Chance Operations of the Body – beyond Cage and Cunningham


Through a link that Erin Lewis posted on this blog, I discovered the collaborative work of John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Cage was a composer and Cunningham a modern dance choreographer. These two artists created music and dance that broke away from traditional methods of composing and choreographing. Their innovation came from the I Ching, a form of divination based on chance operations. To simplify a rather complex process, they used the toss of a coin to determine what sound or body movement should come next in their compositions. What is interesting about their work is that the dancers would not hear the music that accompanied their dancing until the performance. It is this aspect of their work along with their composition methods that inspired this piece.

I wanted to use random numbers of serial data generated by the movements of a middle-eastern dancer to play sound. Although the dancers movements would initiate the sound, she would not be able to control or manipulate the sound or rhythm. I chose to work with middle-eastern dance and music because there are aspects of both that can be quite random and I thought they would fit well with this project. I also thought that using 21st century technology on a traditional dance form would contemporize it in a way that had never been done before.

I’m quite happy with the final results. I went beyond my initial proposal by using Processing as a tool for playing high quality recordings through high quality speakers rather than using speakers attached to the body of the dancer. I feel this created a more professional theatrical presentation. I used Bluetooth to form a wireless connection between the Arduino, which was attached to the dancer’s body, and the computer which was used to generate sound. This allowed the dancer to move freely unencumbered by wires. However, out of all the components required to make this project work, Bluetooth proved to be the most problematic. Some times it worked and sometimes it didn’t which played right into my concept of chance. At the end of this frustrating process, I realized that the Bluetooth device needed to be facing the computer to make its connection. Live and learn. My other major challenge was getting my head around the Processing programming language but both Erin and Kate helped with this.

The success of this project has inspired me to explore it further and I think I have found my thesis topic (finally). Denise Mireau, the dancer and owner/director of the Studio for Movement, is also happy with the project and is open to more collaborations as is Erin Lewis who has created a similar project based on visuals rather than sound.

Here is the bluetooth dance:

Here is the hard-wired dance:


I wanted to generate sound that was abstract but still referred to middle-eastern music – a deconstruction of it. To do this, I worked with the Aminor scale because it is melancholy like middle-eastern music. I also used instruments that are often used in middle-eastern music like the flute, violin and dumbek (middle-eastern drum). Using Garage Band, I created eight mp3 files, seven of the files represented one note of the Aminor scale. For the eighth file, I recorded one “doom” from my dumbek. These eight files were loaded into my processing sketch as a separate data file. Although the music comes from the random movements of the dancer, I did program silence when the dancer’s arms are relaxed at her side. In this way, the dance can have a beginning and an end.

Here’s my processing code:

import cc.arduino.*;
import processing.serial.*;
import ddf.minim.*;

AudioPlayer player;
Minim minim;
Arduino arduino;

int sensorPinX = 0;
int sensorPinY = 1;
int sensorPinZ = 2;
int xvalue;
int yvalue;
int zvalue;

String serialString;

void setup() {

arduino = new Arduino(this, Arduino.list()[2], 115200);
minim = new Minim(this);


void draw() {

xvalue = arduino.analogRead(sensorPinX);
yvalue = arduino.analogRead(sensorPinY);
zvalue = arduino.analogRead(sensorPinZ);

if (xvalue >=450 && xvalue <= 455){
player = minim.loadFile(“A of Aminor.mp3”, 2048); // play the file;
else if(xvalue >=465 && xvalue <= 470){
player = minim.loadFile(“C of Aminor.mp3”, 2048); // play the file;
else if (xvalue >=581 && xvalue <= 585){
player = minim.loadFile(“G# of Aminor.mp3”, 2048); // play the file;
else if (xvalue >=575 && xvalue <= 580){
player = minim.loadFile(“E of A minor.mp3”, 2048); // play the file;
else if (xvalue >=585 && xvalue <= 590){
player = minim.loadFile(“B of Aminor.mp3”, 2048); // play the file;
else if (xvalue >=430 && xvalue <= 435){
player = minim.loadFile(“D of Aminor.mp3”, 2048); // play the file;
else if (xvalue >=600 && xvalue <=800){
player = minim.loadFile(“Doom.mp3″, 2048); // play the file;
print(” “);
print(” “);

void stop()
// always close Minim audio classes when you are done with them



The materials used to build the costume consisted of the following:

two bra cups
Black stretch fabric
Speaker wire
Black wire
Transparent thread
Black thread
Conductive Thread
Lilypad Arduino – Simple
Lithium rechargeable Battery 3.7v
Fabric Snaps

I chose to expose the electronic components of the costume by making them part of the overall aesthetic. I did this by using the speaker wire to ornament as well connect electrical components in the costume. The speaker wire looks great and was easy to work with because the two attached insulated wires meant there fewer strands of wire to deal with and they could be easily separated if need be. To make the costume simple to access, I used snaps to connect circuit wires from the shoulder to the accelerometer located on the outer part of a glove. For the most part this works well, but occasionally the snaps come undone. This could be because the snaps live on parts of the body that are continually moving. I may need to find a connector that is more robust. Here are some images of the circuit and the schematics.

2 comments to Chance Operations of the Body – beyond Cage and Cunningham

  • Polina Broussilovskaia

    This is an amazing project. I love the idea of inverting the process of dance into making music. The two are so closely co-related and the fact that you were able to redesign the whole experience/relationship behind that is really smart. Also the finished piece looks great. I this the exo-skeleton structure of this piece definitely adds to its aesthetic.

  • Loretta Faveri

    Thanks Polina, I appreciate the feedback. I too am happy with this project and I can’t wait to start exploring more possibilities.

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