by Rick Armstrong
A friend of mine asked if I would be interested in attending a workshop hosted by Daniel Bernard Roumain (aka DBR), then writing a bit about what I saw in the TBA blog. I planned on attending DBR’s performance on Saturday night, so this seemed like a great opportunity to learn something about the performer before the show. After expressing my anxiety about attending a musician’s workshop (I haven’t played for a really long time), I went for it when she assured me that I could go as a voyeur, and that no one would really care or crucify me or otherwise mind if I couldn’t play my way out of a paper bag.
Before the workshop began, DBR walked around introducing himself and when he got to me I stammered something about being asked to “write a bit about the workshop” and was thereafter referred to as “The Writer”. I decided that this would be a great cover that would prevent my performance of Smoke on the Water.
In a past life, I was a musician, and I’ve attended a few “Famous Musician” workshops. They often follow this format:
Hour one: Famous Musician blathers on about his approach to music.
Hour two: Famous Musician hosts a short jam so that paying attendees can say “I jammed with Famous Musician”.
DBR’s workshop was thankfully, not at all like this. Actually, the format reminded me of Yoko Ono’s Instructions for Paintings:
Light canvas or any finished painting
with a cigarette at any time for any
length of time.
See the smoke movement.
The painting ends when the whole
canvas or painting is gone.
The workshop ended up being a series of weird little exercises intended to address some fundamental questions that musicians constantly face:
- How does one mesh instruments with hugely varying dynamic range? (e.g. mixing skullhammer laptop music with a violin).
- What’s the essence of following a conductor?
- How can I compose quickly and efficiently?
- How does composition relate to improvisation?
One of the exercises went like this:
The conductor performs a series of slow movements;
you must carefully mirror each.
State Your Name:
Make up a gesture that corresponds rhythmically to the syllables of your name.
Execute the gesture.
Execute the gesture, stating your name in rhythm,
Execute the gesture.
We stood in a circle, each person performing the sequence in turn, with the group mirroring along.
To a person who walked in off the street, this exercise would probably look like a lame M.B.A. “team building” exercise, but in reality it touches on the nature of the tension between unstructured improvised self-expression and the necessity of structure and coordination in a group music environment. Plus, it was goofy and fun to see what the other participants came up with as a ‘signature’ gesture.
DBR’s work and teaching style are obviously influenced by his collaborations with dancers. Every musician is aware of the role that “muscle memory” plays in musical performance; exercises like State Your Name get straight to the heart of the matter, in ways that are totally obvious to a dancer.
Okay, that’s enough blather from me. If DBR returns to Portland, I’d highly recommend attending his workshop; it’s a blast, even if the only thing you can play is Smoke On The Water.