Saturday, October 08, 2016

A Musician's Relationship

"So why is it that playing a different rhythm, even a very closely-related one, causes the performer to listen to different things in the music?"

We began by interpreted the audible tones of the conga's tumbao moderno on the (more easily accessible) shakers. That exercise is designed for participants:
  1. to know, actively, where the tones are located in the music; and,
  2. to feel where those tones were relative to the embodiment (dance) timeline.
As proficiency increases, the actual tones of the conga in the music become obscured through the phenomenon of 'sonic masking'. This results in two displacements:
  • the conga tones become inaudible, replaced by the sound of the shaker, and
  • the participant assumes the position of the conguero within the context of the song.

Visualise the stage
In an example salsa ensemble, the (in this case, female) conguero is located at the centre of the stage. Immediately to her left is the timbalero, and beyond the timbalero, the bongosero, To her right is pianista, behind-right is the bajista. The metalles are arranged in an arc, curving from the bongosero's left, on the far side of the stage, to behind the timbalero. The singers playing percusión menor are in front.

The role and relationships of the conguero
When Arsenio Rodriguez brought his brother Israel a.k.a. 'Kike' into his ensemble to play tumbadoras (congas), he discovered that incorporating the drums increased rhythmic stability. When performing as conguero, I lock with the piano player's montuno and the bass player's tumbao, facilitated by clave phrasing. Then I listen to the vocalist. The congas provide the bedrock of percussion on which the timbales ride.

The role and relationships of percusión menor in boogaloo
My personal experience of the New York boogaloo (see Commentary: 13th June 2009 Joe Bataan @Rumberos, The Wardrobe, Leeds) changed the way I listened to the genre. Joe Bataan distilled the genre down to its very essence: just vocals and piano, punctuated by backbeat accents from hand-claps or tambourine. When I'm on hand percussion expressing the backbeats (clapping hands, shaking tambourines) I put the piano and vocals foremost; letting my backbeats frame the bubbly piano, and provide percussive counterpoint to the vocal interjections. Bandleader Pucho Brown famously described New York's boogaloo as "cha-cha (sic) with a backbeat", a sentiment I agree with. If the ensemble is interpreting boogaloo in this way, then I let the accents perch on top of the conga's tumbao, and lock with the chachachá bell on the timbales.

Salsa musicianship, and some approaches to its dancing, adheres the African aesthetic of 'individuals performing in unity' (Farris Thompson, 2011). To achieve this, co-operative musicianship is exercised where each musician plays his/her part of the story, co-ordinated through the clave-pulse relationship, which all combine to present the whole. Thus:
Each musician knows his/her part relative to everyone else's.
A solares participant displacing the conguero would listen to the instruments to which the conga has a keen relationship. If that same participant where then to change rhythms and displace the percusión menor boogaloo performer, then the instruments listen to and related with will also change.

State of play
Two of the participants has had prior experience in ensemble playing, neither of them in the context of Afro-Caribbean music. I expect that they will build relationships with the most obvious instruments first: those commonly present and with the most similar roles in European music. Indeed, I'm targeting those first, as 'easy wins'.

We might be high up the heirarchy in Bloom's taxonomy, but that's just with two simple rhythms. The sobering thought is how to get there with the complex members of the various timelines.

Baby steps.

Farris Thompson, Robert (2011). Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music. USA : Periscope Publishing.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Heads, Hearts And Hands

Last weekend, in between my DJing slots at ¡Parranda!, one of Solares' participants made a significant observation. It goes something like this (I'm paraphrasing):

"When I play the tumbao moderno rhythm, I listen to certain instruments. When I play the boogaloo rhythm, I listen to different instruments. Each rhythm I play, causes me listen to different parts in the music."

I've been waiting for that observation.

It indicates attainment in Bloom's: Analysis stage of the Cognitive (knowing/head) domain; the complex Valuing-Organisation stages of the Affective (feeling/heart) domain; and, the Perceptual stage of the Psychomotor (doing/hands) domain. Three other participants had alluded to being at similar points of development, but this was the first crystallised articulation.

 All Rights Acknowledged.
It means that for the majority of Solares participants, they are well up the hierarchies. There is much more case-example to be learned to facilitate Synthesis (cognitive) and Characterisation (affective), but we are within the threshold of Skilled Movements (psychomotor).

That tells me where they're at. Next, I have to explain the observation.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Backbeat Timeline: Introduction To The Boogaloo Rhythm

Tonight, I introduced Solares to the boogaloo rhythm.

It had reached that stage where the tumbao moderno practice was in danger of being entrenched, of participants feeling that the tones were synonymous with the back-beat; and they're not - they are one of a number.

So it was late on in the day, the last ten minutes of the session, when I put it on as a contrasting activity (they'd made good headway into the shaker-tumbao entrainment exercises).

It began as a briefing, that a feature of the boogaloo is in how the backbeat timeline is highlighted with hand-claps - present or implied.

We then listened to a number of tracks from the original boogaloo period out of New York i.e. 'chachachá with a backbeat' (e.g. Joe Cuba); to migrated interpretations in Puerto Rico (e.g. El Gran Combo), and Colombia (e.g. Grupo Gale); and modern versions.

Participants were then given one track with which to clap along to, using both hands or one hand against a thigh; and another track where the shaker single tone was substituted for a hand clap.

There is work yet to be done, for participants to be presented with a progressive flow of exercises next session. But the introduction served its purpose: to illuminate the path ahead for the backbeat timeline workshops.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Two Feelings, Two Walks

We began Solares as we did last week: playing the audible tones of the tumbao moderno: "gung-gung" and "pak" on the shaker; while performing the Caribbean sway basic. Having made such delicious progress last week, I was keen to maintain the practice so that participants could reliably and quickly enter the state of flow.

Throughout the session, entrainment was achieved more quickly at under two minutes and in songs at higher tempi ~160bpm. Encouraging though this is, there is still a distance to be made up, with my 'holy grail' objectives being entrainment: in less than thirty seconds, and at a tempo of +190bpm.

Additional challenge was incorporated by the use of two shakers, one in each hand, of differing tone and/or loudness.

Two Feelings
Participants began to "drive into the floor" i.e. derive more leverage (stack joint toque curves) from the floor. Because they had not yet been shown how to damp the resultant force, it evidenced as a more staccato 'punchy' movement. They were not aware that they were moving more percussively.

I drew their attention to this, and asked them to accentuate the sway in the cradle of their hips, to deflect (not dampen) the resultant sideways. This restored the smooth action, but with an intrinsic gain of power.

The shorthand for the two qualities was "punchy" and "smooth".

Two Walks
We also investigated the relevance of the two shaker tones: the single, and the double, with respect to the salsa walk. At this point, I introduced them to the concept of the two walks:

The 'rhythmic walk' where the vocalisation and step-sizes are matched as "short-short-long" to create the "quick-quick-slow" rhythm. This walk opens a clear space for the double tone of the shaker.

The 'pinch-a-bit walk' where: the first step is taken early on beat one; the second step is 'in the pocket' on beat two; and, the third step is taken late on beat three. It's called the 'pinch-a-bit' because the dancer pinches time from both sides of beat four to give it to the first and third steps. This results in a smoother, slower, flat-triplet feel to the walk. As the second step was taken in the pocket, this was synchronised with the single tone of the shaker.

We took the time to have a qualitative discussion on the merits of both, and the circumstances under which they might be preferentially employed.

Additional supporting information was provided by referring to my web tutorial on:

'Figure 2.2. Fault tolerance' illustrates the two variations of walks.

The row labelled 'Tones' corresponds to the back-beat timeline played on the shaker(s).

The row labelled 'Accurate' represents the 'short-short-long' rhythmic walk.

The row labelled '2, slow' represents the smooth 'pinch a bit' walk (for torneo and setenta). '2' means it's calibrated to beat 2 (single shake of shaker); 'slow' means a pinch more time is added between steps 1&2, and 2&3.

That we are now examining the qualitative rhythmic nature of dance in solares is encouraging. It shows that participants are developing an increased sensitivity to the aural and kinesthetic dimensions of dance. And the possibility of greater fulfilment. I wonder what that might look like.


Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A State Of Flow

Yesterday was the first Solares after my return from the Far East. I'd been pondering the learning approach to the session, and had predicated the learning plan on the probability that the participants would have done very little practice. Hence I designed the workshop as a practice session, not as an overt learning session in a flipped classroom context.

The purpose to doing that was the removal of anxiety.

As we'd moved into investigating the domain of timelines and fundamental rhythms, solares participants are being asked to re-frame their embodiment activity as percussionists. Achieving a "state of flow" is essential to the activity's success.

According to Owen Schaffer's white paper "Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Human Factors International" (2013), there are seven conditions to be met for a state of flow to be achievable:
  1. knowing what to do;
  2. knowing how to do it;
  3. knowing how well you're doing;
  4. knowing where to go (if navigation is involved);
  5. high perceived challenges;
  6. high perceived skills; and
  7. freedom from distractions.
In practice, these were satisfied within the exercise of: generating shaker tones synchronised to the audible tones of the conga's tumbao moderno, while performing salsa's atiempo embodiment rhythm, to a salsa track.

Conditions 1 & 2
were met through revision of exercises one through three from the last session (see:

Condition 3
was fulfilled by the short impulse sound of the shaker, providing immediate feedback on quality of performance.

Condition 4
largely irrelevant, was met by self-determination in the direction of the rhythmic walk.

Conditions 5 & 6
were satisfied by the as-yet undeveloped proficiency in the synchronous performance of two timeline rhythms: back-beat and embodiment; to a qualitatively stringent level (less than 40 milliseconds).

Condition 7
was met by the studio environment (privacy), exercise design (solo practice), and unobtrusive support (subtle remedial intervention).

Three common states disrupt the maintenance of flow:
  • apathy - low challenge level, low skills level, engenders a general lack of interest
  • boredom -  low challenge level, high skills level, causes a distracting search for higher challenges
  • anxiety - high challenge level, low skills level, creates a feeling of uneasiness.
The latter is why the session was planned the way it was; to maximise the possibility of achieving the state of flow.

It succeeded.

At just before the workshop's mid-point, it was observable that each participant had entered (albeit inconsistently) entrainment. (See also PDF on entrainment by the Open University: As proficiency increased, so did the need for challenge to maintain interest for flow. Adjustments to only three parameters were necessary:
  1. variations in tempo,
  2. quality of shaker tone, and
  3. fine synchronisation between timelines.
This was the first time I'd seen solares' participants enter the biomusic state of flow, and it heralds an exciting threshold of possibilities in the workshops.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Percussion Concept: Attack

This was the last Solares session before a long break, so I wanted to leave all participants with something simple yet of fundamental significance that they could practice.

It had struck me during the modulation practices that their vocalisations were inconsistent in interval and in tonal quality, it's a drawback to vocalisations deployed in communities where rhythmic social activity is not a mainstay. So I brought along every shaker instrument I owned: shakers, maracas, ankle rattles, shekere...

The idea was simple: to replace the "gung-gung" (beats 4, 4+) and "pak" (beat 2) vocalisations with beats from a shaker.

Long impulse to short impulse sound
Using a vocalisation, the participant is not normally critically aware (speed, climbing intensity) of the initiation of the sound, nor of its decay (due to resonance in cranio-thoracic cavities). Vocalisations are slow to develop their full sound pressure and to dissipate as well - they are long impulse sounds.

Shakers initiate their sounds quickly because they have a discrete impact event. Their sounds also dissipate quickly because their containing cavities tend to be small. Their tones are short impulse sounds.

Critical evaluation
Moving the back-beat timeline from vocals to an internal instrument, decoupled tone generation from the perceptual-integral self: placing the rhythmic activity outside the body; and, at some distance from the centre (i.e. at the end of the arms) such that a lag time was introduced, and had to be compensated for. Both of these factors contribute to a requirement for critical listening and a more critical evaluation of the quality of performance.

Options for development
Transferring the interpretation of the back-beat timeline onto shakers broadens the scope for the musical development of percussionist dancers: rhythmic variations; call-and-response; ensemble performance; percussive attack and decay; and phrasing. Crucially, it frees up the vocals to interpret a separate timeline.

The giant of all immediate purposes is to render to the participants the best possible feedback on their quality of performance, in fine synchrony of movements to music, and involvement in co-operative ensemble.

Exercise One
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2).

Exercise Two
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with two shaker beats synchronised to the "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add one shaker beat synchronised to the "pak" vocalisation (beat 2).

Exercise Three (without back-beat vocalisations)
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with two shaker beats on beats 4,4+. Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add one shaker beat on beat 2.

Exercises one through three were repeated to slow music. Exercise three was then maintained to music of increasing tempo.

All participants found the initial process of playing a shaker whilst dancing challenging. It was important to allow each one, the time to work out an approach which suited him or her the best. Intervention was kept to a minimum, but there was always a high availability of support.

At the end of the session, participants were clear as to what practice was required i.e. exercise three to a tempo maximum of 150bpm, and they were already able to achieve this in the workshop.

The refinements will come after I get back.

Loo Yen

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Rhythmic Modulation

Exploring the phenomenon of timeline modulation was the theme this week's Solares. There are a number of forms it takes, so the definition of modulation in this workshop was:
"when the rhythm of one timeline is allowed to influence the rhythm another"
There were two rhythms at play,
  1. the standard unaccented embodiment rhythm (atiempo timeline); and
  2. the vocalised open ("gung-gung") and slap ("pak") tones of the tumbao moderno (contratiempo timeline).

Warm-up: Recap of Previous Content
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2).

Solo, with music. As above.

Observation Practice
Two participants were selected to demonstrate modulation. One had naturally allowed the "pak" vocalisation to modulate her embodiment rhythm, evidenced by a stronger, accented second step. Another, although performing the "pak" vocalisation, had naturally maintained three unaccented steps.

Exercise One
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2). Allow the "pak" vocalisation to 'colour' to the second step.
Learning point: "let the pak from your throat flow through your feet"

Exercise Two
Solo, with music, As exercise one.

Learning Concept
Participants were first encouraged to explore modulation as present (accented) or absent (unaccented). Then they were encouraged to explore it quantitatively as 'colouration' (i.e. modulation) using the metaphor of a volume control dial: zero being unaccented, ten being as accented as possible, then arbitrary values in-between e.g. five, three, seven.

Exercise Three
As exercise two. Application of learning concept. Participants were asked to determine which 'colour' dial setting was most appropriate for the music track being played.

Exercise Four
As exercise three, but partnered.

At this point, participants' quality of execution encountered a downturn. As the addition of a partner was the single additional parameter, I surmised that the challenge lay in the mutual negotiation of an appropriate modulation level. This was verified through questioning the workshop participants. Reading this - the negotiation of each individuals idea of appropriate modulation in a partnership - as being one variable too far, I determined to continue with the principle of the exercise but adapted to make it achievable.

Exercise Five
Partnered, to music. Caribbean sway basic. Tumbao moderno "gung-gung, pak" vocalisation.
I called out a number indicating modulation level (on a scale of 0-10) and each participant was to interpret it at individual level, and then negotiate it at partnership level.

The initial exercises were met with varying success. This may have been due to either: a lack of skill in the execution; or a lack of understanding, given that modulation was a new concept. Both were equally likely.

Modulation is dependent upon the quality and strength of both signals: the embodied timeline and the vocalised timeline. If one signal timeline (in this case the vocalised one) fades in and out, and is temporally unstable, then the effect of modulation cannot be consistent.

Towards the end of the session (during exercise five) participants' dance rhythms were showing increasing signs of being affected by the "pak" accent, indicating that early-session low success was due to a lack of familiarity with the concept.

The introduction of additional structure through removal of one parameter (i.e. my setting of modulation level) suggests that more structured intermediate exercises might attenuate the steepness of the learning curve.

The indications are that a re-running of the content with additional support and fewer variables i.e.:
  1. externally set modulation levels;
  2. emphasis on individual exercises; and
  3. defined spatial configurations;
would provide an intermediate range of practice for the development of the skill of modulation.

Yeo Loo Yen