Beautiful people make terrible noises at Misha Glouberman’s latest workshop.
Misha Glouberman is one of those names that you’ve seen affiliated with so many different things that it’s easy to forget that you have no idea who the real-life Misha Glouberman is.
As the man at the helm of Trampoline Hall, facilitator of participatory conferences, author-to-be, head of the Queen/Beaconsfield residents association, and host of a whole host of events that fall under the auspices of his “unuseful” School of Learning, Glouberman’s got his thumbs in a wide array of Torontonian pies. These things are not as disparate as they might seem, he explains. His wide array of activity tends to be about looking at different structures for getting groups of people to interact, and making and containing noise. Under the framework of his School of Learning, Glouberman runs workshops, classes, and one-off events called Terrible Noises for Beautiful People in which he gets groups of amateur participants to play games and do exercises where they create improvised non-verbal sounds. In the coming months, Glouberman is taking his Terrible Noises on the road, running a workshop in a Californian performance art sound tower . To help him prepare, he held a tower-simulating event in Toronto last week.
Terrible Noises for Beautiful People is a full-participation event with a “no observers allowed” policy. While writers aren’t generally big joiners, in order to find out what Glouberman’s sound-making games are all about, Torontoist got out and played at extroversion, spouting gibberish sounds, and playing improv games with the best of them. Later, Glouberman answered some of our questions. This part was easier.
Torontoist: What’s the story behind Terrible Noises for Beautiful People?
Misha Glouberman: Years ago, when I was a college student, I ran an improv theatre group. I ran a couple of workshops a week and we did a lot of shows. For years after school, I always missed that, but whenever I tried to do more improv, I found it dissatisfying. At one point, it occurred to me that, in retrospect, the part I found really valuable wasn’t what my group did for the audience when we did shows, but what happened in the workshops. I started wondering what would happen if I thought of improv as something for people to do, if I thought of the workshop as an end in itself, rather than thinking of it as a means to the end of performance (or some other skill). So I started running workshops, really trying to get non-performers to come, trying to get people who wanted to do this stuff for its own sake. That’s how I got interested in the idea of improvisation as a participatory form. I ran those theatre classes for several years and they were really fun.
Why the move from theatre to sound?
The sort of flippant description that I sometimes give is that the theatre became more and more abstract, until it was just music. At some point, I don’t remember when or why, I started to bring in a few exercises using sound, and as soon as we did that, I knew I really wanted to do more of it. And pretty soon after that, I stopped doing theatre improv, and just stuck with the sound stuff. From the point of view of what it’s like for people to improvise together, I find the sound stuff a lot more interesting. It’s full of surprises. It’s harder to talk about, which I like. It’s harder to explain why one thing sounds good and another doesn’t. Even just at the simplest mechanical level, it’s a lot more interesting to me: typically, if you have, say, four people in a theatre improv scene, it means each person takes their turn to talk, while the other three listen, back and forth. In music improv, you can have a much bigger group than that, where everyone is making sounds, and listening, all at the same time. There are all these interactions happening, all simultaneously. That’s way more interesting to me, that you can simultaneously be in conversation with multiple people at once, listening and contributing at the same time.
What do we get out of noise-making? Why do it?
I try very hard not to have an explicit answer to that. Lots of people participate in these events, and lots of them really love it, and they come back, and that makes me really glad. What makes me especially glad is that they seem to get very different things out of it, sometimes things I might have expected, sometimes things I didn’t.
I think some people really enjoy a chance to use their voices or bodies in ways that they don’t normally get to do. They like having a chance to be loud, or to run around, or to play in unfamiliar ways. A lot of the games also function as social experiments—games about things like leadership, collaboration, power, consensus and disagreement. I think some people really enjoy thinking about some of the questions the games raise for them: about all that social stuff, and also about the nature of music. I think some people really enjoy the classes as a chance not to think at all. People continue to surprise me when they describe what they get from the events, which is really satisfying to me.
When people ask what the events are for, I ask “Well, what’s music for?” So, for instance, you might like to put on some music after work to relax, but I think it’d be wrong to say that that’s what music is for, because people also use music for all kinds of different reasons, and listen to it in all kinds of ways. My hope is that the events I do can be about a lot of things, and people can have very different experiences at them.
A Terrible Noises participant (left) and Misha Glouberman (right).
A lot of the more active improv games you play in the workshop use anger and fighting. Why that emphasis?
To get people to improvise, it’s really useful for people to learn to listen to each other and respond to each other. My observation is that if you tell people to listen to each other and respond, it’s sort of awkward, but of you tell them to fight, they end up listening and responding automatically. It’s a tiny bit paradoxical, I guess. People sometimes ask why I don’t look at emotions other than anger, but I’m not really interested in other emotions. Everyone’s a genius improviser at fighting. They make brave choices, they lose themselves in it. It’s a very small step to take those skills and apply them to different kinds of sound improvising.
It seems like one goal of the project is to push people outside their comfort zones. If comfort zones are so comfy, why leave them? What do we get from that?
I have a lot of respect for people’s comfort zones. Sometimes, for example, people will say to me, “Isn’t it terrible that our society is so uptight, that people find this kind of activity uncomfortable?” But I don’t think that at all! I think it’s pretty normal and okay to find this stuff uncomfortable. Some people try doing the activities we do at these events, and they find it’s just no fun. They don’t like it. I think that’s really okay. I don’t think that in order to be a fully developed human, you have to learn to enjoy making ridiculous noises with strangers. That is a very reasonable thing to not enjoy.
That said, some people do enjoy doing this stuff. For a lot of people (myself included), I think the discomfort is part of the pleasure of the event. It can be exhilarating to be with a group of people, making these crazy sounds. And part of the exhilaration comes from the fact that, maybe ten minutes ago, this felt too embarrassing to do, and now it feels great. I think that can be a real pleasure, playing with that discomfort. You need some sort of tension, I think, to make anything interesting—the conflict in a narrative, the resolution of dissonance to consonance in music, overcoming the obstacles in a video game, whatever. I think the tension around this discomfort is part of what makes these noise games satisfying.
It seems that the project is also about getting people to listen to one another either more carefully or in different ways than we normally do. Do you think that listening is something that we don’t do enough of or that we do badly or inadequately?
There’s “listening,” I think, at two levels in the events. Partly, the events are about listening in a very literal sense: about paying attention to auditory information, which is many cases really complicated, and seeing what you can hear in it. Then there’s also listening in a slightly more figurative sense: about paying attention to what other people are intending, about how people can communicate with each other. I guess all that seems like it can be a worthwhile thing to play with for a couple of hours.
What would you like to see Terrible Noises do next?
There’s lots more I’d like to do. I’d like to do more workshop series in Toronto. I’d especially like to find groups I can work with for a longer time. And I’d also like to work more on what I can do with an audience in a single-night performance. I’d like to do something where an audience comes to a concert hall, and do a full performance there, with no musicians on stage, with all the sounds generated by the audience making choices together.
Photos by Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda/Torontoist.