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The grammar of art

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Nature reviews an exhibition based on a cognitive scientists’ study of dancers:

As with any scientific project, Kirsh began studying Random Dance by characterizing the different phenomena he saw “like a botanist”, he says. “I go out with six or seven high-definition video cameras, I put them around the studio floor and collect everything from the moment he introduces a dancer to the premiere weeks later.” He and a trained team of students then deciphered the different techniques for instruction and practice that they saw in the videos, in much the same way that primatologists characterize behaviour.

One phenomenon that caught Kirsh’s attention was ‘marking’, in which dancers in rehearsal elaborate only the basics of a dance movement. “It’s a lower-energy version; they won’t stretch as far; they won’t have the emotional force in it. It’s a way to avoid injury and because you can’t dance for five hours after two hours of exercises warming up,” Kirsh says.

But as he discovered when conducting a controlled experiment, there is more to it. He showed dancers a new routine, gave them time to learn the moves, and divided them into three groups to practise again. One group performed the full movements, a second marked them, and a third lay down and imagined themselves performing the dance. To Kirsh’s surprise, the dancers who marked the routine executed it most faithfully later. “Nobody predicted this,” he says. “This is the hint at a theory of practising, and now it’s open to study this much more carefully to understand how people focus on aspects of what they’re practising.” The experiment, he feels, is evidence of physical activity influencing thought.

On the basis of his work with Random Dance, Kirsh has published research papers on interaction design, McGregor’s creative process and a phenomenon that he calls distributed memory, in which dancers remember dozens of complicated movements through physical cues from other dancers. McGregor, too, has gained from their collaboration. When he instructs dancers and other young choreographers, he now uses terms that Kirsh devised, such as ‘sonifications’ — sounds that choreographers make to guide how a dancer shapes a move, such as “yah ooh ehh”. Kirsh notes, “Now that the term has been named, the phenomenon is clear.”

This reminded me of the studies by the pioneering Indian computer scientist R. Narasimhan on oral notations in Indian tradition: of the art of Kollam, and of tabla bols. I had heard a detailed exposition by him on the syntax of bols in a colloquium in the mid 1980s. The only surviving printed record seems to be in a booklet called Characterizing Literacy: A Study of Western and Indian Literacy Experiences by R. Narasimhan, published by Sage. His discussion of the usage of bols by players of the tabla seem to be equivalent to the notion of “sonification”, and predates it by a few decades.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

October 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm

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