Questions to ask yourself when planning music for a weekend jam

As some of you know, the NYC contact improvisation community recently put on Shift: The Fall 2012 Equinox Jam, the first weekend jam in New York — ever? In planning Shift, we were trying to decide what role music would play during the jam. As part of our discussions on the topic, I wrote the following mini-essay which I thought was worth posting. This is by no means a refined set of ideas and I already can think of some changes, but I wanted to share it.

Hi all,

So as promised, I’m writing to share some thoughts on music & contact improvisation. I thought I’d do this by presenting some questions on the topic and some ways that different people might answer them.

The questions are:

1) what is contact improvisation about?
2) what is the central element of contact improvisation?
3) what role does music have in contact improvisation?
4) what kind of music should we have?
5) what kind of weekend jam would I like?

I think that depending on how you answer #1 and #2, certain answers follow more naturally for #3 through #5. So below I’ve written hypothetical groups of answers, classified into “types.” But of course these are not rigid or exclusive types, nor are these answers going to be totally true for everyone. Do you recognize yourself in any of these types? Can you guess which one(s) I fall into? (Answer at the end.)

If we agree as a group on the answers to #1 and #2, or some combination of answers, then I think it might help us with the answers for #3 through #5.


Five Types:

Type A: “the purist”
Type B: “the relationist”
Type C: “the improviser”
Type D: “the spiritualist”
Type E: “the epicurean”


Type A: “the purist”

“Contact improvisation is about a physical exploration or physical experimentation. The central element of contact improvisation is a rolling point of contact. Music with contact improvisation is superfluous or distracting. We shouldn’t have any music at our jam. I would like a weekend jam with classes, labs, and jams, all focused on technique and physical exploration.”

Type B: “the relationist”

“Contact improvisation is about connection with another person. The central element of contact improvisation is a sense of connection, regardless if there is physical contact. Music with contact improvisation can be distracting at times, but can also enhance a connection with a partner, make it easier to relate to multiple dancers, or can be a way to connect to the musician herself. We should have a subtle, live musician, who improvises with the dancers, leaves silences, and doesn’t get in the way. I strongly prefer music that’s not too rhythmic. I would like a weekend jam that has technique-focused, community-building, and exploratory classes, plus jams.”

Type C: “the improviser”

“Contact improvisation is about expression or a creative process. The central element of contact improvisation is improvisation. Music with contact improvisation can be stimulating and enhance the creative sense of the space. However, bad music can take up too much space and can be hard to dance to. We should have interesting, unusual music, probably a live musician, and I strongly prefer someone who is improvising, willing to make interesting sounds, and take risks. I prefer multi-instrumentalists or musicians that use effects. I would like a weekend jam that might include technique-focused and performance-focused classes, jams, performances, and non-contact workshops focused on other creative and physical skills.”

Type D: “the spiritualist”

“Contact improvisation is about spirituality, self-exploration, or self-growth. The central element of contact improvisation is exploration of one’s relationship to oneself, to others, to the space, to one’s emotions, or to one’s fears. Music with contact improvisation can enhance a spiritual experience; music can lead us to transcendent places, places I never would have found on my own. I like ambient, trance, or tribal music. It could be a DJ, though not necessarily. I’d like a weekend jam that might include community-building and exploratory classes, jams, non-contact workshops focused on other creative skills and spiritual practices, and community-building rituals.”

Type E: “the epicurean”

“Contact improvisation is about enjoyment, pleasure, or fun. The central element of contact improvisation is dance in a non-judgmental space — dancing in an environment where there is no right or wrong way to dance, with people who are accepting, open-minded, and love to move. I enjoy listening to and dancing to good music, and would welcome music with contact improvisation. I’m happy to have any kind of music with our weekend jam, as long as it’s good. I don’t need a ton of classes, but I’d enjoy a weekend with a few classes, as long as they’re not too technique-focused, jams, labs, performances, non-contact workshops, and community-building rituals.”

While I think I have elements of all five types, as most of us will, I’m mostly a mix of A (“the purist” ) and B (“the relationist”) — I do contact for physical exploration and connection with people. As such, I’m not very interested in music at jams except when improvised live by someone subtle who improvises with the dancers. But if you’re more D (“the spiritualist”) or E “(the epicurean”), you might really enjoy music at jams, even recorded music.

Again, this is not meant to be an all-encompassing, definitive, or restrictive classification. But see if this is useful.

3 comments for “Questions to ask yourself when planning music for a weekend jam

  1. Louche
    2015/03/08 at 02:36

    Hmm…. I guess it is hard to say which one I am since I have only watched videos and not participated in a jam, although I badly want to. As a partner dancer, frankly, I have a hard time imagining dancing without music. I just found this page after reading that contact improv is done without music, and I was greatly disappointed.

    I’d say that the only one of the above that doesn’t resonate with me is the one that says no music. I’m probably mostly a mixture of Types B, D, and E. I like C, too, but I’m imagining that this creative process would bore me without music.

    I’d probably agree most with Type B, but I don’t know if I’d agree with it not being too rhythmic. As a blues dancer, I’m used to very rhythmic dancing. But maybe my opinion will change on this once I actually attend a jam.

    • richard
      2015/03/08 at 22:00

      Yes, you may be getting a little bit ahead of yourself. No need to categorize yourself yet. And you may find, of course, that your reasons for doing CI change over time.

      Whether CI should always, or even most of the time, be done without music is worth questioning. I and others find no music to be one of the most important and interesting aspects of the form, but I think it’s the aspect that keeps the most people out.

      Try a jam! Let me know how it goes, or if you need any tips on how to get started. And thanks for reading.

  2. 2012/11/04 at 05:51

    Huh. I think I’m primarily C, and I feel comfortable in that with pretty much all of what you’ve written in the paragraph (i.e. it’s not like only 70% of it applies to me) which I think is the hallmark for a good classification system.

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