“Everything was Beautiful at the Ballet”

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.

9 thoughts on ““Everything was Beautiful at the Ballet”

  1. JPehrson

    Of late, I’ve been taking the somewhat radical view that intelligible words (by this I do *not* mean syllables and vocal sounds) and music do not belong together.

    I’m always reading the *poetry* at a concert and digesting it at a different time than I’m listening to the music. It’s as though the intelligible verbal plane and the musical/audible plane don’t really intersect.

    Of course, many composers, from Berio to Ligeti, have thought this way for many years, but only recently have I come to understand that I share these sympathies and the possible reasoning behind them.

    Joseph Pehrson

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  2. grcox

    I, for one, find it very difficult to read text and listen to music at the same time and pay attention to both; I can’t read program notes during a concert and I can’t read the paper with the radio on in the background. While mt extreme probably just an individual difference, it does indicate that music and words are not totally independent from each other.

    While it is true that there are a lot of times when verbal information and musical information do not “interfere”, there are a few key instances when they do, and it is those times when good songs are born. When both the music and the words reinforce each other to activate the same areas of our minds–to provoke the same emotional responses–the effect is much more striking and memorable than either the words or music alone. While I’m not saying this happens often (I’m of the mind that it doesn’t), I am saying that music and words can coexist as two different paths toward the same destination.

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  3. Tom Myron

    I completely agree that the best dance heightens the music and so did Lisa Hicks when she choreographed my string quartet The Soldier’s Return for her company. I also found it very illuminating to have the music presented before a new audience.

    For me setting poetry is a little different. I really do feel in that case that the music is about the text (without being “secondary” to it.) I try to write music that works the same way that great direction and cinematography do when bringing a story to life.

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  4. mjleach

    Reading Frank’s post made me remember cartoons from when I was young. Unlike today’s cartoons, early cartoons used classical music, and I still can’t hear some Beethoven, etc., without thinking of scurrying cartoon mice, just as I can’t read a poem or other text set to music without hearing the music it was set to. Maybe that’s just the curse of a composer, and not a general trend, as others have mentioned they can hear multiple settings of a poem and still are able to read the original poem without interference from the music they’ve heard it set to. I’m cursed with hearing the first music I heard the text set to. Just as you can only read a book for the first time once, I’m careful with what I listen to, so that my first impressions aren’t colored by bad text setting, and/or annoying noise in the background.

    As for Joseph’s comment about music and text, I pretty much agree. Maybe it’s because I like words so much, but it could also be a reluctance to transform an abstract art form into one with parseable [is that a word?] meaning.

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  5. mjleach

    Ballet and music, pt. 2
    I forgot to mention that when I write music, thanks to midi playback, I’m able to listen to what I’ve been writing, and I always dance (or move) to what I’ve just written – for me it’s an editing process – it helps me feel if I’m on the right track, of if I’ve lost the thread of what I’ve been doing.

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  6. Tom Myron

    Do-Re-MiDi
    I always say that MIDI playback doesn’t tell you how the piece will sound but it sure tells you how it goes.

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  7. vachon321

    “Similarly, poetry is not what vocal music is ultimately about…. For me, the most affective vocal music featuring pre-existing words is always a considered and complementary response to those words. ..”

    I think Ned Rorem would agree with you (see a quote from him pasted below).

    I have always set text as I am a song composer (and I rarely write my own lyrics). To me, the “music” is in the words but, in fact, the words do not always have to be understood by the audience. What must come across to the listener, however, is the sense of the poem as it is felt by the composer.

    “But let the composer have the last word: “A songwriter’s. . .success lies less in comprehending the words he is setting than in feeling them musically, and in being able to convince us of the necessity of his feeling.”
    —Ned Rorem

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  8. larose

    i had the privilege last week to be the ‘assistant tour manager’ for molissa fenley’s revival of her work “Hemispheres” at bucknell university. she collaborated with composer anthony davis and premiered the work at BAM’s next wave festival in 1983 (i was 11 and living in NH back in the day). normally, i, too, have very mixed feelings about dance – it doesn’t satisfy the musician in me (and not being a dancer, well…). watching and listening to “Hemispheres” was exciting and gratifying: it made me want to move and make noise. obviously, i didn’t do that, but i feel good art does “move” you — you sing along, you move along, you react physiologically somehow.

    the second part of the work relates particularly well to this thread, because it begins with about four minutes of unaccompanied dancing. you find yourself hearing the dance; the musicality of it becomes very apparent — i think bad choreography would falter under this situation, but fenley’s work is magical. when the music kicks in (and the musicians are on stage with the dancers the whole time, which is also fantastic), it’s viscerally powerful. the second part also ends with unaccompanied dance. it all feels like it makes perfect sense. i overheard an audience member say that seeing the unaccompanied part made her understand the music so much more. unfortunately, words just don’t do justice here. when music and dance work right, it can be absolutely mind-blowing.

    i first saw parts of “Hemispheres” at last year’s Fall for Dance festival. sorry to sound like an advertisement, but it was part of a really great showcase. that particular night, all of the dance-music pairings were quite effective. don’t give up on dance — and this is coming from a complete klutz.

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  9. annasma

    Frank, you said “Music is not what ballet is ultimately about” and I have to disagree with you. Music IS dance, and vice versa. Music is audio, dance is physical – but they are the same thing. Balanchine was a genius not only because he knew what bodies could do with dance, but because he made the music and the dance the same – not just partners, but integrated into each other. Even in the absence of music, the audience at a dance performance should be able to “hear” the music through the dancers.

    The most wonderful, spiritual moment in my life was when I was dancing Serenade (set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings), in the first section, when the entire corps swooshes off stage at one point – the music and the movement are one big mass of gorgeousness, working together, and that moment really captured it for me. (Interestingly, Balanchine changed the sequence of the musical sections for Serenade, too).

    Clearly the output of a choreographer’s work might might be different than a musician’s perception, as would the the work of a composer be different than a poet’s perception – but that’s part of the artistic process. Wouldn’t it be boring if everything was exactly how we envisioned it?

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