Experienced improviser and composer Malcolm Atkins shares his recent practice working with dancers, and raises intriguing questions about the relationship between dance and music…

Improvised music for improvised dance

As part of my practice of accompanying dance I regularly improvise for Café Reason Butoh Dance Theatre Classes. These improvisations which are solo responses to exercises and pieces developed in class, have evolved over the years I have been doing this. I was asked to record some by the class organisers and have started doing this and making them available as free downloads on a bandcamp site I set up in my name.

I have made them freely available so that anyone attending the class can develop their ideas between classes by being reminded of what they were working on but also to demonstrate that spontaneous musical improvisation in support of dance can create a very particular musical atmosphere which is often determined by the style of dance and the way the dancer stimulates and responds to a dynamically created musical accompaniment.

What I would highlight in the recordings to demonstrate this is a series of three accompaniments to solo improvisations by Ayala Kingsley http://malcolmatkins.bandcamp.com/track/the-loony-world-of-flavia-ayalas-improvisation , Fabrizia Verrechia http://malcolmatkins.bandcamp.com/track/the-loony-world-of-flavia-bitzias-improvisation and Ana Barbour (http://malcolmatkins.bandcamp.com/track/the-loony-world-of-flavia-anas-improvisation)  that all took place in one class where these experienced Butoh performers were asked to each create a ten minute response to the task of growing from the ground in sun light and later folding and transforming as moonlight took over. This simple task was developed individually and expressively by each dancer.

As a musician working solo I would make an initial statement (which I would record on a loop) and then attempt to develop a musical response symbiotically with the dancer. In each case the initial starting sound world was one I chose arbitrarily – I would literally jump to any sound on a synthesiser and start with this. However the direction that each piece unfolded in tended to be unique because of the expressive power of each dancer.

I also attempted to distinguish two approaches which I decided on as each piece started. The improvisations for Ana and Ayala used an approach of light and space moving into darkness. In contrast the piece for Fabrizia moved from darkness or a sense of oppression into a sense of light. In talking about her dance Fabrizia said she felt the sunlight was oppressive and claustrophobic and was clearly responding directly to the musical form created. However she was unaware that the music was creating this effect on her and thought it was the way she was seeing the images she had been given to work with.

All this shows to me how interchangeable sound and movement are in influencing one another, and how problematic it is that this link is now so often broken by the use of pre-recorded music when a dialogue and a mutual expressive support can offer far more interesting work.

In contrast to this symbiotic approach in the DEC group ( this group is exploring the potential of collaboration across visual art, music and dance) we have been attempting to compare and contrast sympathetic and non-sympathetic techniques in collaborating across art forms. At a recent rehearsal I attempted to contrast the creation of a series of unrelated sounds which would work against any dance movement, with sounds created in sympathy to lyrical expression which would relate to movement and visual expression (although these forms could also move between process and intuitively determined expression). I have put an improvisation that works in these terms on bandcamp as an interesting point of reference ( http://malcolmatkins.bandcamp.com/track/dec-group-different-patterns-over-time ). What is fascinating here is that the music  does not work (for me) as effectively as music created to support dance as highlighted for Café Reason. However, this musical work, when heard in the context of video that shows dance and visual art response or lack of response makes far more sense. The random sounds generated in an initial loop are far more effective even though they were not created in sympathy with the other art forms or responded to sympathetically by them.

I am not sure exactly what this proves as the dance artists (Susie Crow and Ana Barbour) as well as the visual artists are extremely skilled and may be creating the meaning in this extremely rich work where there are parallel layers of meaning between art forms.

However, the fact that the music for a dance improvisation alone can capture the meaning of what a dancer is saying (even if that meaning is far better expressed by the dancer and musician together)  is fascinating when my assumption was that musical meaning would only be apparent with the visual layer that it was stimulated by. The fact that a musical process of contrasting process and intuitive response can work better with a disjunct visual layer is a fascinating and unexpected corollary to this.

Malcolm Atkins

15th October 2012

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