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See Music, Hear Dance: An Interview With Keith Terry of Body Music

What was the first kind of music early humans created? We’ll never know for sure, but co-director of Body Music, Keith Terry, is inclined to think its music made with just one shared instrument—the human body. Singing, clapping, snapping, stomping, Body Music will ignite Sanders Theatre with a range of body-created music on May 5, 2018 as part of their inaugural United States tour. The seven performers who hail from Cuba, the United States, Greece, France, and Spain bring their own “cross-cultural conversation” (The Boston Globe) to the stage as they share in an artistic dialogue with the audience.

The tag line of Body Music is “see music—hear dance,” turning the traditional performance model on its head. With few exceptions, the music compositions, arrangements, and choreography are created by the company itself, offering a totally new movement and musical language to experience.

In anticipation of the one-night-only performance, Terry answered a few questions for us about Body Music’s virtuosic journey and cultural vibrancy.

Keith Terry

Celebrity Series: How did you get into the performing arts and when did you know that it was your life’s calling?

Keith Terry: I was fortunate to grow up with an excellent music program and teachers all the way through school, and started on drums when I was very young. Through drumming I was drawn to jazz early on, via recordings my parents had around the house. When I was 12, my cousin and her boyfriend took me to a concert where I heard Thelonious Monk’s trio, plus the Cannonball Adderley Quintet (with his brother, Nat) and Dionne Warwick. The experience made a huge impression on me, I knew, then, that I had the bug.

CS: How did you conceive of the idea of Body Music and where do you draw your inspirations?

KT: I was trained as a jazz drummer growing up in Texas, and started working in Dallas night clubs in my teens. When I was working with the Jazz Tap Ensemble in the late 1970s in Los Angeles, I stood up from my drum set and started displacing my percussion onto my body, and moving it around. Charles ‘Cookie’ Cook and Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, both famous hoofers, told me what I was doing was similar to the hambone they had done in vaudeville, but it moved differently, and the rhythms were different, and they encouraged me to pursue it. The pianist in the group, Paul Arslanian, and I coined the term Body Music to include the melodic and harmonic possibilities with vocalizing and whistling, not solely the percussive side. I’ve been using it as my primary art form since. Inspiration comes from a myriad of musical sources  around the world—traditional and contemporary body musics, as well as other instruments—both the common and the unusual, circus drumming, found sound, nature, visual rhythms in design and architecture, mathematical patterning, geology, the solar system, epidemics, flocking/herding instincts, to name a few.

I love that humans basically have the same instrument, yet they express music on it so differently culture to culture. I also love the intimacy and primacy, the visceral connection people have, when you use your body as the sole instrument. This is also the most challenging aspect, as it’s not as bombastic as contemporary culture has come to expect from performance.

As to the creation of our show we’ll bring to Boston: Everyone brought their different skillsets, reference points, music, time signatures, thematic ideas, to the table. A lot of Post-it notes, discussion of how the themes, words, moves translate differently amongst us, and finding common ground. We’ve been working together in a variety of capacities for years, but this is the first time as an ensemble. Because everyone is already performing and creating at a skilled level, we could move quickly gathering material, and focus more on the story, the thematic aspect, that was a new direction for International Body Music Festival productions.

CS: How would you describe the spirit of Body Music?

KT: Clapping, stepping, singing; humans basically have the same instrument, yet they express music on it so differently culture to culture. There is an intimacy, a primacy, of the connection people have when you use your body as the sole instrument. This is also the most challenging aspect, as it’s not as bombastic as contemporary culture has come to expect from performance. It’s both personal and universal.

CS: Why was it important to develop media like instructional DVDs to share with the world at large?

KT: It grew out of my teaching. The contemporary Body Music methodology I’ve developed over 4 decades explores concepts many professionals find useful—whether they are being applied to music, dance, math, physics, language, therapies, or education. It’s assisted my students around the world to have various exercises to practice timing, polyrhythms, polymeters, crosspulses, or phasing. I also think it’s important for students to be present when participating in a workshop. Have the experience of making this music in a big group—together, with others, rather than be distracted in the moment by the need to document for later use.

CS: Tell us about your 10 years running the International Body Music Festival, this year in Ghana.

Keith Terry and Evie Ladin of Body Music

KT: The International Body Music Festival was long a dream of mine. Traveling the world teaching and performing, I was meeting other like minds, artists, cultures and wanted to bring them together into the first festival of its kind. In 2008 I received a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it, along with other funding, to launch the festival. With Executive Director Evie Ladin we created a six-day event that touched a diverse and multigenerational audience and cast of artists, with free and ticketed events, and extensive educational outreach. The impact was profound, especially amongst artists that had never had contact with others whose work was both so different and so related. It was a bit of an epiphany.

From the outset we wanted the IBMF itself to be international, so after two years of establishing the model in the San Francisco Bay Area, we worked with partners around the world, hosting the annual event in Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Bali, Paris, and now Ghana for our 10th. The 10th will be the last full scale festival we plan to produce, primarily because now there is demand for iterations in so many places. Our new model of an IBMF MiniFest suits a higher frequency, community building event wherever it’s produced. We continue working with partners in all of these places to make sure there is a mix of traditional and contemporary work, and is international whether pulling from diverse cultures in that region, or adding artists from far flung places. We also work with partners to ensure the MiniFests are spread out regionally.

We’re so excited to produce our 10th IBMF in Ghana with Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo, a native to Dzodze. We have participants and artists coming from all over the world—the US, Brazil, Israel, France, Columbia, Austria, Vietnam, South Africa, Canada—and know from experience the event draws some of the most fun people. No experience is necessary, you just need to bring your instrument!

CS: What should the Boston audience expect at your performance? What do you hope we’ll discover or take away from Body Music?

KT: Sand dance, hand dance, foot percussion, lyrical harmony singing, visual rhythm, virtuosic solos, dynamic ensemble works: BODY MUSIC see music/hear dance is an international cast of seven gifted artists, in a collaborative evening of cultural vibrance using the human instrument to create complex, evocative music/dance.

We routinely receive feedback after the events that audiences have a visceral connection; they feel moved by the shared humanity, the artistic exploration and virtuosity of the art form. It’s old and new.



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