Katie Rose
from: Katie Rose
Category: General Discussion

Dancing with Dissonance

December Blog  - Dancing with Dissonance

An exploration of the beauty of dissonance and how dancing to our own tune can makes waves in the world.

The reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue. - The Dalai Lama


Generally one cannot say that harmonious music creates beautiful patterns and heavy metal music terrible ones. That would be too simplistic. There are also water patterns from heavy metal that are fascinating. I am careful with the notion that dissonance is something bad. It has long been known that if music were always harmonious the listener would fall asleep. Dissonance is that moment that drives forward and produces tension – that then needs to be dissolved again. - Alexander Lauterwasser, German resonance researcher and photographer

I am writing this in some of the darkest days of the year, in a week which has included some crashing dissonant chords in its melody.   Moments of feeling exceptionally jangled or out of tune have been instrumental in making me dig deep to connect with the bassline of my own truth and values.  I’ve had to front up and apologise for blasting some bum notes and I’ve also had to drop out of some tunes which were setting not just my teeth, but my whole being on edge. But, because I’ve always liked a bit of jazz-blues I’m appreciating the richness these experiences are giving me.

One of the turning points in my early musical life was admitting to my piano teacher that I always wore pink to my lessons on the recommendation of my mother, and that actually my favourite clothes were my jeans and my flourescent orange jumper.  After that, I wore what I liked and started learning improvisational jazz and discordant modern music and the whole experience became a lot more exciting.   Discovering my love of dissonance in music was like being given a free trip to Mars and it has informed me ever since.

I love excavating words, so it fascinates me to find out that dis - can mean apart, away, lack of, not, do the opposite of whatever it prefixes.  It comes from earlier words meaning two, division, apart or asunder.  So a dissonance is a sound that points us in another direction to that which we are already hearing. It sets up an opposition or division in the sonic field and as such starts creating something new.  In the very earliest stages of life, within its first thirty hours of existence, the first thing a potential human being (fertilized egg) does, is split into two.  Division is necessary for life.

Since an early age I have worked, or more accurately, been taught by those who are labelled disabled and deemed dissonant by mainstream society.  Interestingly the word ‘able’ comes from the Latin verb habere - to hold - the ‘h’ got dropped along the way.  So ability means being able to handle something with ease.  Those with dis-abilities are therefore often considered unable to handle things or difficult to handle.  Certainly, having worked with children and adults with exceptionally challenging behaviour there have been some hair-raising moments which really stretched my perceptions of what I can handle.  I have discovered that I can actually handle being bitten, scratched, hit, pinched, screamed and shouted at, tugged, groped etc etc. I don’t like it, but I can handle it and that discovery strengthened me and taught me to look for the wound beneath the distorted behaviour.   Some of the toughest South London guys I met whilst working with challenging children told me that they felt learning how to handle being spat on had widened their tolerance for others and strengthened their capacity to control their knee-jerk reactions.  So I have often felt that far from being disabled, those who exhibit challenging or alternative behaviours have actually been my teachers and enablers.

I have been taught by those with different abilities to question the social norms of our society. Vocal Expression is one area where I learned so much.  Having conversations made up of all sorts of borrowed sounds and wordbits with children with autism taught me to question the conventions of language.  Watching verbally uninhibited adults interacting in the community also showed me the strange set of social rules around vocal expression.  In the street, there are only a few people who are given permission to be creatively and noisily vocal - market stall holders, soap box preachers, buskers.  There is general embarrassment and fear of those who sing, whistle, laugh loudly, talk to themselves or vocalise unusually which I am sure contributes to the general fear of public speaking.  At the same time the streets are full of people conducting private conversations in public on mobiles, many of whom wear earpieces and look like they are talking to themselves.  Increasing numbers of people are plugged into their ipods in an attempt to drown out the dissonances around them.

Augusto Boal, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed was fond of setting up pieces of Invisible Theatre - actors would get on the tube and start a loud dialogue or argument about important social issues, drawing others to participant and to reflect on their political reality.  A friend of mine experimented with this by going and singing outside the University Library to see what would happen.  She was considered unwell when she refused to stop and was sent to the nurse.   
Nikki Slade is using this embarrassment around dissonant sounding to fundraise for Great Ormond Street Hospital - participants are sponsored to make a 60 second sound in a public place, and be recorded doing so.  Nikki was inspired by the work of Chloe Goodchild  who recently told me stories of her work in Ireland where she and singers participating in the Naked Voice workshops have been singing the Seven Sounds - the sequence of the Indian scale set to movement - in shopping malls and public sites and having some extraordinary responses.  One priest was reminded of ritualistic movements that previously formed part of mass and invited them to come and sing and move with the whole congregation.

In these examples, dissonant sounds introduced into the environment are setting up creative dialogue which actually widens the sonic references of the community and encourages others to become vocally expressed. Dia - means across and logue comes from the latin root for lecture and speak. So a dialogue enables us to speak across perceived boundaries and limitations. It is the bridge that allows dissonance to be heard and received.  As the Dalai Lama says, conflict and difference will always exist - and why should it not - for diversity makes the world a beautiful, stimulating, exciting and interesting place to be.  It is dialogue - singing, speaking and talking across the gaps - that allows us to each find and hold our own note whilst listening and learning from each other.

The current Occupy movement are setting up a beautiful dissonance by camping out in Wall Street and at other locations globally. Their peaceful sounding of another note is sending new wave of vibrations across the world with some spectacular results.  

Dissonant sounds, circumstances, people and events surround us and actually support us to find new forms of expression.  When we encounter those who are oppositional, we are prompted to grow and learn. Sometimes we need to listen deeply to that different drum beating within us which calls us to sing our own song rather than play along with the old broken record.  When we become at home with the electricity of our own eccentricity, we can become live-wires, broadcasting a new song to the world and dancing to the drum of our dissonance.

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