Saturday at Habla [Part 2]: Workshops about "the sound of light" and "the faun on the bus"

I'm writing this on Sunday. We went to Uxmal, and it was incredible. Here are some photos:

I just took my evening dip in the pool, and while I was floating on my back, bats were flying all over the patio, coming within a foot of my face. It was really cool, until it was too unsettling (about 45 seconds). Once I stood up in the water, they dispersed. I tried floating again to coax them back, but I'd broken the spell.

Now back to yesterday's workshop, "The Sound of Light"

After we finished the “building conversations” thinking routine, we returned to the air conditioned room and re-formed the groups in which we had composed our soundscapes. W were all given a passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story “Light is Like Water”. Our initial assignment was develop a “clear reading” of the passage - this, Kurt explained, meant presenting the reading “straight” so that it was comprehensible to the audience. So, dividing up the lines between readers was within our scope - movement, singing lines, and other fancy stuff was not. Before we went off to prepare our script, Kurt reminded us to seek “distributed leadership” (I think that’s what he called it anyway), reminding us of the “jumping at the same time” exercise at the beginning of the workshop, where on the best jumps everyone thought someone else was the leader. 

Our group went outside and, in the shade, divided up the text. In the time we had (only about ten minutes) our reading went from the plan “everyone just read one sentence and this thing will run itself” to “OK she reads the first paragraph, these three sentences are split in two, everyone reads a different section of the final sentence, and we’ll all say the final three words in unison.” Had we been given another ten minutes, we probably would have been subdividing specific words between readers. When you distribute leadership in a group of people who don’t know each other well, nobody wants to say no, so complexity increases exponentially as idea heaps on top of idea. It reminds me of what the Innovation Unit used to say about public services’ tendency to get bloated: nobody wants to decommission anything, so innovations and new institutions pile on top of each other.

We came back in with our “clear reading”, happy with it, intimately familiar with the text, but not wildly attached to our arrangement (well, I wasn’t - I can’t speak for the rest of our group). Kurt now revealed that this was only a “first draft”, and we wouldn’t be performing it. Instead, we would be choosing from the same collection of found objects that we’d used to make our soundscape based on the “text” of the noises we heard outside, and performing the reading with sounds. To model this, Kurt and Dario performed the opening of 100 Year of Solitude together, with Kurt reading and Dario playing percussion. Before we rushed to get objects and compose our piece, Dario discouraged literalism. “Don’t just make a ringing noise if a phone rings in the text,” he said. “That’s sound effects - and that’s not what this is about.” This was a surprising redirection to me, since I’d felt like that was exactly what our previous soundscape had been about (thought, in fairness, when we’d composed that I’d ended up blowing over the lip of a beer bottle on the theory that it would sound like a mechanical drone - it sounded nothing like a mechanical drone, especially since I can’t circular breathe (a didgeridoo would have been perfect) but we kept it in our piece anyway). 

So we went back outside. By this point our papers were covered in contradictory marks as we re-conceived the piece with me starting it in the voice of a 1940s newsreader with one group member hitting knives against a cardboard box to mimic the typewriter keys (or is it a telegraph) that we somehow all associated with 1940s newsreaders (kind of literal, I know…). Then as soon as we reached a bit talking about light, another voice took over reading, slowing down and opening up. The piece was initially totally improvisational, but a couple group members (rightly) pushed us all to tighten up our plan. We ended up with every word clear and accounted for, with, as one member noted approvingly, “lots of open space in the sound effects.” At this point, we were disciplined and comfortable enough as a group to start our “drafts” with lots of instruments going, and remove elements as we refined. This was in absolute contrast to the “clear reading”, in which ideas had piled on top of each other with none being rejected, except by the default rejection of neglect. Looking back on it, in less than an hour we’d matured enormously as a group. 

Each small group performed their passage for the entire group, each performance was wonderful and utterly distinct. A fabulous workshop.  

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of this workshop (with lots of photos) here.

Then I walked around the city...

After the "Sound of Light" workshop, we had a few free hours before the "official" opening of the institute in the evening. I went out to lunch with some of my fellow-instituters, and then walked back to our hacienda, stopping by the Dante bookstore on the way to buy a book of local maps, then to Cafe Latte to buy ground coffee (it was shut, but the owner let me in anyway, and ground me a delicious blend of beans that stood us in good stead all week).

Here are photos from my walk:

The last one grabbed me because it looked so much like I imagine Macondo, the setting of 100 Years of Solitude (it's available for rent, too, if you're ready to do some serious fixing-up).

Workshop 2 (and the official opening of the Teacher Institute): The Faun on the Bus

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of this workshop (with lots of photos) here.

This workshop was facilitated by Kata and Marimar. It began with an excerpt from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, in which he describes seeing a faun get onto his bus, ride for a few stops, then disembark at a park, thank the driver, and disappear into the trees. Garcia Marquez says that he made the choice as a writer that this had been his experience - he remembered seeing the faun - and therefore, it would be dishonest to claim that it hadn’t happened. 

Marimar then gave a brief lecture about Garcia Marquez and magical realism, that began with her grandmother’s claim that she has seen chupacabras in her backyard on two separate occasions, and her grandfather’s story of stealing cows from farmers by carrying them on his back.She compared these stories to Garcia Marquez’s memory of the faun. This took her to the observation that in Garcia Marquez’s writing “there are hardly ever any portals.” She contrasted this with Anglo-American fantasy: Harry Potter must travel to Hogwarts by passing through Platform 9 3/4, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, the Pevensey children pass through a wardrobe into Narnia, Coraline discovers a passageway to the parallel home and her sinister “Other Mother”. But in Garcia Marquez’s writing, the mundane and the magical coexist on the same plane of existence (incidentally, as I recall, David Foster Wallace makes the same observation about David Lynch, who you could argue is America’s foremost magical realist filmmaker). Miramar concluded by saying “I don’t like using the terms ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ because they make a portal.”

Then we left the air conditioned room to the gallery space, formed partners, found two other pairs, and in our groups of six, prepared to tell one-sentence introductions to extraordinary stories from our own lives (and those of our friends and family), beginning with the words “I could tell you about…” 

We led into this with excerpts from the picture book Gabito (based on elements from Living to Tell the Tale). The excerpts were read by volunteers (or possibly the “voluntold”)from among the participants (however much choice they’d had in the matter, they seemed to have been briefed on reading slightly in advance of the workshop itself).

 The first excerpt described the extraordinary parrot in the house where “Gabito” grew up who once predicted the arrival of a runaway bull in the kitchen. We were then prompted to think of a story than involved animals. This was rapid-fire, and I found it incredibly stressful, because I felt an inner pressure to think of stories from my past, and my family’s rich well of stories. I both identify (in a casual way) as a storyteller, and worry about forgetting things, so I felt a sense of failure when I was doing this (on the other hand, I thought everyone else in my group of six did wonderfully). 

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken my notebook out into the gallery with me and I was absorbed in trying to think of my own stories, so the story “teasers” I heard instantly grabbed me, but didn’t stick with me. If I were doing this exercise, I would have people bring notebooks with them, encourage them to take notes on each others’ stories (possibly drawing a circle first, labelling it with people’s names, and then writing a constellation o keywords around each name), and, critically, give a bit of time to think and write (just listing, no more) before going around the circle. 

We then separated back into our original pairs (I was working with Nick) and used the second phrase, “I want to hear about…” in order to hear the full story behind one of the “I could tell you about” sentences we’d said in our group of six. Nick and I both admitted we had virtually no memory either of what we’d heard, or what we ourselves had said. But we jogged each others memory. He told me the story of the trout that created the milky way, and I told him the story of when my father was nearly shot for carrying a flute. 

Then, we told each other’s story (or rather, that’s what I did, but I don’t think that was precisely what we were supposed to do. The phrase for this portion was “I can imagine.” I retold Nick’s story with embellishment, which meant I didn’t even reach the point where he got to Montana, which was basically where the story started. What I think I was SUPPOSED to do was to riff on the images I’d heard, adding detail to particular scenes (I can imagine the three fishermen on a pitch black river, under a pitch black sky; I can imagine an inexperienced, twitchy cop drawing his gun when everyone else’s gun is still in it’s holster). I think this would have worked a lot better than what I did, and I think it’s what Marimar and Kata intended.

At this point was the final phrase: “Can you imagine?” For this one, we all came up with a single-sentence “Can you imagine” phrase, behind which our story lived. Here are the phrases I brainstormed:

  • Can you imagine a flute that can defeat a wild dog?
  • Can you imagine a son ready to turn his back on the very privilege that had been denied his father?
  • Can you imagine a beach made out of scuttling shrimp? [totally different story, incidentally, I was just riffing]
  • Can you imagine a flute that was suppressed by the police?

At the end of the workshop, we went around the room, with each of us reading our sentence to the group. I went with my last sentence. After this, there was a concert of music from the Yucatán, by a band that included one of the members of the Habla staff, with free tapas and drinks, and dancing. 

Jason, Tere and I caught a taxi back later than Marisol, Jesús, and Julieta, and went to Rosas y Xocolate, where there was a jazz trio playing on the roof. I sat in on “Corcovado” on sax, and after that, had a chat with the drummer, an Argentinian named Mauricio who told me that he’d be playing a breakfast gig the next morning with a Cuban pianist and a trumpet player. We went to hear them, and they were awesome.  

Here are some photos Jason took of me playing with the band on the roof: