Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Future Possibilities: New Soundscapes

Can we push the envelope with the soundtracks we're using in our dance pieces? Usually, we hear funk being played for poppers and lockers and breakbeats for bboys. In the choreo community, the latest hip hop swagger tracks or throwbacks to the 1990s are heard at showcases. But there must be other options if we want to break new ground. Recently, the LXD performed a group piece on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance. Many of LA's best street dancers were featured in this performance and will be seen in the upcoming webisode series from Step Up 2 & Step Up 3D director Jon M. Chu. With choreography from Harry Shum, Christopher Scott, and Galen Hooks; the LXD piece seems to have caught the imagination of many young aspiring American dancers. The combination of orchestral and non-hip hop music with dance isn't a new development though. We've even seen it used effectively in Expression Crew's Marionette performance, using music from the Amelie film soundtrack, composed by Yann Tiersen. But it's definitely food for thought and an encouraging sign that there are open minds willing to try something different. Taking this as a cue, what are new soundscapes that we can explore? (Photo above is from a Getty Images archive on underwater whales.)

Soundscapes can be defined as audio soundtracks or compositions that create a sound environment. They can draw from many sources whether instrumental or atmospheric. For street dancers, we are sometimes limited by the lack of resources: not having the sound editing equipment or software, not being musically trained to compose music, or not having funds at all to develop an original soundtrack. So we choose existing songs. We go with classics that are often heard at jams and competitions. But we're starting to break from this tradition. New generation poppers in Los Angeles have been delving into dubstep, glitch, and drum n' bass music for the past several years. Steps have been taken to make aesthetic choices that break from the norm. At the Prelude SoCal showcase competition in December 2008, San Diego-based choreo team Second to None presented a piece where they dance to spoken word without any musical beat in the track. They used the rhythms of the spoken word poet to inform their routine. Part of this branching out of the usual song choices may come from the easier access to wider libraries of music whether online or through file sharing technology. Today's generation of street dancers are more exposed to different kinds of music outside of the funk classics and breakbeats simply by what's available on their iPods or Pandora playlists.

So we now have a broader sense of music tastes out there. How can we capitalize on that and explore new original soundscape content? Can we pursue stronger collaborations with theatre and film sound designers and music composers? These types of unions might bring a new perspective into the street dance and choreo team performance scene. For example, biomusic is an intriguing genre that has rarely been explored by today's newest generation. Biomusic is comprised of sounds made from nature, humans, animals and plants - either from their own production of the sounds or a rearrangement designed by a composer. Can you imagine mixing hip hop beats with laughter, heartbeats, bird songs, or rhythms created by plants? It sounds crazy. But isn't it worth a try? If we get even more scientific, we realize that our entire planet is filled with flora and fauna generating sound rhythms that are rarely explored in dance performances. What would that say about our sensibilities if we chose to incorporate more of our planet's natural sound into our dance?

Another approach is to think of our soundtracks like filmmakers. Think of your favorite film and the accompanying soundtrack. The filmmaker and music composer have put a lot of thought into their musical choices. The soundtrack creates an emotional atmosphere for the character to live out their story on screen. The same can be done for dancers on stage or in film. We can create an environment for our dancers to explore whether it's drawn from everyday traffic sounds or the mumble of a crowd in conversation. Often, music is used to serve the purposes of dancers. But what if we flipped the roles? Can music comment on the action and emotions of dancers? Can we find an artistic realm where the music is brought more into the forefront and dance takes a secondary role just to explore something new? Some may argue that this already happens with backup dancers performing for music artists or in the very fact that we choose music which inspires a piece of choreography. But this isn't exactly the proposed idea as stated above. Let's look at Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. He's known for creating films like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love where the film music is a main character in the storyline. He breaks with mainstream Western filmmaking traditions by creating an invisible "character" in the soundtrack and uses visual images to complement it. This is an abstract idea but it would be compelling to see dancers create a "character" through their soundscape.

With the many possibilities out there, soundscapes remind us that dance is both visual and audio-influenced. It's hard to have one without the other. Perhaps if we draw more from the natural soundscapes around us, we'll discover more about the musical nature of our environment and how it connects all of us.

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