Saturday, October 4, 2008

Dancing "To" Music (plus A Brief History of Accompaniment)

I caught a performance this weekend of Morphoses, the joint British/American ballet company founded by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

I occasionally check out dance performances, always hoping for the sort of inspiration I get from great music, art, writing, theater, and cooking. But I usually come away grumbling about what I call "Figure Skating Syndrome". It's a musician thing (I was a full-time trombone player once), but let me try to explain.

Figure skaters perform to music that serves as mere backdrop. The music may be acknowledged via a couple of arm waves and coquettish movements, but the skaters are front and center, and the music is mere sonic wallpaper. It's "accompaniment".

Most serious dance performances strike me as similar: talented people doing intricate and beautiful things with a backdrop of music. Or course, that's not fair; serious dance does have a deeper musical relationship than figure skating. But still not enough for my taste. No matter how acclaimed the choreographer, the dancers always appear to be dancing
to music, rather than from it.

70 years ago, at the height of its power, the musician's union boldly called a strike on recording. For a very long two years, from 1940 to 1942, musicians recorded no new material. And it changed everything. Before the strike, instrumentalists were kings. Audiences actually listened, they idolized horn players and drummers. Bands were followed like baseball teams. Singers were mere adjuncts to musical performance: second class musical citizens. Props.

But the musicians' strike changed all of that...forever. Two factors contributed. First: the slack was picked up by a slew of vocal recordings, and the public developed an enduring taste for singers. Second, record companies, desperate to maintain revenue, started reissuing old recordings, including one of the Harry James band featuring an unknown singer named Frank Sinatra. The original recording hadn't even listed Sinatra's name, but the reissue hyped him to the hilt, and a sensation was created, which led quickly to screaming, swooning bobbysoxers. After Sinatra, an unbroken string of singers became huge stars. A publicity model was born...and musicians would forevermore be deemed accompanists.

That pecking order has affected the very fabric of music. Vocalists generally sing over the music rather than deeply inside it. Many barely listen to the musicians with whom they perform - whose job is to merely lay down a solid foundation. And that seems perfectly natural to post-1942 audiences, who focus exclusively on the singer. The chasm greatly widened with the advent of music videos, which made the music itself nearly beside the point. Invisible in a visual medium, music grew even less important than wallpaper, become nothing more than subconsciously registered sound stuff, subliminally enriching the lead melodic line.

There are singers who have a musician's ears and understanding, and who sing as an intrinsic part of the music rather than accompanied by it. I was lucky enough to perform with the legendary Joe Williams, and it was exactly like playing with a great instrumentalist. But that's rare. Most singers lack real musical training, have poor "ears", and simply do their thing. Audiences - who, since 1942 have pinned their eyes tightly on the singer - expect nothing else. The result is much like karoake.

And "Karaoke" is the Japanese word for "figure skating syndrome". It's about music serving as the vague backdrop for performances which happen more or less "to"
 the music.

I'm not suggesting that choreography must be musically literal: that each piccolo trill be matched with a corresponding fluttery dance movement. But dance ought to emanate from the very guts of the score. A dancer should be a musician. A choreographer should be a musician. Both the dance and its music should seem to spring from the same muse. Yet even the most acclaimed choreographers merely set beauty to a musical accompaniment. All would surely profess great respect for and commitment to the musical form, but that's not enough. They ought to have a musician's soul.

The only modern choreographer who has struck me as truly possessing a great musician's soul was Jerome Robbins. He choreographed Stravinsky's Les Noce, a lush, hyper-complex work I'd previously come to know very well, and his work offered me fresh, startling insights on the piece, which he understood far more deeply than I had. All movement derived profoundly, brilliantly, ingeniously, from Stravinsky's score. The dance truly completed the music.

The Morphoses performance was virtuosic and beautiful. But it completed nothing.

No comments:

Blog Archive