Collision: Bill T. Jones and Daniel Bernard Roumain
BTJ: Every time I think about what is meant by the well-composed dance, I think this is where our risk is. It’s always so eclectic. What’s really transgressive in you is your openness, your eclecticism. I know that I am that way. Because you and I insist on all these things existing and co-existing in the same space and time, that is a pretty transgressive act. Our challenge is to make them formally satisfying. If the unity is not in terms of style, where is the unity? We both agree that we respect art that is outrageous and outlandish, but inside of it you sense some sort of central unity. That’s where we get rid of our victimhood and where we can do anything. We’re bad motherfuckers! Except what is our criteria of excellence? Do we have one? Our critics—I don’t know about yours, but I know mine—would say, “He has no values. He has no sense of what makes a good work.” I do. But I’m trying to make it fresh; I’m trying to find another way of doing it. And that’s what I love about you. And that’s what I love about our collaboration.
Balanchine had a great relationship with Stravinsky. When Balanchine was working on Agon, Stravinsky would say, “O.K. how long do you want it to be? Should it be fast or slow?” And then Balanchine would say, “Yes, yes, yes,” and Stravinsky would go away and work, and he’d come back, they’d put it together, and then they’d make a little more. I think that’s a pretty wonderful relationship, and they were able to track each other over years. I’d like to be able to do that, too.
There is something exciting because Daniel and I come from such different generations. John Adams and Morton Feldman shared the bill at a musicale at the great Betty Freeman’s house at Beverly Hills; they were legendary. John Adams said that Morty always said to him, “Hey kid, slow down, you’re always at the races.” Now that was like this older gentleman from another period, if you stay with this idea and just let it blossom, and then this young guy who wanted to do minimalism, post-tonalism, theater music. And then Morton Feldman saying, “Hey kid, slow down, you’re always at the races.” In some ways, that goes on with us. He has so many ideas, and he wants to go. I’m always tugging his coattail. He’s going to go, he’s brilliant. Think it through, Daniel, your bias is your anger at this moment. You’re Don Quixote, you’re fighting windmills. I say calm down, you’re all right, there’s no boogieman there; you don’t have to have your dukes up. But, you know, that’s what’s so dynamic inter-generationally.
Where does the buck stop? Very seldom am I ever in a work that Daniel has the final say on, and this is very telling of our relationship. He is my musical director and he is my collaborator. And when his name is there, it’s very big. But the fact is, ultimately, I say to Daniel, this is just not working in this place. He might get upset and all; I wrestle him down if I feel strongly enough, and it comes out. That’s different than us both saying this thing is going to be Bill and Daniel. That’s why Daniel has his own ensemble, that’s why he has his own career, because he needs to be his own man. I have to be my own man. When we can come together, how we can come together, we are very sensitive, and we respect it, but it’s not this parity. Maybe that will happen in the future.
DBR: You have to be a humble person. I have many mentors around me, Bill primarily, but I welcome that. There is a hip-hop tradition in that, too. The star and the apprentice, that’s how you break the artist. There is that tradition in classical music, Joachim and Brahms, Brahms and Schumann. There have always been those wonderful, really meaningful, deep relationships between a master, a maestro, and an apprentice. And I welcome it. I have a lot of peers who do not have mentors. They don’t want it. They’re stars, they’re done and doing their thing. I think collaboration is about conversation, and it’s about compromise.
BTJ: And listening.
DBR: And listening, yeah. Look, I’ve learned so much. I’m a better composer for having worked with Bill T. Jones. I’m a better musician, better artist, better human being, for having met Bill T. Jones, for having the opportunity to share the stage with Bill T. Jones, for having the opportunity to provide him with a musical structure, upon which theatrical expressions, socio-economic, political, you name it. But that’s the other thing here. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is opera; it’s theater. Music is just one component, just one voice.
BTJ: Aren’t you into that as well? Your interests are multi.
DBR: Sure, but not nearly as much.
BTJ: I see you going in that direction. I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow you decided that you wanted to do a play as part of your music.
Daniel is a wonderful collaborator because he’s spent a lot of time with dancers. He’s accompanied dance classes. He knows how rudimentary oftentimes the knowledge is of music on the part of dancers. He also understands that the economics of dance means that oftentimes we don’t have live music in the room with us. So, dance can begin, and often begins, in a completely empty studio in silence. That’s what I begin with. And he’s traveling around, making his fantastic career which is going really well. So I don’t have him every day to be bringing in studies. And it takes time for him to make things.
DBR: Blind Date was going to be my second large collaboration with Bill T. Jones. My understanding of Blind Date in a nutshell, was that this piece was going to examine our current political discourse. The phrase that sticks in my head is “toxic certainty.” What does that have to do with Bach? Let me play it for you right here, in G minor!
BTJ: So, I’m making a section that I have a feeling about. I’m calling it an elegy. That was the feeling coming out of me. I know what I’m doing when I see what I’m doing. So, when he came in, I told him that I feel like it should have music, something ceremonial, something like a hymn, something like Bach. And he shook his head, went away, came back, I don’t know, a week or so later. By that time, I truly had taken [a recording of] Gidon Kremer playing Bach’s Sonata in G Minor. And once that music is there it’s dangerous because we begin to really use it, organizing our thoughts around it. He comes in and he’s placed in front of a fait accompli. I’m attached to that structure and the feeling of Bach. And he was sort of stuck with it. Now, I could have backed off because he said, “I could write that for you.”
DBR: I felt strongly, especially given the contemporary nature of the material. Composers have big egos and thick skins.
BTJ: I said, “No, I want to use this. Now, you have to respond. I give you the challenge of making the rest of the evening responding to Bach.” That’s my way of telling a story. If we’re talking about the distinction between our traditional practices and notions of the enlightenment as delivered to us by the 18th-century French philosophers, rationality informs us that tolerance, deism, and progress should be the great pillars of modern, free society. Why don’t we theatrically use Bach to represent that? What is the height of European rationalism? We can both talk a good game. He gives me his; I give him mine. Now, if Bach sees my people wiggling and crashing to the floor, he might say what the hell does that have to do with my music? That’s the way I feel in this world we’ve been talking about. There is the edifice of Western civilization that I’m obliged to find my way in. And sometimes I think it’s really good for those of us who think ourselves outsiders to see more clearly a figure-ground relation between traditions that exist and what we are when we try to combine them. That’s why I thought it was a good place for a discourse to begin: with a convention. An unassailable monument of Western thought like Bach is the point where we begin. Then, let’s see how daring we are and talented we are as we try to pull away from it. That’s the only reason I used it. It’s very beautiful music, but I’m not living there all the time. I don’t want to, either. That’s why you’re my collaborator and not somebody who’s trying to do Bach in 2006.
DBR: And Bach was re-imagined, not just “remixed.” We’ve got to get away from these terms, this whole hip-hop/classical thing. Classical music—what is that? I’m not the one generating these terms or making these associations. I’m a composer. When he died, Frank Zappa wanted two words on his tombstone: “American composer.” Look, I’m a composer and Bach’s a composer. I can jam with him. That’s what happened in Blind Date. I ended up having a conversation with Bach played beautifully by Nurit Pacht. That kind of collision, that kind of forced conversation that becomes less forced and more natural, even, I think that’s a great thing. We hear Bach. Then we hear Bach with throat singing. Then we hear Bach with laptop and electronics. Then we hear Bach fragmented, just the chords, no melismas in between. Then we hear Bach and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a spiritual, and a recitation.
Composers are thieves. Stravinsky said it. The best composers know what to take. They know how to take an idea from someone else and flip it into their own thing and make it very personal. For me, so much of what I do comes down to form, sonata-allegro form, almost without exception: exposition, development, recapitulation. The introduction of material, the working out of that material, the recalling of that material…
BTJ: That is your European heritage. That is your DNA.
DBR: It’s the way I was trained. I’m proud of my conservatism.
BTJ: Your conservatory training.
DBR: And I’m proud of my street training, my non-academic training, jamming with someone. Can you really jam with someone on their terms? Can I really play with Akim Funk Buddha, a throat singer and a wonderful musician? He doesn’t read notated music. What I would say is that most musicians in the world do not read music. We’ve forgotten that. Can I really play with Nurit? I think so. I have to. Blind Date will be at Lincoln Center [this summer]. You be the judge. You help us complete this picture.