Thursday, December 6, 2012

Active "ma"

There are many examples of ma, or space, in Japanese art.  A painting with a lot of negative space is an example of ma.  A dance with a pause to emphasize a pose is also an example.  So is a kata in karate that contains a slow movement amongst the faster ones.  In taiko, ma can be both audial and visual.

One thing a lot of people have trouble with, whether it be in composition or soloing, is including ma.  A long flurry of notes without rests and breaks eventually just becomes a bumpy drone,.  A lot of motion without a pause or pose can get dull or perhaps even lost to the audience.

Newer players – and even some experienced ones – “hide” behind constant movement/playing.  To them it feels like they’re doing something when they move, and if there’s a lack of confidence or a lack of a personal repertoire to pull from, there’s more security in not stopping.

Time and time again I hear people telling others to “include more ma”.  And this is usually really good advice.  But it’s also often incomplete advice, albeit it no one’s “fault”.

To most people, ma translates to something like “stop playing”, “stop moving” or “make a big motion."   Sure, it can be.  Still, it would be like saying “taiko” is “a big drum”.  Again, it can be, but…

I’m sure every single one of you has listened to a song where a melody stops and tension builds with the bass or drums still going, then BAM the melody comes back in and it sounds awesome.  That’s definitely ma!  Or how about watching a break-dancer do a flurry of moves then POW hold a pose that "seals the deal"?  That’s ma too!  Ma doesn’t have to be about only about slow or quiet, it can be chock-full of tension, excitement, joy, etc.

I’ve started solos where I’ve playfully walked away from the drums…then came running back.  While that may not fly in YOUR group, think about what you could do that’s outside the box and fun at the same time!  For example, you could play a lot of notes and then pull away from the drum?  Even then, ma without intention is...empty.

"Space" is empty, yes, but we're not talking physics, we're talking performance.  What sort of mood do you want to portray?  Will you make a strained face that makes it look like you’re barely able to hold back?  Or a joyful face that exaggerates how much fun you’re having?  Maybe something more intense is your style?  You can hit and stop with a very focused gaze, but your body has to scream intention lest it look like you’re just resting.  Or you can treat your solo like a warrior’s dance – not to kill the drum, but to be strong and vibrant and confident.  You can move away sharply then come back twice as fast, or stand back and act “macho” for lack of a better word.

This sort of active ma requires a bit of acting ability.  You have to sell it, you have to exaggerate it!  Going overboard and making a spectacle of yourself isn't good, but it's still worth experimenting with.  Ma, like movement or rhythm, is something that shouldn't be narrowly defined.  Why not discover where it leads you?

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