Music at Jams

Many years ago I put out the call for words of advice for musicians at jams. This is one of the best writings to come back. I’m afraid I don’t remember who wrote it. (If you wrote it please let me know so I can give you credit)

Improvised Music at Contact Improvisation Jams

Yes, I am a contact improvisation dancer and a musician. The keyword here is “sensitivity“.

Especially in a jam the musician must be keenly aware of how he is impacting upon the environment, how the dancers are responding, and how and when to maintain silence. Playing for a jam is NOT performing. The music (sounds) can be dynamic, but are usually best when kept subtle and minimal. The subconscious effect of sounds and music on the dancers is very powerful. The more transparent the musician and his playing the better. For a jam, more than two, or three musicians is usually too much.

Drums must be used with extreme discretion. Tempo and rhythm should cover a wide range and vary often. Volume and density of sound should not venture too often from out of the “background” level, although when done with taste and good timing loud passages can be good. Ideally, the musician is a dancer. Even if not, it’s good if he/she can treat the music as a “body of sound” which interacts with the dancers; the musician and the movers are literally having a dance together.

If these points are observed and the right musicians are involved, music can truly enhance and support a contact jam. Normally music would not fill more than a third to a half of the jam. Every situation is different. Just pay attention, be sensitive, be humble, and it never hurts to ask for feedback from the room! Good luck.

touch the sky
touch the ground
and keep dancin’

Inside violin

7 thoughts on “Music at Jams

  1. Leon MacDonald

    I sustained a minor injury at a recent jam. I blame the musician. Why such spirited sitar with Tabla… who can dance or move that fast anyways!? I looked around and what had started as a calm jam had been whipped into a frenzy. The person I had begun dancing with started taking risks and moving quickly without awareness… Yes I blame the musician.

  2. Philip

    Excellent description. Musicians ordinarily listen to each other when they play, (and themselves), but in a CI context – it only works if they are listening to what is happening on the floor before they play a single note. We have a clarinetist and a stand up bass player at most of our monthly jams in Vancouver. They do not play “for” the dancers, they play *with* the dancers, transparently, exquisitely, using their instruments as the dancers use their bodies… contributing not controlling, participating not dominating – they use the same principles for their music as the dancers use for their dances… no one leads no one follows, the contact is the teacher, and the musicians and dancers both honour what the Contact evokes from all of us. They are also both contacters, which means they UNDERSTAND what is happening on the dance floor and succeed in translating that into their music.

  3. Jules Beckman

    My two cents:

    FOR MUSICIANS/ SOUNDMAKERS: Notes can be pebbles dropped into a pond. Let the ripples subside before dropping another. Sometimes the rustling of a lizard in the grass is all that’s needed. An occasional tolling. A whistling wind. The whir of a laundomat. Suds fluttering down the drain. One car passes, a bird flies away then nothing. Evoke, imply, don’t dictate. After John Cage, music need not be limited to instruments, melody, rhythm, etc. Soundmakers should sensitize themselves to the sound that’s already there. They should also dance to feel how sensitive we become when the whole organism is activated. Indeed an eardrum sprouts in every pore. Imagine the dance as a voice, and leave space for it in the music. Don’t finish the painting. Play trees with no ground or sky. An empty street, and one rhino. The smell of bread but no bakery. It takes a great deal of restaint (I’m no expert) but try not to sum things up. But remember, the golden rule is It Depends.

    SILENCE WITHIN MUSIC: As a long time musician for dance /CI, I know, it’s hard to compete with silence. Silence is sexy, it is alpha and omega. But even the densest music can be respectful of silence. One of my teachers said the purpose of music is to clean the silence, meaning by contrast silence is more valuable in the aftermath of sound. He would have us play robust finales just to savor the silence in its immediate wake. It’s true: silence swells. Another collaborator spoke of music/sound creating ‘silences that speak’. How can you frame emptinesses so meaning or something auspicous falls or floats into it?

    FOR DANCERS: Learn/study how to be autonomous from the sound, not slaves to the rhythm. It takes work to learn but ultimately makes for more freedom and dimension, more egalitarian meetings of motion and sound. Without this education the musicians have more (too much) power/responsibility. With it, dancers can extract the calories from sound regardless of its tempo, color, density.

  4. Alex Postnikov

    Agree completely. When people ask me to play on the jam, I ask whether they’re skilled or not in playing. Drummers-beginners tend to follow rhythms. This doesn’t work at all. Any other instruments – mostly the opposite :) The more their experience is – the more they fall into own flow and fail to be humble.

    It’s only about musicians I don’t know and love myself. For any others – I’m OK to come closer and make them hear me during the jam :)

  5. Moti Zemelman

    I’ve been sometimes DJing recorded music for the Jam that I facilitate. I started collecting appropriate music for CI using Spotify and now have a playlist with over 1500 tracks. I think you need to be a Spotify member to listen, but I thought I would share this list with people here

    In Motion, Moti


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