“I got gaps, you got gaps, we fill each other’s gaps”

Observations from Quinta, Rambert’s Music Fellow, on the marriage of music and dance

During a recent Rambert run at London’s Sadler’s Wells, as I sat in the dressing room amidst empty instrument cases and opening-night chocolates, my eye was drawn to the monitor screen which broadcasts a view of the stage as a guide for those waiting to go on. The sound was turned down but as the minutes passed I became completely absorbed.

I had seen the particular piece a few times before as an audience member, but experiencing it in this way felt entirely new, and seemed to both open up and focus the way I saw it. Though the fact that the dancers were hearing the music as they danced felt important in their performance of the piece, the movements were free of the specifics of that music. And I liked that I couldn’t hear it. I felt I was experiencing the dance somehow on its own terms. I was immediately energised by thoughts of new kinds of audio score, of silent discos and ‘silent scores’, of dance pieces which stole the music from the audience, or which conveyed it only partially.

As well as this, I was struck anew by how very powerful music is in influencing the mood and structure of visual information, such that removing it changes so much. I remembered a participatory film workshop I’d run about musical soundtracking, where I’d replaced the original soundtrack to a film clip with various other types of music and sound. Some of the replacement soundtracks felt natural, providing a conventional kind of emotional cueing, others felt entirely disconnected and nonsensical, and others again felt they opened up new kinds of connection, were unexpected and intriguing.

Modern dance scores tend not, thankfully, to be as literal as the average mainstream Hollywood film score since the scope of the dance/music relationship is perhaps broader, and composers are perhaps less hamstrung into generating musical sound-a-likes. Contemporary dance music amounts to art music, so, in a way, anything goes, as long as it bears artistic integrity. It can express tension, resistance, perversity as well as story-telling and relationship, and much more besides. But nevertheless, there is something there to unpick, something about the way the two sit together, how and why they do, whether they fit and whether they work and how you perceive it when they don’t.

Since the beginning of my Fellowship at Rambert, I’ve been intrigued by these kinds of questions. When I sit down to compose, am I creating a piece of music, or a piece of music for dance – and anyway, what is the difference? Probably there isn’t a general answer to this, it depends on the brief or the concept of a given project, and on the nature of the artistic collaboration and the voices within it.

But what do choreographers and dancers need and look for from composers? And what from music? Talking to the Rambert dancers, it seems that certain pieces provide more opportunity than others for a dancer to respond to the expressive pushes and pulls of the orchestra or live musical element. Though a particular dance move will have been choreographed to occur at a specific moment, there is scope for the dancer to open his/her ears, to be expressive and responsive, to dance to the music.

Other pieces, on the contrary, can feel more robotic, and perhaps, depending on the choreography, over-burdened by counting. One dancer explained that this can feel a bit demoralising, almost like ‘dancing by numbers’.

Sometimes, of course – notably in Cunningham’s works – the dance element of a piece is performed with an internal count which intentionally disregards the count of any heard music; the relationship between the dance and the music is entirely based on chance synchronicities perceived by individual audience members. In these works, dancing to the music is a pitfall rather than the point.

Collaborations between choreographers and composers evolve in various ways. Sometimes mutual starting points will be explored – descriptive words, colours, questions or a concept. Pina Bausch-style questions, like “How do you behave when you’ve lost something?” and “What would you do with a corpse?” – originally used to facilitate dance improvisation and devising – can be adapted to help generate musical ideas too. The ways in which a choreographer might physicalise an idea, concept, memory or dream can also give words and starting points to a composer.

Similarly, Schmidt and Eno’s Oblique Strategies – some of which are specifically music-related – can be used or adapted to be more general. Designed to help break creative deadlock, these enigmatic statements, like “Emphasise the flaws”, “Work at a different speed” and “Listen to the quiet voice” can make intriguing starting points for any creative project.

Sometimes composers will discuss instrumentation with choreographers as a way of helping communicate a sound world. Sometimes they will provide sample tracks of their own work – current or previous – or sometimes reference tracks of others’ works, to start the conversation and help the vision of the piece develop. While both composers and choreographers will tend to reach at some point during the process for timelines and a sense of the overall structure, this can come at different times for each. And different making styles can throw up challenges. Often, for instance, a composer will try to get a sense of the length and shape of a piece, then go away and write something on their own.

For a choreographer, however, the creative crucible is often the dance studio itself, with the dancers. One comes earlier, the other later. One is solitary, the other collective. For a composer to consolidate their work, they need to pin down the timeline. It can be difficult even to make a start, beyond idea-sketches, unless you have a sense of the shape and structure you’re aiming for. For a choreographer, however, these specifics can remain open until quite late in the process.

Quinta devising work with dancer Hannah Rudd

A typical devising schedule will see a choreographer in the studio with the dancers doing the main bulk of their devising work, say, in the month leading up to the first performance. During this time it is useful – imperative really – for the music to be available, so everyone can explore and get used to it. Often then, musical material is to an extent completed first.

I’ve come across a number of situations where a composer and choreographer will agree on an approximate structure, then the composer will put together agreed-upon musical sketches or themes, forming a structure for the dance to grow over, like ivy up a wall.

In a sense, though, someone has to be the first to creatively commit, and doing this can be absolutely what it takes to build a piece, but it can come with challenges. It can be hard for a choreographer when there is no flexibility, when a composer has created a piece and will not alter it to fit more sympathetically with whatever is evolving in the studio.

But equally it can be hard for a composer if a choreographer asks for too many changes too late in the day. Dismantling the flow of a composition can really compromise it. And sometimes where there are others involved – arrangers, orchestrators, or live players – the challenges associated with differing timescales can cause knock-on logistical problems.

Strong unwritten conventions seem to underpin how the music and dance elements of a piece are created and performed, and these can sometimes accentuate an almost institutionalised separateness between them.

For instance, on account perhaps of the nature, histories, and notational traditions of the two disciplines, a composer will practically never have the same time in the studio with live players as a choreographer will have with dancers.

Likewise, while dancers expect that sometimes they will be asked to be more involved in the creative process, to have their improvisations used in the evolution of a piece, classical musicians will typically expect to play from a conventional score which closely defines their contribution and which has been created by somebody else. Musicians vary of course, but some can feel anxious about being expected to give of themselves in a more creative way. Some can feel it’s just not their job.

At Rambert, dancers are on the payroll; musicians and the sound engineer – though extremely well-loved, long-standing and loyal – are freelance. Dance pieces typically involve the musicians hidden off-stage in the pit, as they are in the vast majority of shows in traditional theatre. If musicians are on-stage, this will normally be a ‘feature’ moment, the exception rather than the rule. Though this may flow from a perfectly valid artistic position, and though of course you can always hear the music even if you can’t see the players, it seems like the very set-up of our theatres puts music out of sight; the servant to the main action.

One of the Rambert musicians once joked sadly with me that when friends come to shows, and rave afterwards about “the bit when…”, he has to tell them he has no idea what’s going on on-stage. In rehearsals, musical performers will have their stands arranged as per in an orchestral pit, with their backs to the ‘stage’ area where the dancers are moving. Where these performers are a classical orchestra, their eyes will tend to be fixed on their scores. There is obvious affection and respect across the divide, but musicians and dancers, seem, in those moments, to be quite different animals.

Rambert is lucky to have such a passionate advocate of live music in its Music Director, Paul Hoskins, and it’s wonderful to witness the realisation of a composition for all involved when the Rambert orchestra first arrive at the party. A great deal of work is put, too, into inspiring connections between music and dance within the company – the very existence of the Music Fellowship being one visionary example.

But what is this role that music seems to have in relation to other art forms: dance, theatre, TV, radio, film? In a way, it’s everyone’s friend, can be assumed to be part of other art forms but not necessarily be named or visible. It is a strange mixture of extremely powerful – in terms of mood generation and structuring, and a little bit pushed around – notoriously in film composing, but in other worlds too.

Perhaps it is okay and inevitable that music has this unique position. Perhaps it simply conveys how universal and unlike anything else it is. I’m conscious that I write this very much from the position of a musician and composer, but I can’t help thinking it might mean too, however, that opportunities for music and musicians are being missed.

Difference can of course also generate new angles on art-making. During my time as Fellow, dancer Hannah Rudd and I have been developing a collaborative relationship, and are currently working on a new piece for the Wilderness Festival this summer. Reaching for a meaningful vocabulary, finding a method that is right for us, has been part of an amazing process of imagining ourselves into the gaps. The things we don’t know about each other’s disciplines are, in part, what make the work interesting and worth doing. And if you’re anywhere near Cornbury Park on 6 August 2016, we’d love you to come and see the result!

More posts from Quinta’s fellowship:

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