Circle of Sound

         In Circle of Sound, we return again to primordial, unspecialized game, and to primordial space as well. I forget how we came to this game; it is found in Viola Spolin’s book. Its idea is simple: a bunch of people get together and make noise. It can take any number of players, but needs at least half a dozen for body.

         The players are told to sit apart and in a circle, get comfortable, and close their eyes; lights are turned off if possible. The gamekeeper asks them to be silent for a time and to sink inward, perhaps into consciousness of their feelings, or of their breathing; and then, when it seems right or wells from within, to begin to make noises according to their impulses. Spoken or sung words are forbidden, and perhaps melody as well. They may be explicitly encouraged to be aware of the noises of others, or to pay attention to them; and, if the gamekeeper wants this focus to the game, to begin slowly to respond to them. After a time one will begin, and others join in; a drama of group sound ensues, at times involving only a few, at others the full chorus. The gamekeeper listens to its dynamics, lets it run as long as seems useful (from five minutes to an hour), waits for a natural climax or pause in the sound, and calls the players into the articulate light.

         What is such a game good for? We have used it as a warm-up exercise, a way of raising people’s energy, of getting them to be attentive to each other, of working into harmony together. In such usage it serves the same functions, is indeed the same game, as the chant of players in their huddle, before the main game or before a play within it; or as the ritual chanting of Om together. What is not so obvious is that these functions need service in every group endeavor, including every time people learn together, even in a classroom. (Any organized way of serving them amounts to a functional game.)

        We have also used Circle of Sound as a primitive evaluation game, a form in which people can express and compare their feelings about an experience after it is over, and arrive at a kind of group appraisal. Apart from its shared information, this provides one way for the players to come to emotional resolution of an experience. These functions of evaluation and of emotional resolution (and venting) may often be usefully served in the process of learning or of work together; and so at times we used Circle of Sound in the middle of a seminar, a longer game, or a sequence of games, by plan or in response to circumstance—e.g. when a group’s work process was blocked by frustration, we might play this game before discussion of why and what to do.

         Beyond such functional uses, Circle of Sound is itself an environment for the study of group interaction, of social events and processes. As the players come into voice, the web of their sound becomes detailed and complex. It may be a barnyard, a war, a few creatures croaking at long intervals in the fog, a contemptuous dinner party, a sensual orgy; it may modulate through a thousand characters. Always the processes of invitation and response, of leading and following, of invention, emulation, repetition, variation and counter-theme, of harmony and conflict, or enthusiasm and disaffection, are nakedly audible. Given a context, this public record and the many private experiences beneath it may be discussed at length.

         To sit in a circle is not essential, but it helps, for then every player is in a position of equal influence on the whole and from the whole. To play with eyes closed is important. It does more than just shut out distractions: it plunges the players into a different space, an acoustic world, resonant and free, at once anonymous and inescapably intimate. Darkness and the ritual of sinking inward in silence lead into mild states of extraordinary consciousness; and the act of making sound may deepen them, for letting go of words often makes it easier to reach below the surface of the mind. (When words aren’t explicitly forbidden, they do sometimes surface and may completely change the texture of the experience. Usually, what they express is more limited, superficial, and familiar, and much less mutable, than pure sound.)

         Under such conditions, deep energies may rise in the players, and their tides are often palpable in the room, beyond even their expression in sound. In contrast to phase III of Animals, the free play of this game rarely tends to be chaotic. For given the peculiar nature of acoustic space, everything any player does has a direct and immediate influence on every other. There is no way to escape one’s participation in a group creation, for even silence contributes; and no way to avoid being aware of this. As a consequence, many individuals will be trying consciously to make a rude music together, at first pair-wise and then in larger ensemble.

        Often, in this climate of aroused energies, a certain magic then occurs. As in Mirror but on a larger scale, the group becomes a gestalt organism, its music transcending individual cooperation and will, rising in sudden crescendos, veering off in emotional modulations, hushing abruptly—all with a synchronized precision that would normally take much longer practice to achieve. At the moment the players feel the flux of their energy pass from collective form to collective unity, they may feel awed, or disturbed and anxious, and their reaction may break the gestalt almost immediately; or it may go on, only to break as the energy it channels rises to a point that no longer feels safe. If it does not break of its own accord, the gamekeeper should let it play its energy out, and be careful of how she enters even after a lull, least she choke off an even more energetic cantata; for the state is intense, and a rude one to be jerked from before one is done with it. Left alone, such a gestalt will play to some organic conclusion.

         In terms of this magic, Circle of Sound is a primeval ritual, which I have witnessed around campfires and on beaches, in drunken celebration and in the interstices of political conflict. Usually it happens without a leader or any conscious initiation, using bodies and drums and bottles and ashcan lids indiscriminately with voice for sound; and then it is the muse Calliope swept down to seize our flesh, incarnate for awhile, as clapping intricate rhythms flow spontaneously for hours. And during the rare times when words can flow directly from the deeps of being, we can word this once, and enter together an altogether more grand and terrible space that is not done justice by calling it “chanting.” I have witnessed this only a few times and briefly, and might be mistaken; but the game Synectics has much in common, as an extraordinary and articulate state of collective consciousness.

         It is this spirit Calliope whom we evoke in the more general game of Making Music, for which Circle of Sound may be just another name. I imagine that this game can model any drama of interaction that can be modeled in music, and the range is pretty broad, though disciplined practice of the players would be necessary to make it a really systematic tool. Alas, true improvised melody is a height few groups of players attempt or can sustain, and when people do make melody it is usually some old chestnut and paralyzes the conversation; the gamekeeper may warn them not to. Unless something fancy in the way of process-tending is attempted, the gamekeeper enjoys the rare freedom of being able to join freely and almost anonymously in this game.

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