TITLE: Patterns in Space and Sound -- Merce Cunningham AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 22, 2007 6:53 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A couple of nights I was able to see a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company here on campus. This was my first exposure to Cunningham, who is known for his exploration of patterns in space and sound. My knowledge of the dance world is limited, but I would call this "abstract dance". My wife, who has some background in dance, might call it something else, but not "classical"! The company performed two pieces for us. The first was called eyeSpace, and it seemed the more avant garde of the two. The second, called Split Sides, exemplifies Cunningham's experimental mindset quite well. From the company's web site:
Split Sides is a work for the full company of fourteen dancers. Each design element was made in two parts, by one or two artists, or, in the case of the music, by two bands. The order in which each element is presented is determined by chance procedure at the time of the performance. Mathematically, there are thirty-two different possible versions of Split Sides.
And a mathematical chance it was. At intermission, the performing arts center's director came out on stage with five people, most local dancers, and a stand on which to roll a die. Each of the five assistants in turn rolled the die, to select the order of the five design elements in question: the pieces, the music, the costumes, the backgrounds, and a fifth element that I've forgotten. This ritual heightened the suspense for the audience, even though most of us probably had never seen Split Sides before, and must have added a little spice for the dancers, who do this piece on tour over and over. In the end, I preferred the second dance and the second piece of music (by Radiohead), but I don't know to what extent this enjoyment derived from one of the elements or the two together. Overall, I enjoyed the whole show quite a bit. Not being educated in dance, my take on this sort of performance is often different from the take of someone who is. In practice, I find that I enjoy abstract dance even more than classical. Perhaps this comes down to me being a computer scientist, an abstract thinker who enjoys getting lost in the patterns I see and hear on stage. A lot of fun comes in watching the symmetries being broken as the dance progresses and new patterns emerge. Folks trained in music may sometimes feel differently, if only because the patterns we see in abstract dance are not the patterns they might expect to see! Seeing the Merce company perform reminded of a quote about musician Philip Glass, which I ran across in the newspaper while in Carefree for ChiliPLoP:
... repetition makes the music difficult to play.

"As a musician, you look at a Philip Glass score and it looks like absolutely nothing," says Mark Dix, violist with the Phoenix Symphony, who has played Glass music, including his Third String Quartet.

"It looks like it requires no technique, nothing demanding. However, in rehearsal, we immediately discovered the difficulty of playing something so repetitive over so long a time. There is a lot of room for error, just in counting. It's very easy to get lost, so your concentration level has to be very high to perform his music."

When we work in the common patterns of our discipline -- whether in dance, music, or software -- we free our attention to focus on the rest of the details of our task. When we work outside those patterns, we are forced to attend to details that we have likely forgotten even existed. That may make us uncomfortable, enough so that we return to the structure of the pattern language we know. That's not necessarily a bad thing, for it allows us to be productive in our work. But there can be good in the discomfort of the broken pattern. One certainly learns to appreciate the patterns when they are gone. The experience can remind us why they are useful, and worth whatever effort they may require. The experience can also help us to see the boundaries of their usefulness, and maybe consider a combination, or see a new pattern. Another possible benefit working without the usual patterns is hidden in Dix's comments above. Without the patterns, we have to concentrate. This provides a mechanism whereby we attend to details and hone our concentration, our attention to detail. I think it also allows us to focus on a new technique. Programming at the extremes, without an if-statement, say, forces you to exercise the other techniques you know. The result may be that you are a better user of polymorphism even after you return to the familiar patterns that include imperative selection. And I can still enjoy abstract dance and music as an outsider. There is another, more direct connection between Cunningham's appearance and software. He has worked with developers to create a new kind of choreography software called DanceForms 1.0. While his troupe was in town, they asked the university to try to arrange visits with computer science classes to discuss their work. We had originally planned for them to visit our User Interface Design course and our CS I course (which has a media computation theme), but schedule changes on our end prevented that. I had looked forward to hearing Cunningham discuss what makes his product special, and to see how they had created "palettes of dance movement" that could be composed into dances. That sounds like a language, even if it doesn't have any curly braces. -----