the collaborative spiral

This article was published in 2007 by Francis Mason in Ballet Review Magazine.

The Collaborative Spiral

I have been composing music for dance since 1996. I started on this path while working towards my Master’s degree in England. I had been composing steadily for 5 or 6 years at that point and found that it often became a very lonely, solitary discipline. I decided that when I returned to the States I would move to NYC and begin composing for dance, theater and film. As fulfillment of that resolution made on the south coast of England 12 years ago, I have composed 24 pieces for 8 choreographers. Although I still create music by myself, my inspiration now comes from the energy and creativity of the dancers and choreographers during rehearsals.

The process of composing a piece of music for dance usually begins by sitting down to a meal or coffee with the choreographer. I find it useful to get to know my collaborator. I want to learn about their background, their training, what inspires them, what music do they like, do they prefer the hustle and bustle of the city or do they like the quiet of the country. After getting to know them a little I am ready to focus on our work. We talk about their vision for the piece. Do they want to make a comment on society, make a political statement, express their love for thunderstorms or do they just want to make a dance?

Often I begin composing with only abstract descriptive words, emotions and a time frame to work with. But even this is invaluable to me. As Stravinsky wrote in Poetics of Music, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” This is part of the beauty of collaborating for me: my collaborator helps to set the stage for the creation of each work. It is much easier to start creating when I am given guidelines such as; I’d like something 15 minutes long in 2 sections, one fast, one slow, one in an odd meter. Or: this dance takes place underwater and has a lot of swirling movement in it. Both descriptions, although quite different in character from each other, are equally exciting to me and push my creative process in new directions.

There are two places where I work in my home. One is at a baby grand piano, the other is a computer based production studio. I usually begin working at the piano coming up with short motivic ideas for a few days. I live with them for a few more days. Then I throw away the ideas that do not support the vision for the piece . Combining and developing the ideas is the last stage before I head into the studio.

In the studio I turn my ideas into the finished product on CD. I perform and record the various parts myself using the instruments that I am able to play; piano, recorder, violin and small percussion. I’ll also use virtual instruments, software in my computer that mimics drums, keyboards, synthesizers and almost any instrument I could want. Sometimes if the budget allows, I’ll bring other musicians in to play certain instruments live. Recording live instruments is much more expensive but the final product always sounds richer, fuller, and more alive than when I use mostly virtual instruments. The recording process can take anywhere from 1 day to 1 week depending on the complexity of the piece. After the recording is done I then mix the material making it sound as good as I can. The final stage, called mastering, is completed at another studio before I hand over the final product to my collaborator.

I always deliver my music to the choreographer on a CD. Only twice in the past 12 years has my music been performed live to a dance. The first was a string quartet I composed for Leigh Witchel and Dance as Ever in 2003 called The New Rome. The second is Thunderblood, which was created with Ben Munisteri in 2005. Too often budgets can barely pay for original music, so live performances of the music are out of the question.

I have worked with Ben Munisteri on 3 pieces. One of the reasons I enjoy working with Ben is that he has studied music and this allows the flow of ideas to be more concrete. Most choreographers have had very little (if any) musical education. I, in turn, do not have much technical dance knowledge. (Although I did have ballet lessons when I was 7 or 8 years old.) This is not necessarily a bad thing. Communicating effectively is part of the challenge of collaboration. The process of fumbling around for the right words to get your point across usually leads to wonderful discoveries. The lack of technical vocabulary limits our discussions to the use of abstract words to discuss the particulars of the piece. With Ben I am able to have conversations about instrumentation, melodic shapes and rhythmic issues. His skill with music makes our collaborative process a bit different. Ben often works very closely with music himself juxtaposing very different sonic elements to create something new and interesting.

I did some juxtaposing too, in our new piece Thunderblood, which premiered at Jacob’s Pillow during the summer or 2005. Thunderblood was composed for violin, double bass and electronics. The violin part is influenced by the Ottoman Turkish court music from the end of the 19th century. And this was laid on top of a music bed of a very different character. The electronics and double bass parts of Thunderblood are stylistically influenced by contemporary jazz, funk and electronica music. I composed the electronic and bass elements first and sent those to Ben without the melody. Because I had worked with Ben so many times before, I decided it would be okay to withhold the melody. I was having trouble deciding how to proceed with the melody but decided to go with Ottoman court music after a conversation with the director of Jacob’s Pillow, Ella Baff. She had asked me about my name and heritage, ( I am 1/2 Turkish and 1/2 Russian Jew) and that conversation got me thinking about the Ottoman court musician named Cemil Bey whose music I love . So I dug out his music and listened to it for a few days and let it inspire my melody. It was not until Ben had just about finished the choreography listening to the score without a melody that I sent him the Ottoman flavored melody line. We are still friends, so I don’t think it bothered him too much.

I have also worked with Doug Elkins on numerous pieces. The first piece I made with Doug, Bipolarbear NOS, was special. That was back in 1998. It was the first time that a choreographer actually showed me some movement ideas that he was going to build the choreography with. This was very exciting because it gave me the chance to develop themes for each movement and then build the score using all those motivic ideas. The result was very satisfying. It felt deeply integrated and organic. During the creation of Bipolarbear NOS I first realized the processes of choreographing and composing are very similar. I manipulate time and space with sound, and a choreographer manipulates time and space with bodies. Ultimately, the creation of both dance and music is a two step process. First coming up with little ideas and then crafting them, sewing them together, making an integrated whole.

My most consistent working relationship is with the choreographer Murray Spalding. I am her composer-in-residence. We have completed 10 Movement Mandalas over the years. Murray creates her choreography to the ticking of a metronome, which makes her dancers quite crazy after a few weeks of rehearsal. The first thing I do for her (and for her dancers!) is to create a repeating pattern anywhere from 10 seconds to 3 minutes in duration, consisting of layered percussion loops, a drone and a simple harmonic element. I try to finish and deliver this while Murray has just begun to string together her phrases. My music’s presence in the rehearsals while the piece is being constructed helps direct the nuance and flow of the movement. It is also extremely helpful for the dancers to have music present early on in the process. The longer the dancers can rehearse with it the more connected to it they become. Once the choreography has been set to my scratch track I then capture the dance to video and take it into my studio and can score to it very precisely by hitting marks, accenting spins and arm movements or whatever seems right. In this way the creation of the piece is very much a dialogue between the choreographer, the dancers and myself.

I believe that original music for dance contributes on many levels to the final product. I believe the key is to help create the environment in which the dance takes place and not create something too overwhelming or too intricate. Sometimes it can be very easy to get in the way of the dance. The music should generally play a supportive role. I find that the music I compose for dance often does not stand on its own to my ears. Without the dance it does not feel complete to me. In this way my job is very much like the lighting designer’s. And yet, on another level, it is the music that is propelling the dancers around the stage. And yet another where the movement is propelling the music. This is how it should be under perfect circumstances: the collaboration should be like a spiral.