Archive Blog: Ambient Jam 1996 and 2019


In 1996 I wrote about Ambient Jam for an Entelechy Arts printed Newsletter.

‘It is hard to think of anything creative, social and artistic value might be happening when two people are sitting very still for 30 minutes, sometimes doing a hand dance with one hand and a few fingers each.

Halfway through the participant held my hand a wrist and didn’t let go. Through her fingers, she could pick up my pulse. She was blind and deaf and communicated non-verbally. This was her first movement and music workshop with new people.’

Read the full 1996 Ambient Jam blog here

Here I write about Ambient Jam now and observe the parallels.

The young woman described in Entelechy Arts’ AGM report article from 1996 had newly joined Entelechy Arts Ambient Jam programme. Now almost twenty years on, as one of our lead members, she now takes part in high profile events, most recently in Wilderness Tales at the Albany Theatre, Deptford and the 21st Century Tea Dance at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Now it is she who leads us by the hand through space… we follow.

A few weeks ago I popped into an Ambient Jam session to re-immerse myself into its sense-led, non-verbal landscape. I hadn’t been for a while and my head was full of office-based actions I needed to complete and my energy was distracted and primed in a speediness that answering countless emails does to our physiologies. So, being in Ambient Jam was like walking into a detox zone. Afterwards, I jotted down my learning from this particular session. A week later the article on ‘Being’, written 20 years ago for an AGM report, surfaced on my desk.

It was heartening to see exactly the same learning points being articulated across two decades, yet equally easy to forget that the same ideas had already been named! It illustrates we never stop deepening our learning of the same thing. Both sets of notes touch on our ability to be mindful of imagined and real pressures to be seen to be ‘doing’ something. However, the two sets of notes across time also illustrated a difference; the development of agency and visibility of one of our members over 20 years.

Learning notes from a recent Ambient Jam session 2019

Within 27 years, Ambient Jam as a phenomenon – an unfolding improvisation over time, remains a place of continual experiential learning for us all. Over and over again the work uncompromisingly reminds us of a unique (embodied) quality of mindfulness, easily extinguished in the frenzy of life. This depth of being present within improvisation is forged primarily by the quality of difference within Ambient Jam. Different ways of being and communicating teaches a skill, which our members with PMLD, in collaboration with our artists, consistently direct us towards: In order to connect, across a diversity of non-verbal languages, we are compelled to slow down, and truly listen. This is not to say powerful, dramatic, dissonant, fast even abrupt expression isn’t part of the equation – it’s more that these moments happen of their own accord. Ambient Jam prevents us from galloping off in one direction or getting away with anything that doesn’t somehow connect with the whole.

To engage within the improvisation, I had to give up the compulsion to do, or even ‘make something right’. It often takes a whole session for my nervous system to calm enough to bring my attention to seemingly insignificant moments, like someone holding my hand for 20 secs. It’s these ordinary or detailed interactions that turn out to be full of information. Our outcome-driven world can dis-attune us to moments that non-verbally propose whole worlds and sentences, in the micro. Sometimes it’s these details that can inform strategy and mushroom into a powerful force for change. Gradually, often guided by the music, my own pulse and rhythm coincides with those of others; it’s like falling through a slipstream where your perception changes, and you begin seeing people differently; and know their true weight, presence and gravitas, whilst learning the complexity of a new language that was invisible before.

The compulsion to constantly do and make things happen as my raison d’etre is chafed away, until I learn how to receive, in counter-balance to this. In the session there are times when I became aware of my own ‘useful helplessness’; where my skill lies also in acknowledging my own vulnerability, so that others, particularly our members, feel able reach out, take my hand rather than the other way round. And there were many times this indeed did happen; they also want to care.

Through give and take, fleeting equality and new tapestries of sound, movement and story emerge that authentically dissolves the chasm between differences – for a moment. There were many times when I felt disorientated and ended up somewhere else from where I began: en- route you are not sure where you are and what the story is. A space, in the Albany Red room, with its boundaries and walls, can through a change in perception seem like a limitless landscape, or a sea, in which we all swim.

I would argue at best, Ambient Jam is an extraordinary place of thought if thinking includes shifts and changes in perception which lead to different types of decisions and actions. It requires the opposite to the frenzied unstill, sometimes unthinking mind we can overdevelop to ensure we complete our targets, goals and outcomes. It’s hard to tolerate that less could be more, to trust this option, which undoes the compulsion to only constantly strive, prove, and add more. Needless to say, we all are transformed by this ecology.

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