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Jonathan Hart Makwaia

is a vocalist, teacher, composer and actor. He was musical director and performer for many Roy Hart Theatre productions in the 70s and 80s. Since moving to New York in 1988 he has collaborated with artists from varied disciplines while remaining actively engaged in the development of Roy Hart voice work.He also presents solo concerts around Europe and the USA: “...a spectacular display of vocal timbres and techniques” (New York Times). Jonathan has been teaching voice at New York University’s ‘Experimental Theatre Wing’ for over 20 years and continues to lead workshops around Europe, notably at the Roy Hart Centre in France every summer.


Photo © Johanna Lippmann

Interview by Walli Höfinger and Christiane Hommelsheim

Christiane Hommelsheim: We would like to speak about voice and composition in your work. In your teaching, how do you help people to find their own music? Do you help them to find music within their voice or does the voice help the person to get in touch with what they would like to express?

Jonathan Hart Makwaia: Voice work opens immediately into the potential for music. I don’t especially go looking for music in someone’s voice or via their voice. The voice naturally gives rise to both conscious and unconscious imaginative worlds. As such it is the perfect instrument for stimulating music. For example, as soon as someone starts making a sound it initiates a process. At times the person may consciously improvise a melody because they feel it or hear it inside. But at other times they’re not so conscious. Something else takes place, more to do with the voice’s deep influence on us, with the way it steers us towards the unconscious and things we feel: something that moves us and calls forth a different kind of music.

So I don’t need a clear goal to begin with, because this journey between conscious and unconscious is going to open up creative paths. It could be that there is a specific sound world in someone’s voice that one (the person) then wants to create music with, or it could be that the voice stimulates a state of being, and that state of being is not actual music yet, but it is like a playground in which the music can emerge. But sometimes people have very specific music that they hear, it might be very simple, it might be just one phrase but they hear it inside, which one can begin with.

Walli Höfinger: When I‘m observing you teach, I have the impression, that your way of listening is very specific. I‘m very interested in hearing about it from your perspective. What do you listen for, when you work with a person?

JHM: The most important is to feel what matters to the person. As soon as something matters to them their creative spirit becomes engaged whether musical or not. What matters to me is each person’s creativity. I believe we are searching together, the teacher and the student. And in fact I don’t like these words “teacher” and “student” in the work, just as I don’t like to say “lesson”. We are searching and at a certain moment we understand together where the creativity lies and what matters. From there we can begin developing the creative aspect. Some people need to feel a sensation or an emotion but most have the wish to be creative. That’s what listening is for me: searching together. I am not trying to look for a particular sound quality. When someone touches something important, everyone feels it, recognizes it. I am sure you have experienced that, the moment when everyone recognizes. For me listening includes literally listening to the sound in the moment as well as watching and feeling how the person is physically in their body. And also “listening for” is trying to feel where the person wants to go. That’s not the same as listening in the moment and that’s why I speak of searching together. Even if we don’t say it, at a certain point the person and I understand together. Yes, that’s where to focus! If there is music there, we can begin to name its particular elements.

CH: How important do you find the second step into form, into music? How important is the conscious artistic form in the end?

JHM: That depends on the person. In our groups usually most people want to go in the direction of creating something. So then, yes that becomes important. Anyway I believe that creating structures and allowing oneself to be led by a state of being are two approaches that can feed each other. For someone who is more interested in going deeper into their emotions making a structure can help to understand them better. Otherwise one risks losing oneself in them. You feel something very strongly, but in the end or the next day, what remains other than the wish to do it again? On the other hand making structures without any personal relationship with them is not as fertile as, if one invests oneself in the structure.

CH: So art is not necessarily the goal?

Sometimes – yes it is art, but I wouldn’t like to always have that goal in mind. In fact rather than art I would say creativity. Often it is the same thing, but not always.

CH: Sometimes in the work you say: „As long as you say its music, it is music“. Maybe you can say something about that? For me as a student this opened the door to „Oh, I decide when art starts!“. When do you feel it as something that is beginning to communicate artistically? JHM: That‘s why I say „something that matters“. I believe that when it matters to you deeply, thenyou want to do something with it. I feel like that is the beginning of art, or at least that‘s the wish that leads to art, and therefore much more important for you to connect to what matters to you, than to be trying to think how can you make it into art. Then the next step is finding a way to share, to communicate what matters to you with other people. I suppose that is where it becomes art. But often it is the subtle little things that you don‘t think matter to someone else but they do matter to you. Often these little things matter to you but you think - „oh that‘s so small it‘s not important enough to be art“, so you won‘t focus on that. But actually those little things are likely to be what will make your art so unique, so interesting, because they‘re different from what everyone else does. Or even if they are not different, you know exactly why it matters and therefore it has interest for other people. WH: Having said this, what role does it play in your teaching, that you are an artist yourself?

JHM: Well, I don‘t know the answer, but these are things that come to me: That for the same reason why I like to create things myself it makes me interested in other peoples creating. It’s not work for me - that’s what I want to do! When I hear somebody beginning to open a path, which feels to me like its the beginning of music, or something creative, then I want to go along that path and I want them to go along it too. That’s one thing. Another is - knowing how difficult it is myself to create ones own work, it makes me feel that I have more empathy for them as they are looking to do it for themselves. Also for someone who specifically wants to create their own work, I feel it is helpful that they know I‘ve been through my version of what they are going through.

WH: We do quote you as our inspiration for using „the principle of group support“ in our work. Can you say something about that from your perspective?

JHM: I feel like that comes especially from Rosemary Quinn, how that became part of my work. For me it is related to seeing where the person is wanting to go. And I believe everyone in the room understands something about where someone is trying to go, and sometimes one person understands something that the person working hasn‘t even thought about at all, but therefore it opens up the focus for the first person and it also releases fixation on one idea. You also mentioned „touch“ in one of your questions - I‘m having the image of massaging, because it is similarly with the body, sometimes just a delicate touch in a different part of the body reminds the body! It allows the body’s natural wisdom to come back, and very simply I feel as a group we have more wisdom than as one person or as two people. Also, when you are the teacher, you are kind of in the hot seat, it is hard to drop into ones subconscious because you are right there. I think, we do also to a degree but if someone else is the teacher you are just sitting back, you dream, you can reach other levels. That is why I also love to „team-teach“.

WH: A vital part of this „support work“ is the theme of touching, literally and metaphorically. How do you see this in the context of the voice work?

JHM: I feel it is really important. Or at least I feel being physical in the work is so important. And my guess is, most people eventually like to touch and to be touched, even if some people first don’t want to be. It feels like a very basic human instinct to be physical with one another. I don’t touch a lot if I’m working one on one with people, sometimes I do but I think I’m over cautious of the societal, cultural taboos. But if I really just followed my instincts I would touch more, I’m sure. But part of the work is where everyone is touching, which feels so helpful. I’m sure you feel it too, that as soon as everyone in the room is touching each other, something in the atmosphere in the room just melts and so much more can happen after that. It is not even particularly about the touch itself, I feel like it is more like I said earlier - touch just reminds one of...”oh yes...” and then it is much more about internal states and images... than about the actual touch. The touch reminds one of other states or other places, just reminds you of other than where you are right there, other than where your focus is. Sometimes it might be literally the touch reminds you of another part of your body. You focus so hard on the back you forgot how nice it is to relax your shoulders, but sometimes the touch reminds you of another feeling or reminds you of another place because you have an image. It is just helpful to be reminded of other worlds. Then, when you come back to the world you are consciously working with, it has more perspective.

CH: It seems to work in the double sense of the word „it touches me“. For example, one person is touching my back, but that touches me deeply in the heart or it touches an emotion, which the person didn‘t touch. This person just touched my back. I feel, what happens through being touched physically creates this bridge into what touches me inside and to letting myself be touched by what is going on.

JHM: Yes, I completely agree, and it feels important not only to me, the one who receives the touch, but also to the one who is giving the touch. And that comes back to „support“, that hopefully the people who are giving the support learn as much as the person who is being supported. Yes, it is a dialogue between receiving and giving, and being in both positions, that’s when you understand. CH: When you did the “Temoins de notre temps” in Brussels, you spoke about the relationship between inspiration and expiration. Can you say some words about that?

JHM: I feel the relationship between in-breath and out-breath is so rich. For the most part the in-breath is undervalued, is taken for granted. Often people are in such a rush to get back to the out-breath, they don‘t allow the in-breath to feed the out-breath in the way that it could. And it‘s not coincidence, I feel, that in French and some languages inspiration has both senses, it is the in-breath, but it is also the stimulus for the imagination. Because the way one breathes in influences completely the sound you then make. Partly it influences, because you take more time to feel your intention, partly it influences, because you can prepare a physical space with your sound through the way you breathe in, you can aim towards a particular place through the way you breathe in. Also because, when you breathe in, you have to let go of the sound you were making. And often it feels like when you let go of it, you lose it. So some people will go right to the end of their breath, because they don’t want to lose the feeling that they have. It is unconscious, but actually, if you can choose to let go of the breath and choose to come back into that sound, you understand the sound more than if you try to just hang on to it.

CH: I remember you also speaking to the audience about the breath as a bridge between inner world and outer world.

JHM: They are related I‘m sure, but it is something else that I love about the voice - it touches inside and it touches outside. They are different sensations, but they feed one another. Someone who has touched him or herself inside has more then to give on the outside to the world. That‘s why it is a pity that therapy and art have been so separated in the last century, because really they feed one another, and I am sure that the great artists from centuries ago had worked on themselves. They may not have thought of it in that way, but the great writers, the great painters, they can‘t have done that without having visited some very deep, internal, personal place. No one was calling it therapy then.