On Saturday afternoon I went to the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. What I saw and heard is an interesting foil to our music’s usual “music first” paradigm. Watching a total of four pieces of choreography featuring music by four different composers, I kept thinking about the diverging views of Corey Dargel and Melanie Mitrano about the artistic re-contextualization that occurs when a composer sets pre-existing poetry to music. At the ballet, composers are in the poet’s shoes: their work gets set. And, just as poetry gets remade when composers put music to it, music gets remade when people dance to it.
I’m not particularly enamored of Bizet’s Symphony in C. But, as I was watching the NYCB dance Balanchine’s choreography to it, the first movement’s sonata-allegro structure became as immediately perceptible as Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room. A crowd of tutu-clad women prance around during the first theme. A solo dancer stretches one foot to the sky during the second theme. A smaller group of men arrive and interact with the women in the development section, and on and on. Famously faithful, Balanchine even mimicked 12-tone music in his choreography for Stravinsky’s Agon. Too bad he never took on Boulez; it might have made me a fan!
While dance can illuminate the music this way, it can also appropriate it for its own sometimes quite different ends. For After The Rain, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon excised the first movement of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa and tacked Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel onto it instead of the work’s second movement. Not fully reading the program in advance, I was eager to see how Wheeldon would treat that ascending prepared piano phrase which returns again and again each time later and later until it goes away—it’s my favorite detail in Tabula Rasa—but it never happened. Even though what did happen was perhaps the afternoon’s best, I was disappointed. I was there for the music; but I was missing the point. People applaud at the end of every movement and even in between if someone does a particularly flashy pirouette. The tutus in the Bizet were literally cheered. Music is not what ballet is ultimately about.
Similarly, poetry is not what vocal music is ultimately about. I’ve certainly heard a lot of art songs that sound as if the words being set could just as easily have been replaced with random syllables and it wouldn’t have made a difference. But most of those songs were ultimately not memorable. For me, the most affective vocal music featuring pre-existing words is always a considered and complementary response to those words. Just as, Merce Cunningham’s remarkable non-collaborative collaboration with John Cage notwithstanding, the best dance somehow heightens the music. But I’m not really an informed dance observer, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I’m just a composer.