Empathy in Creative Process
This past week, I spent only what can be called a magical week together with MT Space Theatre artists to design and create a new theatrical piece called "Just Faith?". This was a commission by the Christian Reform Church who had engaged the Institute for Christian Studies and other organizations to run a research study with their communities/congregations about the intersection of justice and faith, and the tensions that arise.
For 5 days I had the opportunity to engage in this amazing creative process, improvisation and play based. What I learned from this process is that when there is a commitmen to a truly collaborative process, faith in that process, faith in what each person brings, and motivation to support the needs of the research organizations a magical alchemy occurs. This enabling environment creates room for joy to emerge and art to form itself into being through our emobdied experiences.
One of the themes that came forward in this, and continues to appear in various places I visit and go is this theme of empathy - where we can feel what other people feel. We innately respond to each others common heart and humanity. In this process with MT Space we did that. Somehow we trusted and felt the safety of playing and trying things out with each other until that which settled became an integral part of the show. Many times, there was a process where a mistake would be made, then a new idea would emerge from that mistake. When we were committed to that scene emotionally and energetically - profoundly listening with all parts of our being - heart, eyes, ears as one - the mistake or 'playfulness' would inspire a new idea that would be perfect for what was needed. That new musical idea for example would then inspire the actor in the scene to deepen their experience of the scene in which they played. The one example is that Bo, one of the singers sang a section of the piece an interval of a 4th lower. So essentially the 5th scale degree of the key in which we were singing. That sparked an improvisation based on Indian classical music raga, which in turn carried into the scene that followed. Also the nature of the note being the 4th below, became important in the harmonic progression of the music underlying the piece because it played a developmental role. Eb - Cm - Bb - Eb. The overall musical form beautifully emerged with this harmonic progression - and it came out of what you can call an improvisation in a particular moment in the process.
The more repetitions you had in this process, the more you could play and the scene would start taking shape. Repetition was important. It wasn't until I was 2 days into the process, where I had enough repetitions of the show that I could embody it and dare I say 'become' it. This in itself an empathic process. It was at that time where a place of ease set in from which ideas, techniques, musical nuances started to merge. The safety of the ease in the space and permission to explore ideas resulted in sonic pieces that I truly don't know from where they came. It was part of this fluid process which was so beautiful. Thanks be to God.
Kate Johnson the film maker of Tru Love met with me for lunch. In my talking about the piece about Likoni and finding a way to heal the ancestral pain, she even said, until you FEEL it, become it, allow yourself to go deep into the emotion of it, you won't be able to sound it.
This same idea arose in the play about empathy.
The same idea arose in watching I AM the documentary by Tom Shadyac.
This same idea arose in the sermon by Brainerd Blyden Taylor at church this morning. He spoke about community coming together in song as a way to free themselves from oppression. They were able to do that because they engaged the language of the oppressor - in a sense empathy with the oppressor and their world view/expression. MLK Jr.'s speech to the Clergy from Jail in 1961 also spoke to this idea.
Finally in a book about Asiatic art it spoke about embodying, feeling it, becoming it, before knowing how to sound it.
The MT Space production process certainly showed me in the process how to create empathy. Empathy can come from deep listening. Having faith in each other, finding a moment of immersion where each person becomes the experience, and from there playing - exploring possibilities - which then evolve and emerge into a concrete idea that remains as part of the show.
Bo also reminded me today not to worry about the HOW.. Focus on the WHAT and DO it. That's it. Feel where the 'buzz' is and follow up, nurture the buzz, initiate and catalyze action in the places where there is a buzz and with the people with whom you feel the buzz. Let God worry about the How. Just focus on the what and do. The signs, Inshallah will come. Ameen.
When I compose individually, I must engage a similar process as the MT Space collaborative process. I can 'collaborate' with myself essentially. I can play with ideas. I need to embody the feeling, the heart of what I'm doing. Then I must let the sound emerge. I must create a space for myself to collaborate amongst the ideas. Let the mistake spark the next thing. But you must be empathic to the moment and feeling you want to engage. Like you did in the show creation. KNow the scene, what's happening and the flow of it. Then let the sounds emerge. Know and have some basic musical material. In this case Girl is on Fire, Praise God, Hungarian Song, Soundscape. Then LISTEN. LISTEN DEEPLY. See what comes. Improvise on that melody and the feeling. Every repetition, let it infuse itself into your being and see how the musical output changes. Keep going until you find something you like to settle in. Then refine, add voice leading, rhytym, etc. Ameen.
So essentially you become your own collaborator - always in God's service and name.
And lastly the theme of JUSTICE & FAITH - which informs the work I'll be doing in the music academy. Don't be afraid of making a faith - interfaith experience. Ameen. And align it wiht a social justice motivation. The idea of the enslaved peoples freeing themselves from the oppressor using the language of the oppressor. In the similar way, I do that in the choral music I write. In the dialogue between the West and Islamic Civilizations Islam is being demonized. So in a sense whoever, media etc, the 'west' is the oppressor. So we are using the sonic, textural language of the 'West' (and what more better music than classical to represent that) to free ourselves. We are giving ourselves a voice through the language of the West. What an exciting proposition!
Praise be to God. May it be so.