> Michael Kiley
Michael Kiley is a sound designer, composer, performer and voice teacher living and working in the Philadelphia area. As a designer and composer he has collaborated with Nichole Canuso Dance Company, SubCircle, Theatre Exile, 1812 Productions, David Brick of Headlong Dance Company, Luna Theater, Flashpoint Theater, Brat Productions, Eun Jung Choy, Makoto Hirano, Jody Obeid, Rowan University and Temple University, among others. This Autumn, he is composing original music for Fighting For Democracy at The National Constitution Center, The Aliens at Theatre Exile, as well as All My Sons at Delaware Theater Company. His designs have been produced by the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater (Pittsburgh) and will soon be produced by Three Legged Dog (NYC). He is also the founder of The Mural and The Mint, a free music project working in hybrid, interdisciplinary performances that defy expectations of what a music performance can be. In December 2009, The Mural and The Mint premiered their first evening length work, As the Eyes of the Seahorse at HERE Arts Center in New York City. He graduated in 1999 with honors from New Mexico State University with a BA in Theatre and Music. He is also a graduate of Artists U (class of 2010), a program focusing on the sustainability of artist's careers.
He says this about his work:
"All of the titles that I give myself — sound designer, composer, performer, voice teacher — exist to give a label to my obsession with listening. All of the facets of my artistry deal with creating, harnessing, projecting and shaping sound. The goal of all of them is the same: to elicit a positive emotional reaction to an aural experience.
As a sound designer, no matter what the project, be it abstract dance or theatrical realism, I attempt to tease out the deeper meaning of the work, and represent it sonically. Something I always find myself going back to is the overtone series: When a pitch is sounded, it is made up of a series of overtones, first the octave, then the fifth, the third, until each scale degree is represented. This parallels the evolution of western music. First it was chant in unison, then octaves, then polyphony adding in fifths and thirds, all the way through to the 20th century when tonality was broken apart. All this is to say, everything exists inside itself. When I approach a new piece to design, I try and find the aural elements and themes that exist inside of it, and represent them sonically.
As a composer my role is similar, yet I get to pluck things out of the air. When I am composing, the possibilities are endless. No one has ever heard the music that I will create, so everyone's relationship to it is the same. This is different then design, when you might hear a particular song that has cultural impact, or even the sound of crickets…everyone has a pre-existing relationship to those sounds. But composition eliminates that relationship, and can do absolutely anything.
As a voice teacher, I work primarily in how it feels to sing, rather than how the voice sounds. It is my belief that how a voice sounds is shaped by how it is produced, and how it is produced is through a coordination of feeling and moving your body. When we sing, we turn breath into sonic vibrations. It is an emotional impulse that produces a physical response, which in turn affects the emotion that began it. This is the same as design. It is the same as composition. All of what I do is to physically harness the emotional, either through an instrument, a speaker, a room or a voice, and translate it into an experience."
March 2, 2012 Research with Ballet X (click to read)
In January, I worked with choreographer Matthew Neenan, of Ballet X. I was interested in getting Matthew's point of view on the relationship between choreography and music for several reasons: First of all, he comes from a very different area of the dance world than the one I usually work in. I have never been exposed to the creation of ballet-based movement, and was curious to see it up close. Matthew also uses music in interesting ways, sometimes working with classical pieces, sometimes pop, and sometimes collaborating with composers on original scores.
We began in similar fashion to my past intensives, with a discussion on music in our work, some listening exercises, and some vocal work. We explored creating movement coming from a vocal impulse, and again noted how it changed our awareness to each other, and to the space.
I then played an instrumental piece that I had been working on to see if Matthew had an impulse towards working with it. The piece is for guitar, synthesizer and strings, and at the moment is pretty finished in terms of structure, but doesn't know what it really wants to be yet. I had vocals in mind when I was writing it , but haven't developed that aspect of it yet. I thought this unfinished state might be a good place to start. What resulted was that, because the structure of the piece was set up, Matthew had all he needed to start making work. He decided quickly that it was "about a relationship," and started to set movement on a pair of dancers, Jesse Sani and Jaime Lennon. In no longer than an hour, we had an almost finished piece of choreography on our hands.
Matthew works insanely fast. He moves with a confidence that I have rarely seen in making work. And his dancers respond in kind, with no doubt, and perform what he sets with exacting fortitude. Matthew uses ballet as a foundation; often using it's terms, positions, and choreographies. But he also talks in terms of movement quality, directing the dancers in deeper ways than I imagine exists in pure ballet performance. The result of working this way, however, was that I felt very left out of the process. I became more of an observer, and less of a collaborator.
Between then and the next time we worked, I spoke to Matthew about this, and we discussed ways that I might be more involved the process. My goal is to find ways of attaching music to movement more deeply, and investigating the ways that they can inform each other. How could we take his method of creating dance, and make room for me to get inside of it?
We attacked this first by reinvesting in the vocal work. By having the dancers resonate their voices on certain melodies, we saw how this could inform the movement. I then took two short vocal ideas that I had recorded, and played them for Matthew. I pointed out that they were different lengths, and had different pulses, so that when played together, they would sometimes "line up" and sometimes contrast each other.
Matthew, again, started to create movement spontaneously. He assigned one melody to Jesse, and the other to Jaime. Because of the math involved with one melody being in 7, the other in 5, the two dancers had to almost ignore the other's phrase. This difference in lengths made for some interesting movement options, and Matthew and I began to collaborate on the structure of the dance and the score. In short, we found a way into each other's creative process.
We then had over a week between when we would meet again, and I was left to work on this beginning of a piece. I felt the desire to break this exact relationship of each dancer relating directly to a melody line The work so far was that one dancer would start their phrase when the melody started, and ended when it ended. The other dancer would do the same. So, how could I break this rhythm? My solution was to add more voices. I began to harmonize, and layer them quite heavily, and then pull them out, creating sparser moments. I also created a series of long tone clusters to break up the established rhythms of the previous two melodies. Yet, how they would fit into the piece was unclear.
I presented this more developed version of the piece to Matthew, and we continued to work. As I had hoped, when the voices became denser, Matthew felt the need to break the previous relationship to the music, and began a partnering phrase. The piece started to take on a really mysterious quality, and spin off in new directions. We then tackled how the tone clusters could fit in, and lengthened them, changed their order, and came up with something we were both happy with. The piece then ends on a solo voice singing a third of one of the original melodies all alone.
What we found was a method of moving back and forth. I saw things that I wanted to change, and Matthew heard things that he would like to change. I can honestly say that we collaborated deeply with each other, and created something that we were both proud of. I think that this was possible because of the confidence that Matthew brings to the table. I felt strongly about my musical choices, and he was strong about his movement. We were also really able to hear what the other would like to change, and adapted to those impulses. Having the music in an unfinished state at the beginning of the process, and starting with just a shell of an idea was extremely important to this process. Both of us had to almost hold ourselves back from finishing something, to allow for proper back and forth. It was a very interesting relationship to feel, and I look forward to continuing to work in this way.
Yes, our first day all together definitely was the simplicity of Mike observing while I choreographed a duet to his music. The piece of music was beautiful and had a very clear melody, and was delightfully easy to choreograph to on the spot. Mike wanted to witness how my typical process worked but I don't think he knew how quickly it would all happen. Being from the ballet world I've had to learn to choreograph at a rapid pace, mercurial as possible, and let it all register with the dancers ASAP. I'm not saying I love to work this way all the time but when a ballet company only allows you two to three weeks to choreograph a 20-25 minute work, I've found that's it's best to spit out as much material as possible then go back and clean, edit, etc. Also, Jaime and Jesse had not been rehearsing in this fashion for awhile so they were jazzed up and ready to tackle anything. They're both very young, talented and LOVE to dance.
The next session started with vocal warm-ups and some improv with Mike. This I was grateful for because I've had some inner inspiration to do a piece with dancers combining vocal activity but I'm not exactly confidant to explore that just yet. I need some training myself and someone to help aid in the process , who can offer the appropriate tools. In an e-mail to Mike after our first session, I expressed that I desired to learn something from him. I also knew that Jesse had a congruous voice and I was intrigued to discover what his vocal possibilities may be. Jaime assured us that she had no voice whatsoever but some interesting stuff was coming out of her, I thought. We all became more comfortable with these exercises as time passed and Mike was very appeasing, informing us not to get discouraged or embarrassed. All of this really helped nourish our next exploration with the two vocal recordings that they danced to. It seemed as though the dancers had a new understanding on how they listen to music and sound. I also had a blast working this way. We ended the day with the understanding that we wanted to flourish this idea more.........something was bubbling.
Our third session began with a slight turn of events. Jesse was not able to attend that day due to a family emergency so I had to step in as a dancer and maintain my status as choreographer. In my twenties I did this all the time but it's been years since. Mike and I were ambitious to continue what we had been working on so I had no choice but to step in to Jesse's role. This turned out to be very fruitful and again, so much fun. Because I was now "in" the work, I was able to have a bit more insight and help relay to Mike what we needed more or less of. The new layers he added uplifted the piece to something magical yet disturbing, my favorite combination! It was also nice to have Mike as the sole viewer. Once the dance started to develop, he articulated what seemed to be honest and what didn't. He also had thoughtful ideas about what phrases should be continually repeated and when to dispose a certain phrase. At the end of the day I had very rewarding workout, mentally and physically, and it was a joyful experience dancing with Jaime. It's so refreshing to explore and collaborate like this without the pressure of a deadline or the demand of a final product. It was also wonderful for the dancers to feel included in the collaborative process, they enjoyed it thoroughly!
January 10, 2012 Research with Massoula Oblongata (click to read)
Last week I began another intensive geared toward researching the intersection of original music and choreography. I invited Sarah Lowry, of Massoula Oblongata, a physical theatre collective, which uses original music in all of their work. Sarah also has an informed background in dance, and sees things largely with a director's eye, so I was interested in hanging out with her for a while around the ideas I have been kicking around since my time with De Facto Dance last October.
We started by having a discussion about my blog post on working with De Facto, primarily the ideas of:
Performance as a temporal medium
Movement structures as technical directives with emotional content embedded within them
Movement while vocally resonating
Movement always existing somewhere on the plane of set movement and open improvisation
Sarah thought it would be a good idea to invite dancer Annie Wilson to our first day, as they share a history of making work and "have a good energy together."
We began with a physical and vocal warm-up, in which I introduced the idea of resonating one's voice in terms of shape: That is to say, sound waves travel in the shape that they resonate, and therefore the shape of the resonation determines the characteristics of what we hear. When a person sings, they are creating sound waves in the shape of themselves, or at least the parts of themselves that are filled with air. For voice as instrument, that means we can let the vibrations that begin in our larynx take the shape of our lungs, mouth and sinus and nasal cavities. We can resonate all of these areas at once, or one of them at a time. Each combination of resonant area allows the sound waves of one's voice to take on a different shape, which directly affects how it sounds. I find it very helpful in my vocal instruction to think about the shape of your voice, and to learn how the resonating areas of our voice affect the characteristics of it.
The three of us resonated our instruments, thinking about the shape of our voice, so that we could then move into creating movement from these resonations. Relating the shape of our voices to the shape of our movement was very informative in what we were exploring, and exploited a shared idea between sound and movement.
Working with De Facto, we improvised movement, and added resonation on top of it. Sarah had the idea to start with the resonation, and have the movement spring from it, so that was where we began. But vocally, what would the movers be singing?
Throughout the day I explained to Sarah and Annie that I have been approaching music composition from vocal improvisation. I'm doing this because I am trying to get very specific about where the music that I write comes from. I've noticed that when I sit down at an instrument to write, that I end up drawing song out of the construct of that instrument, or my knowledge of how music functions on a keyboard or fret board. In order to get closer to "pure composition," I've decided to spend a large amount of time voicing melodic and thematic ideas, as there is no construct between my brain and my voice to interfere with what I am hearing in my head. I can sing for hours, but I can only "write" in short spurts. This method has been tremendously helpful in generating new musical ideas thus far.
I played them a recording of myself improvising that I had made the previous week in the LAB space. While listening, I selected three small melodic ideas, or motifs, that stuck out to me as memorable. I then gave us the three melodies as resonant vocabulary to use in a movement structure with the goal of generating movement from those resonations.
What occurred was an open improv with a heightened awareness, much like the work done with De Facto. I realize now that we were further developing that vocabulary, and taking it a step further. At first there seemed to be a separation between song and movement. But as we related more to the idea, the two forms started to act as one.
I pulled myself out to watch in the final minutes we had to work for the day, and observed Sarah and Annie working on this music and movement structure. I noticed that the specific awareness of each other, of the space, and of the audience (myself) remained. The movement felt very connected to what was occurring in the room sonically, and over all, the improv was extremely satisfying to watch.
Sarah mentioned afterward that she felt like a creature that could communicate sound to Annie. Since they were both singing the same "song," the song led to the discovery of a relationship, one that had a rhythmic character.
Unfortunately, we had to call it a day, and didn't get to take this idea further.
Between then and the next time we met, I gave myself the goal of developing the melodic motifs we used into somewhat more of a structured composition. I wrote lyrics for it, harmonized it into four voice parts, created a synth line, a piano line and some drumbeats. After that, I decided to try and figure out what it would sound like on an acoustic guitar. I was amazed at how different it sounded, and completely changed from this strange sort of art song to a gentle folk song. I would demonstrate this to Sarah and the second day's guest mover, Sara Yassky. We all agreed on the outcome.
Sara Yassky is a dancer and choreographer from Philly who is currently living in San Fransico. She has danced in a piece of mine a few years prior that Scott McPheeters choreographed, and has a performance history with Lowry as well as being her old roommate.
On day two we started with similar warm-ups, which led to a discussion (or realization) that what I am trying to do is take my work as a composer and performer, and expound that work into the role of dance maker, using dance as an extension of my music, with the goal of each form enhancing the other. All of this vocal work has been translating into the creation of new movement, and the creation of that movement is then affecting what gets composed. In short, this is what we would work on for the day, creating a microcosm of that idea for the purposes of researching it.
We started where we ended the previous session, with the same melodic ideas, and attempting to generate movement from resonating on them. During the first improvisation, we noticed that the moments that were the most successful where the moments when Yassky would engage Lowry directly. This seemed to clarify their relationship, and intensify my interest as a watcher. We then took the idea of resonating away, and I asked them to continue to sing the phrases in their heads only, to keep the feel of what they were doing. All of a sudden, their movement language enriched, though remained of the same world as before. But without the task of singing, they were able to dance more fully, while still retaining the characteristics of when they were. Then I started singing the melodies from the outside, which, oddly, was the least successful. They lost each other as performers, and the movement dropped in intensity. Lowry described this as her critical mind returning, and she got confused about how to perform.
Next we decided to try and make a short piece with the motifs as a starting point. I played them the recording I had made, and looped the two verses (with lyrics) while they generated movement from it. Both noticed how different it was to make movement to this music having put it in their bodies for so long. It felt much easier to work with at this point in the day, and a phrase was developed quite quickly.
They showed me the first version of what they made, and it was lovely. I noticed a couple of things I wanted to change, in particular a rhythmic burst that I wanted them to try during a pause in the music. This was my first experience having a real choreographic impulse during this exploration, and it felt like an extension of my composing the song. The piece needed something, and it wasn't sonic, it needed to be movement. Now, when I hear the song, I imagine this movement shift in my head, and can't shake it. It has become part of the song for me.
This is deeply exciting for me to feel, and is, in my mind, a huge step forward in this research. If I can continue to think of movement as an extension of composition, I feel that I can develop my role as a maker of work in new directions. My hope is to start making dances with short musical phrases as the impulse, as I described. I would like to then take what comes out of the movement generation and decide what should occur next in the composition of the music, and continue to have a dialogue back and forth between the two forms until a final dance song is created. At least, that will be where I start next time.
This is Sarah Lowry's response to reading the above:
Having read your description of our time together, there a few points that I would love to comment upon.
Firstly just the experience of resonating, as a mover. Starting from the place of resonation was a very unique and new place to be working from. Beginning with the feeling of the sound vibrations brought me deep into my body and into an awareness of my body's internal movement. It felt like I was accessing new places of sensation. Where did I feel the sound? How did my blood and heat and muscles respond to it? What did the sound make me feel emotionally? How did it translate into movement?
This last question was one that caught me off guard. Starting to move, beginning with resonating, sort of stalled my nervous system. All of my movement felt inauthentic. I was more acutely aware of my patterns than I normally am. My body became momentarily awkward, as it didn't know which impulses to follow. To put it in kind of simplistic terms, I felt connected to a different and perhaps more inaccessible place inside of my body when I was resonating and therefore, improvising with that as my foundational embodied state was super challenging for me. However, as we discovered, this new place allowed for a really exciting relationship between the movement and the sound to be collaborating in all of our bodies and in the space of the rehearsal room at once.
Also, this new experience of resonating first and then moving, came into play as I started to improvise with another dancer. Because both Annie and I were working from this new place of resonation into movement, our first improv very quickly (and to my surprise) took on a kind of relational narrative for me. Somehow the added element of resonating created a quick discovery of new ways to communicate to each other and clear (and shared) understanding of our relationship. The ability to use sound and melody to create relationship with Annie felt like an added texture to the improvisation. There was a lot being said all the time.
I think it's significant that it was not just a loose improv where we were allowed to "use our voices," which is something I have done before. But instead, we had been working with resonating all morning, a way of using my voice that was more embodied than singing has been previously for me, and this informed the quality of our connection. With resonating, (as opposed to singing or talking) my brain was not switched into a linear framework. The resonating and singing of melody felt similar to dancing in its abstraction and felt like another layer of movement in my body.
In addition, it was important that Annie and I were working with the same palette of music, of melody, of quality in our bodies. This greatly affected our dancing.
The access we had, as movers, to the beginnings of the music, the early improv that you shared, the way we learned the song to sing. We lived inside of the raw material of the music in a way that I have never experienced before when choreographing to music. This was extremely helpful in terms of finding this movement inside of my own body. We (the musicians and the movers) started with the same moment, with the same frames, with the same impulses. We explored those impulses together and I could contribute with the way the song felt inside of me, before I was trying to 'choreograph' anything to it.
And this I think was more formally shown the following week when sara yassky and I were generating more specific movement to match the song that you had written. We had been dancing and singing the song, listening to its early stages and then its later stages, moving and playing inside of and in relationship to the life of the music in our improvisations. By the time we were setting movement to the music, the quality of the movement that needed to be generated felt super clear. And it felt like the movement was being generated both in conversation with the music itself and also with the feeling of the earlier stages of the music already in my body. It was super exciting to watch you have a super clear choreographic impulse to our movement, that you would not have without getting to respond to the movement choices we were making.
This felt like a break through. Like we had found a moment where we were all just working with the same material, movement, sound, music, and they all existed in the same language.
All in all, a super exciting journey together! I'm really psyched to see where this leads for you and I am walking away eager to continue to explore the way that vocal work can inform movement and character development in my own work.
November 15, 2011 Research with De Facto Dance Company (click to read)
The first exploration of the marriage of original choreography and music during my LAB Fellowship was a two-day workshop with Kelly Donovan and Meg Fry of De Fatco Dance (NY). I have chosen to work with several choreographers who approach dance making from very different avenues during my LAB time. De Facto creates their pieces largely through improvisation, and were students of Richard Bull. From my experience with them, I find Kelly and Meg to be very articulate about dance making, so I thought that working with them would be a good place to start my research.
Leading up to the workshop, I had sent both of them a series of questions in order to get us started. Here are some excerpts:
Could you briefly describe the role that music and sound has had in your work thus far?
Since I've been thinking over the past couple of days about these questions, I've realized that music played a huge -- fundamental -- role in how we learned choreographic improvisation itself. Richard Bull often used musical ideas in order to generate movement ideas, and would structure pieces around the basic idea of movement following the changes in the music. We did an insane piece with him to Greggery Peccary, a Frank Zappa song, and I recall feeling a bit overwhelmed at having to match the high energy and particular, punctuated phrasing of the music. Cynthia Novak was a master at relating in a very detailed movement way to whatever music we were working with.
Of course, then Richard took it a step farther and started working with speaking as music -- Radio Dances being a prime example. So that talking dances were in a way an extension of working with music.
Richard would also set an improvisational dance, and vary the music each time we did it, including sometimes on the night of the performance.
And, as we've all said/heard a million times, but it bears repeating here, choreographic improvisation is largely an idea that Richard took from jazz music and translated into dance.
Sometimes music is the inspiration for a dance. Sometimes I choreograph with a piece of music in mind, and then use something else for the performance. De Facto has played with switching music from performance to performance. Often, I have created mixed scores, on my own and/or with the help of a sound editor. Ambient sound is also important.
Have you ever used music that was not written specifically for your dances in a finished piece? If so, why? Were you concerned with the audience's preconceived relationship to this music?
NO and YES, depending on what worked for a particular dance. For a dance called "Into the Wild" - In one section we used a Mozart piece that went well under our talking score. It was relatively quiet with bursts of loud moments and worked well under talking. I always thought the music itself was both funny, serious and dramatic, yet low-key. We used this music because it worked well under talking and accentuated the feeling of the section - dramatic and funny. One viewer - a music buff - said he had never felt the humor in this particular piece of music before.
Yes, we use music all the time that is not written for us. The latest example was The Heroic Diagonal, which Kelly directed for a cast of 14 -- De Facto plus guests. I was worried about the strong, sentimental, sweeping quality of the music (kind of like a movie soundtrack) (Sufjan Stevens, BQE). I felt that it had no irony in it, and that we would seem pretentious and overly serious. But the fact was that working with that piece of music gave the dance a gravitas that De Facto's work normally doesn't have; we rose to the challenge of the music -- a tribute to Kelly's strong spatial choreography and the commitment of the dancers to really dance it.
For De Facto's piece Cinderzilla, Kelly made a sound score using lots of different musical sources but combining them into a new original score. Richard used to do this as well. They both did/do this amazingly well. It has been more the norm for us to work with pre-recorded music rather than new original music.
More . . .
When we arrived at the space, I had hoped to further discuss these questions, and explore some of these ideas…using music as an impulse for generating movement, changing music for certain dance structures, how to work with a song, etc. I also hoped to discuss what makes a piece of music "work" rather than not, and how do we know this?
We did a physical warm up first, and then I lead a vocal warm up, introducing the voice as one aspect of sound in a piece. I teach voice in terms of resonations, explaining that sound waves travel in the shape that they are made, or the shape that they resonate. I felt that talking about the shape of a sound wave might help when talking about sound for dance, as dance is largely about shape. Throughout this weekend, I would learn that a great way to understand the relationship between the two forms is to try and find the similarities between them: space, shape, tone, color, rhythm, etc. Music and dance are strangely similar in how difficult they are to describe, and therefore discussing the two of them can be even more difficult. One of my goals is to develop a vocabulary that both dancer and musician can understand.
The three of us then did a walking dance together. We discussed certain moments of the dance, and shared our general experiences together. I noticed that we often talked in terms of emotion rather than physically describing a moment. This would be come very important in our time together.
I found it amazingly helpful to improvise with these two choreographers. I experienced what I imagine all dancers experience, that of getting lost in the movement. There came a moment where I was simply playing with the way that my body can move, which as improvisers, is where a large part of De Facto's work lives. We talked about how fun that can be. And how to translate that fun to an audience, realizing that this can be self indulgent at times, and if we would like our audience to connect to our work, we must find a way for the audience to get in. I think music plays a large part in creating this bridge between the experience of an improvising dancer and an audience member. It can often represent the movement sonically.
After the walking dance, we listened to five pieces of music and discussed what we heard. This was very helpful in the formation of a vocabulary for us to talk about music for the rest of our time together. Something that arose out of the walking dance and hearing these pieces was the idea of relative time: How time can feel like it is moving slowly at times, quickly at others, and how dance and music can do that to a viewer or listener. We as makers can then use this idea to try and affect our audience, through setting up a framework, and either sticking with it or breaking it. What I mean is, delivering on expectations created by a movement or musical phrase or not, by breaking it unexpectedly.
Kelly and Meg then improvised on the idea of trying to slow down and speed up time. How can we do this without it becoming predictable? When a phrase of music is played, it is finite. Same with a dance phrase. It has a beginning, middle and end, no matter how esoteric or nebulous. Because it is finite, we as audience understand that we have traveled a certain amount of time together and that we are either going to travel that distance again, or that it will shift. So how do we play with that expectation to positive affect? How can we use this information to let our audience get lost in time? Because we all agreed that the moments in performance, and in life that are most successful, are directly related to time and how it is being perceived. From drug use to falling in love, to having sex, to digestion, bathing, waiting, etc. Our perception of time seems related to our level of enjoyment as humans.
We wrapped up the day with Kelly and Meg "catching" solos that each other made. One of them would begin, and then the other would "catch" or take over the dance. It was really interesting for me to sit back and watch this process, as each dancer changed the improvisation just like adding a new piece of music to it would have. Again, drawing these parallels between music and dance seems helpful to me, at least for now.
More . . .
The second day we invited four dancers, Nichole Canuso, Alex Romania, Mason Rosenthal and Amanda Hunt to join us. We started the day in similar warm up fashion, filling the dancers in on what we had been exploring.
Our walking dance lead to a discussion of improv versus set choreography. This of course directly related to improvised music and tightly rehearsed music. Meg mentioned something I thought was really interesting, that when she knows she has to remember a certain phrase, she finds that she "dumbs it down" so that she can repeat it. Only in improvisation does she relax that "dumbing down" instinct, and let go into a fuller form of movement, and therefore "the changes seem deeper." She spoke to set movement getting deeper through repetition, not discovery. I found this a really interesting way to describe it, and that this statement exemplifies that wide way of thinking about creation, whatever the form. Certain dancers are excellent at retaining and recalling movement. Others aren't. Certain musicians compose by improvising on their instrument, others by hearing things in their head. I've had people tell me that I am not a "true composer" because I usually write while sitting with an instrument, instead of a sheet of staff paper.
This is obviously bull shit, but it highlights how different schools of thought in the dance and music world can really stifle one another by placing value on certain avenues into each form over the other. Perhaps there are choreographers out there that write off improvisational work because it doesn't flex the same choreographic muscle that they do when they choreograph. I think that these biases are interesting, and should be paid more attention to by the dance and music communities as a whole. My best guess is that what makes a work successful versus unsuccessful has little to do with any of this. It has more to do with what is at the core of each piece, rather than the avenue into it.
The theme of the impossibility of repeating something exactly the same way every time got unearthed somewhere during the weekend. So we decided to attempt to create a piece, based on an improvisational structure that Kelly created, dividing the dancers into two groups of three. We played with the impossibility of exact repetition and the stretching of time. We did this in silence the first time. We then repeated the structure with some formal changes, and added in the idea of resonating on vowels, playing with their voices in space. After it was finished, the dancers noted how resonating really opened their awareness as dancers, and opened the space in a new way. I also played music that I had made the night before, which I thought would help with the idea of stretching time. The result for me was almost like watching zombies. The resonating was incredibly primal, and as a result, was bit difficult to watch. The music became a little scary sounding, and became more "spacey" than anything. I also played some ambient sounds of footsteps that got a little creepy as well. So, we did the structure again, and I gave them a musical phrase over which to resonate. I improvised on my guitar with some gentle affects on it, and over all, the piece got prettier. It became something I can imagine making, and wanting to share. There were some incredibly touching moments, some really beautiful things to watch, all due to assigning a melody to this idea of resonating. It was beautiful to see how a simple compositional idea could affect this dance piece.
The music being played live gave the performers something of a different awareness as well. They felt like they had the freedom to play with it, rather than it being a constant in the equation. I found this funny, because I could have easily recorded what I had improvised and played it. It was the knowledge that the music as being created in that moment that changed their perception of it.
My goal through this fellowship is to develop a process with which to approach collaboration with choreographers. This past weekend, I learned a tremendous amount about how dances are made (or at least one kind of dance). My goal as a composer is to create a score that can exist only for that piece. When De Facto and I discussed certain moments in our set structure that worked better than others, I asked them how they would then repeat those moments. Kelly spoke to emotional arcs getting repeated, not necessarily trying to land in certain physical moments. She said that every piece of hers is an improvisational structure that has an emotional "goal." For example, one of her recent pieces was to "transcend the space." I imagine this gave the dance an emotional quality that was palpable to the audience. This feels like my avenue into composing for this type of work. I can make music that tries to "transcend space" or "stretch time" or "pretties" something. The next time I work with a choreographer, I would love to discuss the emotional content of what we are setting out to create as an approach to discovering the perfect sonic environment for that movement. Overall, this is what I took away from this workshop the most. Its not what the piece is "about," its about how it feels, and my role would be to figure out how to represent that sonically.
And finally, here are some responses from Kelly and Meg when I sent them my writing.
I wanted to emphasize one of our activities that I found illuminating: that first morning when we listened to music and wrote down our reactions to and descriptions of it, both in technical and "emotional" terms. I thought that was a great activity to get a composer and choreographer on the same page in a very practical sense. It seems like an activity you could do with someone you're collaborating with. For example, when I would describe something as "quirky" you would say " I couldn't tell what instrument was being used!" Or a choreorgrapher might says something like "I want a feeling that the song builds in intensity" whereas a compsoer might describe the same song as "there's an instrument being added at each verse" or "the drum beat becomes faster." Also, you might use different value-laden words to describe the same quality -- two different people might describe the same song as "georgeously sweeping" vs. "overly sentimental." You'd get an idea of the other person's taste that way. It was also a fun thing to do, and gets both the composer and the choreographer focused on something other than what they're creating, so they can talk in a lighter way about music.
I also wanted to remind us all of the interesting point Nichole reminded us of at one point -- that everything lies somewhere on the continuum of fully improvised to fully set. Pre-recorded music played back is fully set, while an "open improv" is as open as you get. (The latter is still defined, of course, by the history of the people doing the improvising.)
Also, I love your point about how when we were improvising together you found it funny because you could have recorded what you played. I believe that part of the dancers perceiving live music differently is that we actually feel the sound waves in three dimensions with live music, and the music's vibrations effect us physically. Not to sound to new-agey about it - I mean it a very literal sense.
I also like the way you described bodily experiences in terms of times -- the examples you used. Related to us as biological humans. Crocodiles live for three hundred years and their hearts beat like once a minute when they're "hibernating" .. surely that makes for a different rhythm of time... [those numbers aren't exact but you know what i mean...]
Also, to clarify one thing about me and Kelly "catching" each other's solos. The catching structure is actually about trying to do exactly what the dancer before you did: I was trying to copy Kelly's solo, but knowing that is impossible, dancing it anyway. With super short phrases, the second dancer gets closer to actually copying the movement of the first dancer -- always in her own way, of course.
I like your writing. Very articulate with details. It gives great insight into your artistic process. Here is one thing to add - a clarification of my point-of-view. I don't actually directly think in terms of emotion. Transcending space for me was a technical idea that when played out has an emotional component and that might read in the outcome. The emotion, however, is not written into the structure, it's revealed by the structure. The humanity, in a way, breaks through the construct of the dance or score. Does this make any sense?
If you don't mind, I'd love to discuss this point a bit. If you recall, it came out of the discussion of the moment of improv where all the women were sort of blending together. We all (mostly) agreed that that was a pretty great moment. I had suggested trying to get to it again in the next version of the improv, and you began talking about how you don't have set physical markers that you try to get to in a piece. I think this is where you said you have "emotional" goals, like transcending the space for example. What you wrote to clarify below makes perfect sense to me. I guess what I'm wondering about now is, when you find that a moment of a structure is working, how do you direct the dancers to recreate it? Or don't you? I love this idea of a technical idea coming with an emotional component...that sounds a lot like music to me.
Yes, the part about physical markers - we definitely have and use them! Maybe it was a reference to that specific weaving moment. I guess you could say there's a great range to improvised choreography - from Open Improvs (what we were doing at that moment of weaving) to highly structured improvs that are so structured they're similar to set choreography. I wonder if we were talking about the weaving moment, and how it's sometimes difficult to recreate certain moments. You can sort of tell the type of thing that will work as a set recreation or structure, vs. one that won't. We kind of broke down the structure and tried to recapture it once and didn't like it. Certainly we could have kept working on it. I think I let it go because it seemed really easy to turn that one into a cliche.
So yeah - I don't think I ever really start with "emotional goals". Transcending space was more about the space, and highly structured (preset: casting, sequence of things, duration, movement qualities and style, spatial landmarks that coincide with musical cues, etc.)
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