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.