ON COMPOSING FOR DANCE (PLUS THOUGHTS ON THE MUSIC FOR TIFFANY MILLS’ AFTER THE FEAST)

Dear ONION,

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.

So.

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AFTER THE FEAST

After the Feast is an evening-length project that fuses movement, music and visuals to imagine an urban dystopia caused by vanishing resources. Mills’ highly physical movement and daring partnering propel the performers further into this dire situation – the next phase of human existence. In the work collaborators ask: Can a community emerge from an urban wasteland? What will remain after the final feast?

– artist statement, from the program for After the Feast

Dear ONION,

I write today in appreciation of An Hour-Long Dance Performance Which We Saw Two Weeks Ago, aka, Tiffany Mills’ After the Feast.

And a great deal of the context for me writing this today comes from last December, when I saw Souleymane Badolo’s Yimbegre. I was fascinated and impressed, and I regret not seeing it twice – but even more so, I regret not writing about it at the time, when it was fresh in my memory. I regret not setting down a recorded observation of the complexities which I so loved and appreciated, and the ideas that spoke to me in a very personal way – especially since dance is such a fleeting art form, and so difficult to capture successfully via a recording. So writing down my thoughts at the time would have been, also, a way to remember it better.

This time around, with the lessons of Yimbegre in my head, I did see After the Feast twice, and I will be writing about it. And that is that.

The thing about most modern dance pieces I see is: they’re abstract. They have a satisfying logic – there is a progression and evolution of gestures and visual motifs; there may even be a noticeable theme, or set of ideas, behind the progressions – but rarely do they have an overt narrative of any sort, not even in the vaguest or most general sense.

I mean, rarely am I in the audience for a modern dance which is, like, “hey so this is Sleeping Beauty, and now she is leading her army in battle, and we’re gonna represent her battle with violent flailing gestures of the arms—”

After the Feast was unusual because there was an overt narrative (in the vaguest and most general sense, but still, it was there). The narrative was noticeably political; and it was relevant to a lot of things I’d been thinking about recently anyway (such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed); and I enjoyed and appreciated the narrative level for those reasons too.

But, it also meant that in addition to the usual (and highly rewarding) ways that I look at and understand dance, there was this extra layer that had to do with the “story”, and with the metaphorical ideas and themes – largely abstracted, yes, but present and worth tracking. And I want to discuss that a little bit, and make a record of my appreciation.

A quick run-down of what happened in the dance, before I nitpick over the details that fascinated me so:

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ROOTLESSNESS

Dear ONION,

Today, as I left work, I slipped half a dozen books into my bag.

And when I was waiting for the subway that would take me home, I realized that this was the first time, in over a year, that I was beginning to take books home from my cubicle again.

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LE GUIN THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST

While deconstructions often end up darker, edgier, sadder, and more cynical than the normal version, there is no reason they have to be.

-TVTropes article on Deconstruction

 

The difference between reconstruction and deconstruction depends largely by what the end goal becomes. A deconstruction is about demonstrating the flaws of a trope or genre, and leaving it at that. It is a situation that has no easy out. A reconstruction offers a solution on how to fix the situation… Some works, naturally, will try to do both at the same time…

-TVTropes article on Not A Deconstruction 

Dear ONION,

In 1974, Ursula Le Guin published her story The Author of the Acacia Seeds (which is available online here). It was nominated in 1975 for the Locus Award for Best Short Story – losing, ironically, to a different Le Guin story that had been published in the same year.

It is light-handed, humorous, and an incredibly charming piece of fiction. And (as Google revealed to me) I am not alone in liking it very much. There are many reasons for liking it – but, for whatever reason, I’ve been most intrigued by its charm. For a while, you see, I thought that there was something unusual in how the charm of this story operates. In following that thought, it made me realize some things I may not have otherwise.

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A WEREWOLF PROBLEM IN CENTRAL RUSSIA

Dear ONION,

I haven’t read too many werewolf stories… but, that being said, my favorite one definitely is (and has been for a while) A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia.

This is a thirty-five page short story, by a not-terribly-well-known-in-America author[1], Victor Pelevin. The story first appeared in an English translation in 1998, but was clearly written either shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, or immediately (as in, one to two years) after.

It might be a little tricky to find – so thank goodness for the internet, because the entire story is available online here.

(And, just a warning: the rest of this letter will be completely overridden with spoilers; so you can choose to proceed, or not, based on that knowledge…)

For it’s first ten pages, Werewolf Problem is a slow and meditative story. In fact, I think that the thing which keeps the reader going through its initial ten pages – which are mostly dirt-stained evocations of a failed attempt at hitchhiking through central Russia at night – is the strong contrast between such plot-less (though interesting) description, and the promise/menace of the story’s title. We read onward because we are waiting for that moment when, suddenly, the two elements will collide.

Once this moment comes, it is satisfying especially because for all intents and purposes we have, till then, been in an otherwise very different type of story. There is certainly nothing to prepare our protagonist, Sasha, for the events of his night. Twilight approaches, and Sasha, who hoped at first that he would be picked up by the sort of kind, reticent hitchhiker he has read about in books, instead resigns himself to such options as either spending the night in a dingy small town movie-theater – if he can manage to sneak in and avoid the workers’ attentions as they close up for the night – or just lying down outside, in front of an electric pylon near a tiny and deserted side road, hoping that no harm will come to him as he sleeps.

Yet, by the time he encounters the strange party in the wood, we readers have been primed for werewolfish expectation; not just by the title, but by little gestures – a mention of the full moon here, the use of the word “wolf” there – gestures which increase ten-fold the moment that Lena pulls Sasha into the little gang by the fireside.

Actually, there have been similar gestures to the fairy tales of Russia’s past. In that vein, the behavior of Lena, along with her instructions towards Sasha (on how to behave and what to say as he enters the strange gathering in the woods), are exact mirrors to this fairy tale structure as well: the sort of fairy tale where the young prince is infiltrating the gang of bandits, and rescuing the enchanted princess from under their noses.

Sasha may have hoped he was in one type of story at the beginning; the reader, for the first ten pages, may have thought they were in another. At this point, Victor Pelevin is certainly leading his readers to expect, instead, a third type of story that is just as distinct as the former two, and as different. (And this type of story – along with its common variations – would definitely be enough to make good on the promise of its ominous title.)

And, of course, the moment Sasha turns into a wolf, this narrative expectation is thrown out the window along with the former two. It’s trampled to death by the sheer joy and amusement of description, of the world seen suddenly through wolfish eyes – were-owls flitting overheard, hares sweeping by like jet planes, and secret little pacts and devices left in place by the were-humans preparing for this mesonoxian romp. Even the gloomy satirical presence of the shoddy, sour “Michurin Collective Farm”, from the first ten pages of the narrative, suddenly blooms into unexpected life as the setting for an enchanted battle by moonlight – where a werewolf’s bite will not turn a human into a werewolf but, far more poetically, reduce a werewolf back to a mere, unenlightened “human” state.

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BRIEF THOUGHTS ON GRACE PALEY, AMBIGUITY, AND OTHER THINGS

Dear ONION,

Systems are still down at the office, so I’m going to use this time to write you a brief letter that I meant to write maybe two weeks ago  – remember that Grace Paley story I asked you to read and which you didn’t like?

PaleyScreencap2

Well, it triggered some thoughts… My apologies for this resulting letter.

So, asides from A Conversation With My Father being an interesting and slightly defensive perspective on Paley’s fiction (like, her father literally references a couple of her other stories throughout the piece, out of his exasperation with them), a big reason that I stuck on this story so much was that I could relate to it perhaps more than is comfortable.

As you very well know, I also make things sometimes – writing, music, occasional recipes – and whatever your generous opinions on those things might be, 90% of my relatives and their family friends are very Old European. Their attitudes to art (and dinner options) remain largely identical to the father’s attitude in this story by Paley. (I’m not kidding about the dinner options by the way. Any time that I try to cook dinner for them, I have to throw the spice rack out the window, or half of them won’t touch the result. “What’s this? Rosemary? In my rice? I’m telling mom!!“)

My relatives and their family  friends love classical music, for example (just like me), but their tastes are firmly nineteenth century (unlike me). One of them recently forbid me from playing piano any later than 7pm because my playing caused heart palpitations, insomnia, and anxiety. She would be unable to sleep all night if I kept it up. Couldn’t I play something that was a little more, well, musical? (I obliged with some Glinka, but it was really just to save face.)

There is a similar attitude to fiction as well. It was my father who gave me Hemingway and Jack London when I was young and told me I would have nothing good to write if I didn’t get out into the world and earn myself some authentic well-traveled life experience (by which he meant: join a safari). It was Jack London’s Martin Eden that was his particular favorite – that interminably frustrating Martin Eden, whose story’s conclusion could come straight from the mouth of Paley’s father: “Yes, what a tragedy, the end of a person. Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end. What a tragedy.”

Both my sister and I rebelled with frustration at this particular The End. We were teenagers, and we did not have so much swashbuckling world experience – but, we had just enough to sniff out the shmaltz disguised as world-weary authenticity in Martin Eden, and deride it.

So Paley’s story was valuable to me, coming from that background. A mutual affirmation, of sorts.

That being said:

You and I had a brief conversation about this story, which led to another brief conversation that got me thinking about ambiguity.

I remember my own youthful thoughts about stories, and I guess it can be easy, when we are young, to think of ambiguity as a respectable sign of intelligent fiction. Because ambiguity makes the reader think, right? But actually (as we all discover eventually) it turns out that half the time it’s a cheap cop-out.

It’s too frequently used to excuse laziness on the writer’s part, while attempting to give their stuff a pretend-sheen of respectability and Thought-Provokingness. After the millionth groan-inducing example, it’s enough to make anyone shout, Give me an author who has the courage of their convictions! Give me a story where, sure, we can hate the ending, but goddamnit if the author didn’t seize it with both hands and just go for it.

It’s this sort of attitude that can give us all a newfound appreciation for authors who eschew ambiguity. Authors who do not hide behind vagueness. Who mean precisely what they say.

Though I am not sure that I come down on ambiguity quite so hard in the long run. Certainly I’m not in favor of the “what actually happpened????” ambiguity because that sort of ambiguity frequently gives me the hives, it is almost always like “Was it a drug trip all along? WERE THEY DEAD ALL ALONG?? Is it ALL IN THEIR HEAD” ugh just shut up already. Yes, it can be done phenomenally well in the right hands, but so often it is exactly a cheap cop-out used to excuse both laziness and a lack of conviction, hiding behind a smoke screen of pretend Thought-Provokingness.

No, I’m thinking more about an ambiguity in how we, the reader, are expected to feel about (and make moral judgments about) characters and events within the story.

Some authors make it very clear which characters are Awful and which characters are Morally Gray and which characters are Fucken Awesome. Even when our perspective is supposed to be shifting on those characters throughout the story, the author is still making it clear exactly at which point in the narrative we’re supposed to be feeling what about that character’s place in it.

Draco1Draco2

This, of course, can cause some disconnect if the author’s idea of acceptable behavior don’t jive so well with our own (possibly more stringent) moral values.

AynRandBust

And I would say that this type of anti-ambiguity, taken to its most extreme form, is what devolves into that bane of many sanities: protagonist-centered morality. (But you may want to fight me on this connection that I am making here, maybe.)

Conversely: ambiguous moral intent regarding an author’s characters can lead to an inherent invitation towards empathy.

Yes, this can be done very stupidly as well. But it is not always quite so easy to use this as the same sort of cop-out smokescreen because, unlike that other form of ambiguity which requires less work on the author’s part, this type of ambiguity does, I think, require more to carry it off. To make an intriguing, complex, and nuanced character while deliberately obscuring moral judgments you may have about them, preventing those judgments from affecting the text – it’s not always so easy, no? It’s also easy to fuck it up. First off you have to do the hard work of making that intriguing, complex, and nuanced character – no cardboard cut-out villains here, alas. And then you could, I suppose, do things like have some of their decisions be Good (she saved a puppy!) and some of their decisions be Bad (she’s drinking and driving!) and oooooh ambiguity, are they Good or are they Baaaad but that in itself can be kind of a cop-out and actually the sort of thing that leads to a perspective like Paley’s father (oooh tragic flaw, she brought it on herself, drinking and driving, she herself was her own downfall, Tragedy, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, such hubris, oh such a flawed character, The End!), and it’s a much more delicate balance to simply withhold the Good and Bad entirely – if you can manage it.

One of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks is to give his various characters an occasional illuminating monologue – whether or not he agrees with it, we never find out, but he’ll just have them argue intelligently and passionately for this one perspective, usually at odds with the popular convention of his time, with no authorial puncture in that moment to what the character says. Does Shakespeare actually agree with Emilia’s perspective on marriage? Does Edmund’s initial speech about bastards reflect on Shakespeare’s ideas about “legitimate” birth in any shape and form?

Who the fuck knows, but it certainly makes for a richer and more nuanced narrative experience. And it is an inherent invitation towards empathy.

So there is that element, in many Paley stories which I appreciate (she has a later story, for example, where the same narrator from Conversation reappears as a sort of side character – older and wizened-er – and essentially argues her father’s perspective at the protagonist, who is the one claiming the possibility of change for his own life). A withholding of Good and Bad, as much as Paley can manage it. Let the reader introduce it into the story themselves. It is, with her, maybe a running obsession.

I suppose a main problem with this type of thing, though, is that while someone like Shakespeare uses it more as a spice to his main dish, choosing to use it entirely as your main dish does rely so very much on the context that the reader brings to it. And it is difficult, maybe impossible, to design something that exists successfully whole while also shifting shape convincingly depending on its readers’ varied eyes – without frustrating or boring any of them.

So, all while inviting the esteemed demons of ambiguity, you could maybe pretend that you’re widening the audience of potential readers, but really I think you shrink it.

I mean that’s just what happens when you rely on a fair amount of outside readerly context for the full story “effect” to complete its circuit and light a spark.

All stories succeed most with their ideal readers, yes, but I think few types of stories can fizzle as badly with their non-ideal readers as these might. I liked this story, sure. (And most of her last stories blew my mind, one by one.) But, just as often, Paley’s fictions had me scribbling an annoyed question mark on my short-story-tracker-spreadsheet-thingamajig. Comments like “maybe come back to this later in five years and see if I like it any more then??” or “well that was grim” or just “missing context, if I’m being generous – and I’m not too interested in pursuing any further”.

I think Paley is maybe the most devoted practitioner of this form that I’ve ever read. And, based on the stories I’ve read, I would also say it was very important to her, for a slew of reasons, to write her stories the way that she did.

This is not intended as a categorical criticism nor praise of Paley’s fictions, or of this style of writing, because it certainly is not. More like, a respectful and quizzical consideration.

This whole subject is something that I want to think about a lot more – especially before I can feel like I’ve come to any real conclusions.

Anyway. Here’s hoping that systems at work will be back online soon!

.

Twiddling my thumbs here,

ARTICHOKE

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POLITICALLY NEUTRAL

Dear ONION,

It all started with what should have been an easy question to answer: why do so many people come nearly to blows over opinions about music, about art; about specific and individual performances?

Or even better: why do so many people who are neither authors nor reviewers treat book reviews like battleground conflicts that affect their direct livelihoods?

There are easy answers to these questions – dismissive types of answers, all to do with escalation complexes and human biases and logical fallacies and all that knee-jerk response type of stuff – and they’re not real answers. What I mean is, they sound learned and correct because at this point in time there’s a lot of prepackaged thought behind them, but if you think for a moment, it’s obvious that, at least in this case, those answers are not really, satisfyingly true.

So, what should have been a straightforward question turned out to be the tip of a sea monster that took quite a bit of dredging to deal with. And in the process I wrote this massively dense letter, a letter that turned out to be about the spinal cord of human behavior, in the name of answering an almost comically trivial question.

Here it is, at long last, the master letter I’ve been promising you for several months.

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