There must be a competent theory (or school of thought), somewhere out there, on the subject of composing music for dance – some sort of highly practical manifesto which is coherent, and thoughtful, and raises many good points, and works as an excellent guide to both choreographers and composers in terms of what they should expect from the collaboration, and what it is their right to demand – and the range of possibilities in that type of work.
(And if anyone reading this knows about such a thing and can point me towards, please do! Would like to read other people’s thoughts on the subject.)
In the meantime, I’ll say this: based on the dances that I’ve seen (and conversations with dancers and composers that I’ve had), it looks like a lot of composers go suddenly tone-deaf when it comes to writing music for dance.
And since the connection between music and dance is something I find so interesting, it disappoints me that I can count on one hand the number of dances where the music was perfect – not because it was catchy or fun music, I mean, but because it worked with the dance like a tailored dress will work with the body it’s designed for.
It is my belief, based on seeing the dance that I’ve seen, that most contemporary modern dance doesn’t really need music – not in the way that ballet needs music, at least.
The best of the dance that I’ve seen justifies its own existence as movement with its own purpose. It creates its own difficult and complex rhythms – breathing, quickening, slowing to a glacial evolution – and the challenge for me as a dance composer, with the best dances, was always finding a way to create a sound which in no way interfered with or erased the subtle and delicious rhythms, and the… the sense of space carved out from time, I guess. As done, at least, by the best of the dances that I’ve seen.
So, regardless of intentions on anyone’s part, a truly good sound score must first [a] justify its existence. Meaning, a ballet may need the music, any music – but if the best of modern dance does not need the music, then why is the music there? What is it providing that the dance doesn’t provide by itself? (And the better and more spine-tingling the dance, in my mind, then the harder it becomes to answer that question. Harder, but also more rewarding to the composer when you can find an answer.)
And second, a truly good sound score must [b] be aware of its real effects, and its potential to damage the final result.
A wall-to-wall sound score in modern dance can never function like some sort of aural set piece, to be moved around interchangeably and displayed as a background. You can try to do this, but it won’t work. Music is not the color of the background wall. We respond too strongly to sound. It ends up shaping our moods, and tensions, and state of mind, far too much to be treated like a background color.
If anything, a better comparison would be the lighting – in the sense that, it’s not that good lighting will create a good dance, but that bad lighting will destroy the effect, no matter what you do. And, more to the point, lighting changes how we feel about a moment happening on the stage before us.
A person sinking slowly into a split on a cheerfully-lit gymnasium stage: one impression.
That same person sinking slowly into a split on a shadowy, ominously-lit platform, with their face in high relief: a very different impression.
One way to think of the music is as the shadow-self to the dance, in aural form – but another way to think of the music is: it is the emotional lighting of the dance. With music (as with lighting), you can drown out of the dance and make it feel arbitrary, or pointless, or simply boring – or you can bring out subtle features, emphasize the strengths, allow the truth of the dance to move forward with its best side on display.
(With music, you can even patch over any weaknesses that might exist in the dance itself – give support where it’s needed – because if the music is the shadow-self of the dance in aural form, then the dance is the music’s reality, and when they work together and truly play off each other’s strengths, they form a more complete picture of what is being said on the stage.)
A good sound score is like that tailored dress. It is working with the body that it’s designed for; playing a careful game of emphasis here, concealment there, creating an optimum impression.
That bring up the third thing that is most important to this sort of collaboration. A truly good sound score must [c] be at the expense of the composer’s ego, in favor of the dance.
The composer has to know where to be minimally spare – and even, at times, where to be absent entirely. The composer has to be aware when their own personal abilities and contributions would only minimize something, not improve it – and, in that case, they must abstain, and let their collaborator know why. The composer has to suffocate their ego and be comfortable, for example, with creating the most minimal of sound accompaniments, if that is what the dance calls for – something that can only exist at full effect when worn by the dance it was tailored for. (They must even permit the dance to exist in silence, if that is what serves it best.)
“But then I can’t show off the music to anyone else afterwards! It doesn’t stand up on its own as music!”
That is your own problem, to be dealt with after the dance is over.
If you cannot suffocate your ego in service to the dance, you should not be composing for dance. The End.
Music becomes part of the communication happening on stage, whether it means to or not. It sets the emotional register. It sometimes inadvertently wipes it clean. It emphasizes the logic in certain choreographic choices – or accidentally obscures it. It underlines the structure and order to the dance – and, in the best sound scores, it even adds an additional depth to what we see and notice, like a fifth voice slotting in perfectly into the barbershop quartet and enriching their harmony – and, in the worst cases, it muddles it completely and contradicts the intent of the choreographer, so that someone in the audience – someone like me, for example – has to forcibly ignore what they are hearing in order to “hear” the real logic of the dance.
So, with that out of the way… I can now discuss the music for the evening-length dance we saw last month, Tiffany Mills’ After the Feast.
On one hand, I really enjoyed the music for After the Feast! It was a polished and genuinely fun score to listen to the first time around. I looked forward to that aspect of the dance when I saw it a second time, two days later. I knew that the music would be fun and enjoyable as music. (And I can still remember most of the music too, and I can remember what went where, and what harmonies and melodies and rhythms were happening at which moment…)
At the same time: a lot of what I understood about the dance’s finer points and logic happened in the second night that I saw it – when I was deliberately ignoring the music.
That… that’s not good.
The musical spotlight was not always focusing on the right things. Sometimes it was doing the lighting equivalent of shining right into my face, so that I really had to squint through it to see what was intended to be happening on-stage.
Yes, there were moments where the music and the dance lined up as beautifully as you could ever want. The gag-waltz near the end – the penultimate section, I think? – had a beautiful score that also clicked so well with the moment being built before us. (Technically the music was not a waltz, being in a 12/8 rhythm if I remember right, but it fit the gag-waltz in mood and element and rhythm. Like a tailored dress, I guess.)
And there was that fantastic moment, in the first half of the evening, where (unlike nearly every other moment that happened on stage) I simply cannot remember what the music was – and either that means that the music did its job so well that it became invisible (and this is a good thing, if it happens – suffocate the ego, damn it!), or it means that the dance was so strong and direct in its communication at that moment that no amount of misjudged sound could destabilize it.
I’ll be direct. Here are examples of some moments in the dance when the music tried for something, and ended up shining the spotlight on the wrong thing:
The damn bell in the sound score, in the second part of the dance, near the beginning. It accompanied that moment when Tiffany coils around Jordan’s ankles, clutching at his legs like a monkey to a branch, but moving slowly, as if underwater – moving, in fact, like the clapper of a bell, or a gently rocked buoy. The music responds accordingly with bells, which continue to tinkle throughout that entire section before morphing into a rhythmic (and somewhat melodramatic, I thought) soundscape… except, that bell moment in the choreography is tertiary to the other choreography that happens in the rest of the section, and that other stuff is really important since it is busy establishing the core rules and logic of the entire dance – ideas of pairing up, equilibrium, balance, duality.
The music brings a lot of focus on the bell, a lovely detail – and ends up treating the bulk of the important stuff with melodramatic sonic murk.
And then, shortly after the bell-moment in the sound score, when the three balanced duets move forward and turn into an attempt at dancerly/tyrannical unison, which ends with the hibernation/death of nearly everyone on the stage – that is not a separate moment. It is a continuation of the same moment; a sentence that was started with three duets of balance, and then is completed with a disaster of imbalance and its consequences.
Yet the music treats it as if it is an entirely different image, unconnected to what came before. The musical “track” ends on the dancers in unison, gives us a silence, and then a completely different music “track”, with a completely different (and jarring) mood, starts up as a new accompaniment – and it flies in the face of what the dance is trying to do here.
The spotlight is shining in all the wrong places.
The composer had a tendency, in fact, to pick a single choreographic gesture out of an entire section of the dance – construct all of his music for that section based on that one gesture – and then sort of assume that this would, somehow, be enough. He did it too in the moment that the persona of “the General” struggles to make a fist and ends up with a mutating claw instead – in that two-second moment, the music and the dance line up perfectly – except the music is awfully off-key for everything else that happens there. (Why, in that section, did the composer choose a loud and cheerfully plucked harp, set to pumping rhythms, for the introduction to a grieving/self-flagellating solo? Did the composer not realize what was going on in that solo?)
But okay, those were just the worst offenders. There were, after all, moments when the music simply misfired – odd choices, strange beginning, silences that sometimes fit but sometimes didn’t…
Also, there were moments when the music was assured and confident and did excellent work for the dance.
As mentioned before, there was the waltz music. That was really perfectly on-the-nose. Strong kudos there.
And, after the waltz, the music that signed off the piece was absolutely in the right register, and made sense to what was happening on-stage. (And, funnily enough, here was another moment when the composer picked a single tiny gesture, buried in the middle of that section’s choreography, and used it to set the tone for the entire section’s music – but, here I think he inadvertently picked well. He scored this section partly with vibrating plucked guitar strings, and they line up beautifully for several seconds with Tiffany’s shivering hands, like throwing water off her fingertips, and this acts as a very strong spotlight on that tiny gesture – but it ended up making sense to me for the music to emphasize that gesture in the much larger structure of what the dance was trying to do. (And since I wrote about that moment very specifically in my previous letter, I’ll move on.)
There was that moment, immediately before the petal-like collapse of hibernation/death, where the music was exactly perfect, thrillingly so. It wasn’t perfect for most of that section – but then, for the end, it triumphed and suddenly was, and did real strong work for the dance, in the name of the larger project.
The problem I had with the music for After the Feast was that it was an inconsistent dance score, sometimes excellent and sometimes tone-deaf, created by someone who possibly had it in him to compose a dance score that consistently excellent.
It’s the potential of what-could-have-been that leaves me with my sharpest criticisms for the composer.
And, it leads me to wonder if I should thus conclude that a truly good sound score must [d] hold an understanding of the dance that is as subtle and nuanced as the choreographer’s – maybe overlapping sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be, not in every regard. Most importantly, it must not be tone-deaf to the nuances of the dance, and dance in general – there must be respect for what the choreographers and dancers are doing, I think.
I’ve known musicians and composers who have complained about working with tone-deaf choreographers. They’ve complained about music-illiterate dancers who can’t tell a major chord from a minor chord (and end up missing their cues because of it) – and I sympathize, I really do.
But it is important to understand that, for a dancer, working with a movement-deaf composer is just as bad, if not worse.
Because then the problem of [d] comes into play. And, as it turns out, [d] is crucially connected to the problems of [c], and [b] and [a]. And so the entire thing unravels, and you find yourself tied to a collaborator who ends up doing real damage to the final result – with no self-awareness of what they’ve done.
That being said: overall, After the Feast had good music. For the most part I was pleased. Yes, it stumbled at several important times, but I know that there will be many people who will not have really noticed or been affected by it. I am more sensitive to it than most, I think. And like I said, there were times when the music was as good as it gets. I mean, if there was even a question of “keep or toss” I would definitely, definitely say “keep” – but, maybe, for future collaborations, I would hope that the composer is more nuanced and attentive in how he does service to dance.
And I hope that the choreographer and dancers benefit, in their next collaborations, from music that does full, generous work as the aural spotlight/darkness, and as the shadow-self to the thing they are creating on stage.
All the best,
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 I’m thinking of that moment – the first “societal rebuild” of the piece – where three of the dancers split off into elegant perfect unison, dancing their way nimbly across the stage and presenting one idea of equality and cooperation; while the remaining three dancers quietly built a sort of human sculpture behind the nimble trio, balancing their bodies on each other, presenting a very different idea of equality and cooperation – something slow, and difficult, and far less airy. The idea here being that the former’s idea of equality is “every individual is equal!” though it translates, practically speaking, into “every individual has to do the same thing, and has to be able to do the same thing, in order to participate in our equality”. We see, in many moments of the dance, how that breaks down disastrously in practice. Whereas the latter’s idea of equality was more “every individual has their own place in creating the larger whole – some forming the base, some balancing the support of others – and there is room for people of every shape and ability in creating this larger structure”. Of course, the dance emphatically sides on the latter. The piece’s triumphant conclusion is a fuller restatement of that initial idea/theme of combining many disparate bodies to form a larger-than-us creation… a unified, strong, and bittersweet whole that allows the entirety of us to move forward.
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I realized it might be handy to have all four points on composing for dance collected into a neat little list. A miniature manifesto! Well, more like a cheat-sheet. Anyway it’s a start. Here we go.
A truly good sound score should:
[a] Justify its existence
[b] Be aware of its real effects, and its potential to damage the final result
[c] Be at the expense of the composer’s ego, in favor of the dance
[d] Hold an understanding of the dance that is as subtle and nuanced as the choreographer’s – maybe overlapping sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be, not in every regard. Most importantly, it must not be tone-deaf to the nuances of the dance, and dance in general – there must be respect for what the choreographers and dancers are doing