those that brings a suitcase of different noisemakers, turning to one after another as you run out of ideas, looking for inspiration? Trust me when I say, inspiration doesn’t come from more sound-producing objects. It comes from the dancers, or the room, or the wind, or you, but toys are more often restlessness, discomfort with silence or waiting. You can do all you need to do, say all you need to say, with one instrument. It’s similar with extended techniques. I love extended techniques, but as a color or a tool, not any more or any less important or novel than a straight tone. Dare to be simple and naked.

Some Advanced Concepts

These may not make sense until you’ve played for a lot of jams. But here are some advanced concepts to think about once you’ve been playing for a while.

  1. At times, it will occur to you to stop playing — when what you’re doing feels old, or repetitive, or not working, or your hands/fingers/arms/lips are getting tired — but you will find it very hard to do so. You will feel like you’re running downhill and can’t stop, like there’s too much momentum to stop, even though you want to. Or you will feel like you’re holding up the jam, like if you stop playing everything will fall apart, like you’ve actually got the jam on your shoulders. This is a sure sign to stop playing. Just stop — don’t worry about stopping too abruptly. You’re forcing something, and it’s unsustainable. The quicker you stop playing, the quicker the jam can find its own rhythm/flow again. Take a nice long break — at least two minutes, if not ten — and see how the jam changes right after you stop playing.
  2. Try to play for the whole room. This can feel downright impossible at times — at which point, you might want to lay out for a bit. No need to let this paralyze you, but imagine that you can and are relating to everyone simultaneously, and playing music that relates to everyone. You can’t — but try anyway.
  3. At times, you will feel an incredible sense of power. You will realize that your music is having an effect on people, that you can literally move people (or make them jump around like puppets). Be very, very careful of these situations. Keep relating to the entire room, keep a larger perspective, and don’t get too carried away by what is happening. You don’t want puppets, you want partners. Resist the temptation to play around and experiment with what people will do; keep focused on relating, listening, and responding.
  4. Climaxes are interesting. At times you’ll start to feel the room building, or you’ll start to feel people respond to your energy, and it may occur to you to start to build up to a climax. There’s a real subtlety to feeling how much energy the room has, and coaxing the dance floor to a peak versus driving them to a peak. You can drive a room to a peak, but it somehow feels more shallow and less full than if you go there together, bit by bit. (It also takes a lot more energy.) Suggest, draw back, wait; suggest, draw back, wait. See if the room wants to keep going, or whether it would rather just settle down. Yes, it’s quite a bit like love-making.
  5. It’s nice when you can draw the whole room together, where everyone is on the same page and feeling the same thing. It’s also really, really hard. One activity can be to try to find the musical linkages between everyone in the room — what can you play that everyone can relate to? Can you play something that both the frenetic, high-flying duo as well as the slow-moving, rolling-on-the-floor duo can relate to, that doesn’t conflict with either? Then you can bring everyone together in that texture. (One way you might do this when there is both very fast and very slow energy in the room is to play dense music that moves slowly melodically or harmonically — for example, a slow, sustained melody that’s played on a soft tremelo, or an ostinato figure that gradually changes.) But it’s not going to work sometimes, or it will change people’s dances too much to do this. So then let it go, and maybe just lay out for a while, until the room naturally finds a group sense.
  6. Music and dance, as complementary as they are, exist on separate planes from each other. Dancers will never influence you as directly as sound, and you will never influence dancers as much as you would another musician. It takes some time to see and understand how you’re influencing a room full of dancers when they aren’t jumping around like puppets. It can be very disorienting, actually; you may sometimes not know if you’re having an effect at all. Keep your eyes open for the whole room, and see if you can notice how your sound is affecting people in aggregate. You play one note, and maybe you don’t see anything in most of the couples, but one solo dancer over here adjusts her motion slightly, and one couple over there slows down, and a few people breathe out, sighing. That’s all you can see, sometimes, but it’s actually a very strong reaction. Cultivate your sensitivity to how the room responds to you.
  7. Everyone likes a little bit of repetition. Too much repetition can lock a room down, and confine the dancing, but if you can repeat ideas from time to time, or establish a texture that is consistent but ambiguous, it can be a nice pool for the dance to swim in. I do this sort of half-Brahms, half-Stravinsky thing where I repeat ideas, but in an ambiguous pulse and slightly varied and developed each time, so that the music is consistent, but not too predictable, and has some sense of forward motion. This is very, very tricky, but a little repetition here and there is very nice.
  8. I was reminded by a comment by Daniel C. that a sense of theme or a long line in the music can be nice. One basic way to do this is through repetition. But beyond repetition, if you can improvise coherent large-scale musical statements or pieces, all the while adapting to what is happening in the room at the moment and keeping your ideas flexible to what the room needs… well, that can be even nicer.
  9. A commenter on Martin Keogh’s blog eloquently reminds me that music can have an effect on the safety of the jam. I can’t precisely articulate how this works, but I’ve felt this when I’ve played. I can see whether my playing is causing people to slip into other worlds, or causes them to be more in tune with themselves and each other. I can tell when energetic music causes people to be frenzied and out of control, and when the dancing is still relatively safe. I might ease off on the gas (musically speaking) when it gets too crazy, then goose it when the road seems safe and smooth again and when people seem focused and ready again to go.
  10. You can make better dancers, too. You can quiet the nerves of beginners. You can help get more experienced dancers out of patterns. You can encourage unlikely pairings. You can inspire new movement. You can demand greater responsiveness and attentiveness to music (mostly by stopping and forcing people to listen instead of anticipating). You can also can carried away with delusions of grandeur.

Some Last Commentary

Just some more thoughts on music for jams, generally.

  1. The first guidelines above are, I’m afraid, pretty much what everyone says about how musicians should play music for contact jams. (For instance, see a Martin Keogh blog post on this and the accompanying comments, as well as a Facebook discussion on his Wall.) I say “I’m afraid” because despite the universality of these statements, the actual music produced varies widely. I encountered this vividly when preparing to be a musician at the Freiburg festival, one of four. Before meeting in Freiburg, the four of us corresponded about our philosophies on music, and we mostly seemed to agree. But when we actually played with each other, the output was totally different. For instance, my sense of “silence” and “space,” was drastically different from two of the other musicians. Meanwhile, the musician whose philosophy as expressed in words seemed most diametrically opposed to mine ended up being the one I felt most in tune with. My point is, words are very bad at capturing this, particularly at a high level of abstraction. The devil is in the details.
  2. Who should play for jams? Many people think it makes a difference to be a dancer, and while I think that’s probably correct, I think it’s much more important to be a composer (or at least, someone who thinks compositionally), improviser, and skilled instrumentalist, in that order. It’s really important to be able to improvise, but many improvisers in music are locked into patterns and methods, instead of being skilled at actually expressing something new and novel. Composers tend to be a little more flexible, if they have the ability and interest in relating to things happening in the moment. And it makes a big difference to be able to play your instrument. A musician who is not at the point where he or she can comfortably make sound without having to think about it does not have the mental resources available to also interact with the dance and improvise. Unskilled musicians who seem to be able to do this usually are not actually anticipating what notes are coming out of their instruments; while they may be paying attention to the dance, they have little or no control over the sounds they make. Which means that those sounds usually aren’t particularly communicative with the dance.
  3. Playing music for jams is really, really difficult. It’s reasonably easy to do in a way that’s not upsetting to people, since contact dancers are forgiving folk, but hard to do really well. Playing an instrument is hard enough. Combine that with improvising, watching a room full of people, and taking those movements in, then relating to those movements through sound — on the scale of multi-tasking, I think it’s way up there.
  4. Again, writing about this is really limiting and ridiculous. But I’d be happy to talk to you, show you, or teach you some of these ideas and techniques. I haven’t worked out how yet, but I’d love to teach more people how to do this kind of thing and to share my ideas. This is best done using actual sound rather than just words. Just drop a Comment below and I’ll get in touch. Let me know in the box if you’d like me keep your Comment private and not to post it.

1 comment for “Can you give me some guidelines/suggestions for playing music at jams?

  1. Benjamin Pierce
    2014/06/14 at 12:58

    A very warm thank you, Richard, for articulating all this so thoughtfully! Much to ponder.

    One aspect of playing for dancing that you didn’t mention is the way that one person contributing sound to the room often encourages others to join in with their own contributions. This can sometimes lead to a lovely group sonic improv, but mostly the people joining in are not paying very close attention to what they’re doing and the effect it’s having, and the result gets pretty mushy.

    This tendency seems especially strong when the first instrument is a voice (which is why it’s particularly salient for me as a singer) — not many people are going to spontaneously try to vocalize along with a viola! But I think it’s not just that. When you play, there’s a sense of seriousness and intention, both in your demeanor and in the sound, that says, “I’m making music with the room now. Join in only if you’re ready to match my level of focus.” Projecting this is a useful skill.

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