What makes good music for dance?

As a continuation of Rambert’s 90th birthday celebrations and a way of marking five years of the Rambert Music Fellowship, NMC Recordings and Rambert have released a new album, Flux, featuring work by all five previous Rambert Music Fellows, as well as a new free musical resource for young choreographers taking GCSE Dance. To officially launch the CD and resource, Rambert and NMC co-hosted an event in the Rambert Studio on 8 June, which included a panel debate and a performance of Tempus by Simone Damberg Würtz, with music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad for pianist and Commodore 64. The debate was chaired by dance critic Jenny Gilbert with music director Paul Hoskins, choreographers Patricia Okenwa and Will Tuckett, composer Mark Bowden and company pianist Yshani Perinpanayagam (who performed in and programmed the Commodore 64 for Tempus).

The question up for discussion was What makes good music for dance?, which provoked a variety of responses that covered topics including commissioning, composition, and criticism.

Who actually chooses music for dance? (Commissioning)

Some commissioning is based on composers’ fame or popularity amongst choreographers, some happens because of collaboration, some is influenced by a conductor or director’s personal taste, some is chosen for its commercial suitability, and in all cases there is a tendency for trends to either be set or followed, often accidentally. Once a composer’s style or piece of music is known in the dance world, it will likely be used again. Live music commissioning is much more common now than it was twenty years ago, when it used to be seen as a financial drain. It is vital that investors have some interest in music as this leads to greater provision for commissioning composers.

Composers are sometimes selected for their ability to compose to a strict brief, especially within a narrative theatrical context where there are strong similarities to a film and TV approach: Will Tuckett argued that music and dance work together to serve the story: ‘ultimately you’re making theatre’. This theme of ‘serving the work’ cropped up multiple times in the debate, in response to the issue of power dynamics between music and dance. Hierarchies vary, but as Patricia Okenwa said in reference to her own work where she collaborates with composers to the greatest extent possible, it is most common that the choreographer is the ‘boss’, meaning that the music ultimately fits into her overall vision. Mark Bowden added to this that the fundamental attribute that a composer for dance needs is to be collaborative.

And how is the music created? (Composition)

A choreographer and composer must somehow collide in order to work closely together, and that initial collision is an idea that is increasingly being encouraged, with the Rambert Music Fellowship, conceived by Paul Hoskins (an ‘initiation ceremony’ into the dance world), being a notable example. The fellowship allows longer-term relationships to form, and is a commitment to the future of new music within the dance world. The release of Flux and the new GCSE Dance resource is evidence both that the dance world has something to offer to the contemporary music world and that composers can go on to create music to inspire the dance world above and beyond straightforward commissions.

In the studio, composers and choreographers can ‘fine tune’ a concept together, or they can ‘trust their different processes’ and work separately. As Mark Bowden said, it is useful to have a dialogue about structure and form. Patricia Okenwa often uses a common reference point e.g. a painting, so that both movement and music can form around that. It is essential that the composer is open-minded and takes risks, but also that the choreographer has respect for the music, that the composer has space to breathe (i.e. what makes good dance for music?).

It is important too to leave room for musicians and dancers to express their own interpretations: as Yshani Perinpanayagam phrased it, ‘the more the material engages you as a human, the more you can give to it’, and also a successful piece happens when ‘no one voice in the colossal chain of people is being too squashed’. Within that giant chain of collaboration, there are myriad different processes but a similar end goal: the piece might start as music-led, movement-led or narrative-led, depending on the concept, but in the end it will be received as a dance work.

So… why is the music important? Who is listening? (Criticism)

This arose later on in the debate as the panel talked about the extent to which audiences care about the music they hear in a dance performance, and also the extent to which choreographers really listen to what the music has to offer. The psychology of music is not always considered as carefully as it might be. What are audiences listening out for?

As in film, music can become unheard in dance i.e. it is merely an enhancement of the visual action (classic Hollywood’s musical mickey-mousing of every gesture being an extreme example). It can distract and disturb (like Tarantino’s soundtrack choices), working in harsh counterpoint with the main narrative or aesthetic. Or it can work together with the dance while retaining its own inner coherence and voice, which in film is exemplified by Kubrick’s use of existing music e.g. Ligeti and Strauss. Kubrick leaves space for both image and sound to say something.

Ok, but what makes good music for dance?

So far we have only really heard what approach makes good music for dance. The discussion, instead of being an argument about aesthetics, was an honest recognition of the complex machine that is required in the making of new music for dance. Rather than stating exactly what makes good music for dance, the panel (and audience) focused on the who, how, why, which is an understandable if not essential approach as works vary hugely in style, pacing, context, audience. Although it is not wise to state exactly what is good music for dance, it is possible to find things in common between pieces that inspire choreographers and energise dancers. All five pieces on Flux, for example, have their own interior logic and development while leaving space for another artistic voice – a choreographer perhaps – to breathe and to speak. Tempus demonstrates that this process can work: Simone was given the score as a starting point, and the choreography grew from that. The music can stand alone, but it also invites another interpretation or response.

As the panel mentioned, sometimes music is so full of ‘stuff’ that there is no space for choreography. Equally, music can be dull and uninviting, the curse of the ‘minimalist hangover’, atmosphere instead of structure, or ‘swathes of paragraphs that don’t develop’ in electronic music, as Paul Hoskins mentioned. There is a language barrier between movement and music, as their vocabularies are both specialised and working in different sensory realms (sight and sound). This language barrier must be recognised and then challenged through the use of a common language, which can be found by each pairing of choreographer and composer, but cannot be prescribed.

Anna Appleby Rambert Music Fellow 2016/17

A painting by composer Aleksandra Vrebalov painted to assist in the communications of the choreograpy of Hydrargyrum by Patricia Okenwa.

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