Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Pathways Series: Music

Pathways Series: Music

Every fire circle gathering has unique aesthetics and intentions that fuel the interactions between people and the various mechanisms that bind them together in sacred space: SpiritFire refers to these as the Pathways of music, motion, voice, and seva.

Many of those who come to SpiritFire attend other fire circles around the country: Forestdance, MayFire, Phoenix Fire – and find an underlying sense, as Lisa so aptly describes in her recent post, of community. We share much, and our various forms of celebration are similar, but one of the beautiful aspects of having different events is the diversity we find.

I’d like to offer an exploration of how fires can be specific in their own ways of doing things, and offer a discussion about SpiritFire’s approach to each of the pathways. Music seems like a good place to start; recently we had our first staff meeting and devoted a good chunk of time to this topic (as well as the other pathways), and I know folks have been discussing these things in various forums, both public and private, quite a bit.

So what is the SpiritFire approach to music and the fire circle? What our the intentions and aesthetics of what we do? How can we celebrate diversity and spontenaeity at the fire and yet keep the circle’s boundaries consistent and clear for everyone to enjoy?

A few years ago we put together a (rather wordy but complete) basic description of how SpiritFire walks the path of music. You can access that in its entirety via the Yahoo Group files section, or contact us for a copy. We’re hoping to put up some new pages on our website that are dedicated to the individual pathways, and I’ll let you know how that idea progresses.

Here, however, I’m just going to offer some bullet points, and then share some of the staff’s realizations and decisions that transpired during the meeting in mid-January.

• First – SpiritFire is primarily a percussive fire circle; this was a big part of our discussions at the meetings. Our music is made from instruments of indefinate pitch, meaning non-tuned instruments, as opposed to instruments of definite pitch, which are tuned and focused on melodic content.

Tablas are a wonderful example of walking the line in-between these two ideas. They are tuned, but percussive; or the hang drum, which is a multi-pitched steel drum, but the pitches are rich in overtones and meld well with softer percussion.)

So how do we view our relationship to instruments of melodic nature? We felt the need to clarify some of that for ourselves, as a staff, which in turn will help us support the container more easily once we’re at the event. As many of you have seen, each night’s fire lighting ritual is focused on a different theme; each night’s focus is created by both staff and recruited community members, who are responsible for creating and maintaining the container that night. What we’ve set up is that for each night, the faciltators have the final say about what kinds of non-percussive content might appear at the circle, within the following perimeters:

1. Melodic offerings are meant to be brief, as a specific statement or transitional moment; they should done conscientiously and at pre-agreed upon times (with that night’s faciltators). For the most part, they are offered at dawn.

2. Those wishing to offer melodic music need to first check in with the night’s facilitators, and come to an agreement about the nature of the offering.

3. Folks should not assume the rest of the circle must stop and listen – the offering (like any other offering) needs to leave room for others to participate. A melodic offering is not a “spotlight” for someone to perform – it is meant to enhance and contribute to the sense of sacred beauty that is there, and to support the intent of that night’s focus.

On to the rhythmic/percussive part of who we are – here are some of the ideas that have grown over the years – and are already in practice:

• During the drumming sections, especially those with more drummers at a time, SpiritFire encourages playing 3-4 hand drum “parts” with multiple people playing a part in unison.

• Diversity in percussive sound is important, and can be supported in a few ways:
i. Bells and rattles are critical to helping those on hand drums and dunduns keep together – if many people are playing djembes, consider helping with a solid, consistent rhythm on a bell or rattle.
ii. We are trying to actively encourage other drum styles in addition to the djembe/dundun ensemble: dumbek/frame drums, congas, etc. – and all the musicians need to be an active part of holding space for those sounds. If a group of dumbeks is playing, consider allowing them to have their space without dunduns/djembes. There are loaner drums for those who want to participate in groups of instruments that they don’t own.
iii. Sacred Sounds like didgeridoos, singing bowls, and other such instruments are an important part of our circle, too!

• We ask that drummers stay conscious and connected, in service to dance.

• Our rhythmic aesthetic is one of long-playing grooves with very few sudden “breaks” to end a rhythm, which can throw a dancer off. Once a rhythm comes to an end, we ask the drummers to refrain from introducing a rhythm too quickly, so that chants and other sounds have a chance to manifest. It might be that a chant or sacred sound moment goes on for a long time with no drums – that’s a good thing.

• One soloist at a time, if there is a soloist!

• Simpler parts will meld with ensemble playing (particularly large groups) with more clarity and effect than fast, busy parts with many beats.

That’s quite a lot to digest; on the other hand, we’ve been building on these foundations for a few years now. Your thoughts? What else is there to consider for music? What things deserve more conversation or focus?


Lyra said...

Yo, Joss, I think you've hit your monthly word limit. It's gonna take months to unpack all this!

So I'll just ask about one tiny thing here:

"Our rhythmic aesthetic is one of long-playing grooves with very few sudden “breaks” to end a rhythm, which can throw a dancer off."

Ok, where, when, and how did that one come in? I'm curious, because I've noticed it over the past couple of years. It's cool...and I'm not negating the stated reason, though I wonder how universally this is agreed upon, and I wonder if I'm the lone dancer who actually appreciates the cut-off. I mean, there are times where I'm basically begging for one, for there's been this mad, steady surge for, like, awhile, and I'm all spinning and sweating and smiling and yeah baby and holy feet are flying yeahhh oh crap. something else is starting--oh, for the love of--fuggediboutit i'm outta here.

know what i mean?

Sometimes, for me, it's like not being able to breathe or something, or not being able to honor the sweetfunkyTime where the fire crackling is the only sound until someone deep in the benches makes some joke and y'all start laughing and then someone else is like, ooo, laughing, er, uh-oh, something should Happen and then four people come forward and are all--

ok, maybe that happens enough, anyway.

yeah, i don't know. it's all good. i'm just wondering. I would also point out that there's probably a big difference, looking at the dancers, between 30 dancers and 8, or hot, pumpin' second shift and gray light, or trancey poppy look, ma, seven dance tracks and one spacious dance track. So maybe that's the guideline?

It's all good!

Just curious.

Akoma: Ghanaian Culture in VT said...

Lyra, I would pay money to visually capture this moment:

"I mean, there are times where I'm basically begging for one, for there's been this mad, steady surge for, like, awhile, and I'm all spinning and sweating and smiling and yeah baby and holy feet are flying yeahhh oh crap. something else is starting--oh, for the love of--fuggediboutit i'm outta here."

You just made me smile!

Good point you make. My interpretation of my rather verbose explanations (so much for bullet points, eh?) is that we're not saying "fade away so the drums can immediately start something new" - rather, fade as opposed to "ba-bada-ba-ba da-da-DA!" so that dancers in trance can have some sort of manageable transition.

If the drummers aren't ready to give space and are starting up a new rhythm so fast the dancers aren't getting to breathe... heck, I bet going up and humorously begging them to give others a chance to tone, chant, or... dare I say it... be in silence! .... would probably be welcome!

Is that what you were addressing or has my coffee not reached me yet... it's been a long week....

Lyra said...

Yeah, I think that's essentially what I'm addressing. Basically, I think I'm resisting the idea of a "manageable", crap, I don't know. I miss the "ba-bada-ba-ba da-da-DA!" Sometimes. When it's organic. That's all. It's, umm...blimey. I won't write that in public.

I'm laughing now.
OK: sometimes, that moment, to me, is like a communal
ecstatic release of passionate energy that sometimes, to me, is diffused when immediately redirected/ rechanneled, as opposed to release, collapse, pray in silence, breathe, hear something somewhere, perk up, engage, and do it all over again.

does that make sense?

i mean, i guess the example i give is an example of dropping the energy...but i'd come right back and say, great, drop it, so that someone who's been really careful about not stepping on someone else's offering/s can step forward. but that's a *whole* other can of worms that i bet would be better suited to another pathway dialogue.

Akoma: Ghanaian Culture in VT said...

I getcha! The truth of the matter is, for all the "considerations" or whatever-you-call'em that we have, ritual boundaries are by nature inconsistent. I've seen breaks go to good use. The situations that contributed towards the inclusion of this idea (not calling breaks) was frequently seen at a different event, where certain folks who weren't happy with a rhythm or "the current scene" would decide to call breaks and end it, forcing a transition out of something lots of folks were enjoying.

Now, personally, I'd love to think we SFF musicians can be conscious enough not to use our drumming skills to control things in that manner. Addressing it in the agreements is meant to control random breaks, establishing more subtle transitions as the "norm". Is there a better way to phrase this idea that you can think of? I'm all ears!


Akoma: Ghanaian Culture in VT said...

And by the way, does no one else have an opinion about music at SFF? Just curious....

Lyra said...

"The situations that contributed towards the inclusion of this idea (not calling breaks) was frequently seen at a different event, where certain folks who weren't happy with a rhythm or "the current scene" would decide to call breaks and end it, forcing a transition out of something lots of folks were enjoying."

A-HA!!!!! Blame-shifter! Transferererer! Blame on the dancers, wouldja?! Oh, sure, that's cool. Yep, all about those high-maintenance, tranced-out diva dancers, mm-hmmm, I see how it is, eclipsing some other power wrestling goin on in the arc, yo, covering up some drummmin drama, mm-hmmmmmmmmmm.....

yeeah. i see how it is. all good, yo, all good--i'll be yer fall girl. that's chill.

[Editor's note: this message brought to you through laughter and levity served with a twist of (mostly) faux defense. Just because.]

Anonymous said...

Well, yo, isn't THIS an interesting little piece of discourse...or datcourse...

I think you both make excellent points, and the good thing is that there IS discourse on music. It's not all about the drummers or the high-maintenance, tranced-out diva dancers, but ultimately what works for everybody - and there has to be some guidelines and intentions around this. I agree that when folks in the circle are "in the Zone" it's probably not prudent to ba-bada-ba-ba da-da-DA! At the same time, as Lyra suggests, there MAY be spontaneous, organic moments when that may be the perfect, right thing to do, but it won't happen if there is an agreement NOT to call breaks.

And then, of course, WHO would/should be the one to actually make that call at Spiritfire?

And if there are high-maintenance, tranced-out diva dancers at Spiritfire, then would the musical equivalent be called high-and-mighty drumthumping thunder gods?

Just curious (she said, tongue-in-cheek).

Akoma: Ghanaian Culture in VT said...

I'm grinning ear to ear.... love both of your comments.

Believe it or not, the aforementioned issue was with a drummer, not a dancer! But that's all water under the bridge.

The middle path is always the most attractive; but how do we help folks engage in the dialogues beforehand that help establish where that is? Do you think the pathway and presenter workshops are effective? Can we pull more folks who care about and/or engage with music at SpiritFire into this dialogue who normally wouldn't even read it? (and would that help?)

Unknown said...

this is a test to see if I can respond to the blog.

Unknown said...

Hi Everyone. I wrote some great comments the other day, but then had a hard time posting them and ultimately lost them all. Dontcha just hate that!
Let's hope this goes.
Joss, thanks for posting about the music pathway. I have many thoughts about drumming at SFF, but I don't spend much time in front of a computer (usually I'm in front of a table saw! ) So i'll just say a little bit now and see what happens.
Joss, you wrote that: "First – SpiritFire is primarily a percussive fire circle;" I assume that in limiting the use of melodic instruments you have some percussive vision or aim that you want to achieve at SFF. Would you share that with us please?
A good friend shared with me a question that I find very useful. It is: "What do we want this to look like in seven generations?" I think we might apply this question to the Spiritfire Festival broadly, and to the music in particular. One answer that comes to me: In seven generations (or sooner)I would like us to have our own rhythms, rhythms that have been created (or discovered) inside our community. I would like everyone who drums to know these rhythms inside and out. I would like these rhythms to be played in service to our sacred process around the fire, and that they serve us very well.
One small vision. I welcome your thoughts.
in rhythm, Tree

Akoma: Ghanaian Culture in VT said...

Hello all,

Bumping this up a bit since we're getting closer to the event and it's our hope to have as many folks aware, if not directly engaged, in the ideas of the pathways we travel through the night at the fire circle.

Marcus: you'd asked (a while ago now) about what the vision is for the music at SFF. I can see so many possibilities, and I think most folks have ideas about what could or should happen. Personally, I've never planned for a specific "repertoire" of set rhythms for SFF, although having our own familiar grooves would be delightful. Who knows if that will happen - I've already noticed rhythmic archetypes that tend to come around pretty often, some of which I think are really cool, some of which drive me crazy, and I'm sure some others feel exactly the opposite about each of them!

My dream would be to have a basic level of comfort and trust, responsibility and awareness surrounding HOW we create music. The historical fire we draw so much of our ideas from - the ROS fires from so long ago - was never about a set repertoire. It was about open eyes, open ears, open hearts. We created not only music but dance and ritual on the spot, as our hearts demanded of us in that moment, and it often was so powerful it brought us to tears.

I think this is also a valued vision for SpiritFire. SFF has already shown this potential (through all the pathways), and has realized much of it throughout our almost 7 years (already!) of circling together.

Musically, we can continue to learn to work together as an *ensemble* of drummers, rattlers, bell players, digeridoo blowers, etc. - by practicing our instruments away from festival time, knowing when to contribute and when to receive... valuing silence as well as sound.... being aware of our individual passions, skills, and gifts - and our limits - and being willing to use them in service to the greater circle in addition to the realization of our individual desires and needs.

Improvisation is the hardest musical skill there is, because it demands that the player/group critically listen, understand a structure, and be in control of technique, and sensitive of output. What we do is almost 100% improvisation - so my vision is for us to individually do what we can to contribute to that collective manifestation as consciously as possible.

I truly, truly, truly believe that we are on that path.