How to listen to music and create ballets that audience would like to watch? Chapter 2

American composer and pianist Richard Cameron-Wolfe explores interrelations between music and dance, promotes modern classical music or “sound art”, creates micro-operas, performs and teaches. Former musician of ballet and modern dance companies, including the Joffrey Ballet and the Jose Limon Company, he reveals the most frequent mistakes of choreographers, tells how dancers and audience should react to music and how people may develop their musical perception in the second part of our interview.

On how choreographers and dancers could respond to and interact with music

If choreographers want to more successfully include the audience, than certainly they could begin by acknowledging the pulse, the spinal cord of music. Dancers could join that dance pulse with pulse-generating movement, at least occasionally. Of course, in ballet the dancers are virtually enslaved to the pulse — probably not connected enough to other elements of the music, but certainly to the pulse: the ballet dancer must not finish a pirouette after the music phrase has ended.

The dancer should respect a melodic shape and notice how it is shared by different instruments. It is valuable to hear and appreciate all the peculiar features of sound, including: tone color, its quality, nuances of color; also the density of the sound-texture, the big form as well as micro-form of the shape of individual phrases, dynamics of the volume of sound, different types of accents and inflections. They should be heard, acknowledged and available for a visible response or deliberate non-response – as opposed to “Oh, I didn’t notice that”.

If you want your character [even if abstract or impersonal] to be complete and believable, then there needs to be the whole package of those nuances of inter-communication between dancer and music, not only in responding to music but in an active negotiation with each participant of the process, including dancer-to-dancer.  I always go back to my experience of playing for Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy during their rehearsals. Once she said to him: “Didn’t you see that I gave you this look at that specific moment in the music? And you did nothing!” And he said: “Oh, I was thinking about my next jeté”.

On problems between music and choreography

A choreographic practice that happens very often is the irresponsible clipping and excerpting of music pieces. If the dance lasts a little less than the music, choreographers sometimes just turn down the volume in a fade-out, or simply stop the music in a silent spot. And this is an idea of not using the complete work of art. Phillip Glass was the most popular choice for my dance students back in New York in the 1980s and 1990s. His minimalist music was used like a ribbon that you put around gifts: “How much do you need of this Phillip Glass? Ok that’s enough, fade out”.

Excluding (excerpting, “amputating”) the music reminds me of buying an amazing Van Gogh painting at the Auction House and then cutting out one specific detail of the painting that you like most of all, thus, depriving that detail, in particular, and the picture, in general, of its real uniqueness and wholeness of expression. We should really respect each music composition as a complete work of art.

Another problem is the popular choreographic use of a style of music marketed as “world music fusion”. That’s not authentic music of South India, It’s not authentic Balinese, but it uses those instruments and those colors, etc. to create an exotic atmosphere. But there are dance traditions connected already with the sources of that fusion music. What does “exotic” mean, actually? If we actually understand the music and its indigenous sources, it is freed from its strangeness, its exoticism.  (And is it the choreographer’s intention to have the dance perceived as “exotic”?) So the choreographer already chopping off the dance tradition – if one is aware of it at all – that was organically connected with the cultural source.

There is no abstract music if it includes a song text. Why do composers even use those texts? Because the music is going to represent the composer’s interpretation of the poem that he feels he could deliver through the poem to the audience from his prospective. One of my students really loved a very famous album of a Bulgarian women’s choir, which was one of the “greatest hits” of world music of all times in the USA. She choreographed a very sensuous love duet with one of the songs. But the song turned out to be about a mother that found her child dead one morning and was embracing her child and singing a lament lullaby. The text is therefore vitally important. In fact, one should know about the sources, discover as much background as possible about the music one wants to choreograph.

Another problem is when the choreographer wants to “hitch his wagon to a star” and create a dance on a very famous pop or classical music piece. In other words, the choreographer hopes that people will have stronger impression of him/her because of the association with famous things. And of course hoping that the audience will transfer some of their enthusiasm for the music to what they see.  Sadly, the result is usually that the choreography becomes a background element, secondary to the dominant music.

On how to listen to music – actively, deeply, and holistically

How is a dancer/choreographer to become a deep listener? It’s almost as simple as to decide to do it. Listening is something that you do – it’s an activity, not a passivity. To actively participate and explore the music again beyond the surface becomes very exciting because you start considering details and their inter-relationships. At the museum, you have the time to walk around a sculpture, or step back or move closer to see how a painter did his piece. But when you are in a concert hall you are stuck in your seat. You can’t get out into the aisle, move a little bit and take more information not only with your ears, but also with your body. So, all of my choreo-musical teaching is about listening more deeply and thinking of yourself as an active participant and the completion of the whole process that began in some musician’s imagination. When listening to music, think of yourself as a dancer entering a music shop. What do you need (or think that you need) to find there? May be the music-shopkeeper-musician would reveal to you and “sell” you something you didn’t expect to buy? This meaning – the curiosity, the hunger for discovery- is a valuable tool that can be found through active listening.

On how to develop deep listening for dance students

I think a little bit of music training is helpful for students. But, in fact, dancers listen to music differently than musicians do, and for very different purposes. So, too much music training will probably interfere, because which of you is going to rule? If you have a huge respect for the music (which you should anyway) then you must make certain that your relationship with music is not going to dominate the dance. Ideally, they can be equals, engaged in a creative and integrated dialogue.

Singing may be the best way for children to be introduced to music. Since they are going to have this experience immediately, exploring the resonance in the body, not on some external instrument, and the musical experience is available to them immediately. And then they get introduced to melody; and then, singing together with other children, they experience harmonies and, through shared pulses and rhythms,  have an obligation/opportunity to join together in a singing community. And learn how to balance, share, and cooperate. They will have this communal music experience that is very similar to a communal movement experience. This, after all, is the essence of folk-music and folk-dance, the harmonious coming together of individuals.