Counterpoint and the hidden structure of choreographic knowledge

In her TEDxColumbus talk from 2009, Norah Zuniga Shaw tells the story behind Synchronous Objects, an interdisciplinary, collaborative project which involved translating choreographic elements from a dance into data that were then used to create a series of data visualizations. During the project, collaborators started using the concept of counterpoint to explore the deep layers of unifying structure within the dance. These structures, represented through various objects, reveal the hidden relationships from which the dance emerges. How might counterpoint also help us understand the multi-scale patterns of interactions informing group dynamics, organizational behavior, and other complex systems?

The piece is called “One Flat Thing, Reproduced” … What you’re going to notice very quickly as the dance unfolds is that it encompasses a high degree of difference. These dancers are not very often doing the exact same thing. They are, however, in relationship to one another — they are, however, constructing a kind of cacophonous sort of structure. And we call this structure — we like to give it a name — we call it counterpoint.

If we want to understand counterpoint as a model for a particular kind of group dynamics, it’s helpful to think of it on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is counterpoint, and on the other side is a marching band.

We all understand a marching band. We see structure immediately. They’re marching literally to the same tune. So the top structure of a marching band is unity in relationship. But in fact, of course, they have a lot of differences and individual disagreements and diversity in that marching band. But we don’t see that. That’s their deep structure.

Counterpoint is the exact inverse. In counterpoint, instead, the primary visual effect is difference. It’s all of that complexity you see in that image. It’s at the layer of the deep structure that the relationships become apparent. And I think this is significant not only as a concrete phenomenon in dance, but also as a larger metaphor that’s applicable to how we look at and analyze ecosystems, to how we maybe notice the play of light on the water, or the interaction of branches in the canopies of the trees above us. And to how we interact with the complex realities of our daily lives.

Animating choreography | Norah Zuniga Shaw

Synchronous Objects (website – requires Flash) | The Forsythe Company • OSU Advanced Computing Center for the Arts & Design • OSU Department of Dance

It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is what I am calling “counterpoint”.

— John Rahn

Music Inside Out: Going Too Far in Musical Essay | John Rahn • Benjamin Boretz