Fingers

Does music matter?

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I have had the enviable honor of working as a pianist at NYCB for the past 27 years. I have witnessed extraordinary performances in my early years from the pianists Gordon Boelzner and Jerry Zimmerman, and violin performances in recent years from our 2 extraordinary concertmasters Kurt Nikkanen and Arturo Delmoni. This in addition to orchestral performances on the highest level with our current Music Director, Faycal Karoui. The collaboration between musician and dancer is extensive, intense, and subtle, as anyone who knows the history of Balanchine's company would fully expect. And yet, my question is, does anyone really care, or does it really matter? Dancers and musicians often don't know the subtleties of each other's art, a woeful situation, and this can lead to a lack of appreciation and easy denigration of each other's minor failings. The decision of dance critics to exclude any mention of the solo musicians involved in performances (I cite a recent show with 2 soloists and an onstage pianist, none of whom was mentioned in the review in the Times) is an additional insult to the music side of the production. And as audience members, I ask you, does this matter to you? Is the quality of music-making an integral part of your enjoyment of NYCB performances, or are you so absorbed in the dance that the music becomes strictly a background feature and not particularly important?

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The quality of the music is very important to me, be it in live performance or a taped one. For example, in the dvd of the Bolshoi's "Raymonda" starring Natalia Bessmertnova, Algis Zhuriatis's virtuosic and opulent conducting makes Glazunov's score sound fresh and literally glow with beauty. But I went to a ABT "Swan Lake" last Summer and the playing was so sloppy that it wrecked the dancing for me.

I don't mind "canned" music as long as it's a good peformance and well recorded.

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APOLOGIES TO QUIGGAN. In the course of responding to a post by Quiggan I accidentally deleted the post while copying two sentences from it. This post should have been between Makarova Fan's and mine. I'll pm Quiggan and ask for a repost if possible. blushing.gifblushing.gifblushing.gif

Does the performance of music matter? Yes, but less so than the dance, and I find it difficult to focus on both. When I listen, I don't see.

An interesting observation, Quiggan. The Balanchine suggestion about "seeing the music" has become a cliche. However, during recent preformances of Ballet Imperial (to Tchaikovsky), In the Night (to Chopin), and a new work by Liam Scarlett (set to Lowell Liebermann) I suddenly realized that I was NOT seeing the music as deeply or consistently as I expected. (It was a life performance and a very good one.)

There's a section in the Chopin Nocturne used for the third movement of Robbins' In the Night in which a sustained chord is followed by a single high note that goes "ping." This happens four times in succession. The first two times, Robbins has the man lift the girl who -- at the instant of the "ping" -- reaches the apogee and extends her legs in a near split, as in a grand jete developpe. D-a-a-h ... PING. (Pause) D-a-a-h ... PING. At that point, I suddenly became aware of the piano as an equal partner to the dancing.

Something similar happened in Ballet Imperial when a piano trill was illustrated by entrechats, performed by the men.

There are other occasions when a section of music is SO familiar that it pushes itself into forefront for a sustained period of time. A good deal of Swan Lake (Act II) operates on me like that.

After each occasion, the music retreated to the background quickly. It became something I was aware of subliminally, and would certainly have missed if it were shut off, but not at the forefront of my consciousness.

This suggests to me that Fingers' interesting question may not have a single answer.

Has any of this been studied by neuroscientists?

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I think I said:

Does the performance of music matter? Yes, but less so than the dance, and I find it difficult to focus on both. When I listen, I don't see.

When the Maryinksy was here eight years ago in Berkeley, the pianist who was playing the Stravinsky capricco for Rubies was so brilliant - so rollicking - that I didn't know whether to look or listen - my ears finally won out over my eyes, at least for a while. With [Eugene] Onegin which SF Ballet did all this week, I made an effort to try to figure out which Tchaikowsky piece was which - they seemed to be strewn under the dancers feet like a thick carpet of decaying forest leaves - but found myself drifting off into the dancing - despite, perhaps because of the richness of tonality.

The other thing is that ballet music is different than stand-alone music like Mahler, Beethoven, non-devertimento Mozart - which have virtual dancework within them and which you completely immerse yourself in. Dance is destroyed by being set on them. Balanchine, who at one point studied to be a composer, had perfect sense in what went with what.

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Something similar happened in Ballet Imperial when a piano trill was illustrated by entrechats, performed by the men.

Also in Ballet Imperial - in the rough footage of the Paris performance from the second balcony - there's a moment when the ballerina duels? fights? with the wildness of the piano chords - there's a back and forth - and then she does a wild series of jetes circling and describing the stage, something a man usually does. A moment of pure madness - and so heightened that you are aware of the music and dance together.

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This suggests to me that Fingers' interesting question may not have a single answer.

All the really interesting questions have multiple answers!

Has any of this been studied by neuroscientists?

I imagine so, but have they written about it in terms that I can understand? Possibly not.

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Does the performance of music matter? Yes, but less so than the dance, and I find it difficult to focus on both. When I listen, I don't see.

An interesting distinction -- for me, my knowledge of dance is so much more developed than my knowledge of music that I automatically see distinctions in movement that I may miss in the score. But I have colleagues whose skills are more even, and I know they speak far more authoritatively about the performance of the score than I do on a regular basis.

the pianist who was playing the Stravinsky capricco for Rubies was so brilliant - so rollicking

What a fabulous description!

As a working critic, I do want to stand up for my tribe here. Most of my colleagues operate with very restricted space -- we're given a word count or a column inch allowance and need to fit as much information as we can inside that place. I know that for most of us, choosing what to write about is an exercise in exclusion -- I always have more to say than I have space to say it, and when I have to make a choice, I will usually opt for the choreography or the dancers rather than the scenic elements or the music performance.

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Thank you for posting, Fingers, and welcome to this forum. Your query should invite many interesting responses - speak up, everyone!

The collaboration between musician and dancer is extensive, intense, and subtle, as anyone who knows the history of Balanchine's company would fully expect. And yet, my question is, does anyone really care, or does it really matter?

As I'm not a trained musician I'm hors de combat in this discussion to some extent, but yes, I am sensitive to what I hear from the pit. We are fortunate in San Francisco with Michael McGraw at the piano - he contributed mightily to my enjoyment of Symphonic Variations, even if the dancers didn't seem to have quite got hold of Ashton, and the pizzazz of the company's Rubies. It is indeed unfortunate that musical soloists don't get their due in reviews - unless they've goofed up....

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Multiple responses indeed. I often think, for example, when watching Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, that that's just not the way musicians play Bach anymore--does it pain them to have to recur to older ways of understanding eighteenth-century music? I imagine this is true for many other pieces, baroque and otherwise, Balanchine and others. Does choreography to music freeze a certain interpretation of the music in time?

Readers may find this article from the Guardian (UK) interesting: it reports on the growing "renaissance" of classical music. Is the dance world paying attention?

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Does choreography to music freeze a certain interpretation of the music in time?

Oh, what an interesting question! My first impulse is to say absolutely yes -- think of the Hershey Kay orchestrations of Gershwin and traditional Western folk music that Balanchine used for Who Cares and Western Symphony. And the orchestrated versions of Purcell with Limon's Moors Pavane.

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Does choreography to music freeze a certain interpretation of the music in time?

Oh, what an interesting question! My first impulse is to say absolutely yes -- think of the Hershey Kay orchestrations of Gershwin and traditional Western folk music that Balanchine used for Who Cares and Western Symphony. And the orchestrated versions of Purcell with Limon's Moors Pavane.

Ah, but in the case of Kay, at least the composer is in on the "freezing"--i.e., it's a score commissioned for the dances which accompany them. But the Limon is a great example--those kinds of adaptations are decidedly out of favor in the music world (from my perspective). Certian others, though, are revered as masterpieces in themselves, such as Webern's orchestration of Bach, which Balanchine uses in Episodes, of course.

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Ah, but in the case of Kay, at least the composer is in on the "freezing"--i.e., it's a score commissioned for the dances which accompany them.

His use of Western folk music might be so distinct from the source material that he qualifies as the composer here, but I wonder about the Gershwin -- Kay's version of those works feels light-years away from what I understand Gershwin's intentions to be. I always have a real disconnect with the score for Who Cares.

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Not to mention the neutering of Sousa.

Even though I don't care for that orchestration, at least the original material is closer in instrumentation than the songs that are the source for Western Symphony and Who Cares.

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Sappy violins in marching band music -- I object. It's counter to what Balanchine said was the reason Americans walked quickly and forcefully.

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I think many composers in the popular genres like Broadway expect their music to be rearranged (I don't know if "covered" is anachronistic for Gershwin or not). I recall a great discussion of this in one of Ned Rohrem's diaries--from what I remember, he reports chiding Stephen Sondheim for not caring more about protecting his orchestrations. Have to dig that up. But yeah, I agree with Helene: I can't really take Stars & Stripes as a piece of music (actually I'm a bit allergic to the pas de deux, too!).

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I hadn't really thought of these as "cover" versions, but that's a great concept. So then does the trouble start when the cover version becomes more popular than the original (thinking of Elvis's "Hound Dog")

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It's also odd to hear concert versions of pieces to which ballets have been set when the music is cut and/or re-arranged, for example, Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" and "Mozartiana" and the Mendelssohn symphony used for the Divertissement in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", where the middle part of the slow movement was dropped by Balanchine.

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It occurs to me that I shouldn't whinge about Hershey Kay's appropriation of Western folk songs if I'm still a fan of Aaron Copland's score for Appalachian Spring...

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I think many composers in the popular genres like Broadway expect their music to be rearranged

Broadway composers expect their music to be rearranged but they don't necessarily like it.Rodgers and Hart went so far as to write a song about complaining about such liberties ("I Like to Recognize the Tune").

For the record, most writers of show tunes don't/can't do their own orchestrations. Sondheim for years relied on the estimable Jonathan Tunick. In the days of Rodgers and Hart there was Hans Spialek and Robert Russell Bennett. (Weill did his own, and was surprised to hear that others didn't.) The late John McGlinn was a great advocate of recovering original Broadway orchestrations.

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From Fingers' OP:

The collaboration between musician and dancer is extensive, intense, and subtle, as anyone who knows the history of Balanchine's company would fully expect. And yet, my question is, does anyone really care, or does it really matter?

There are really two sides to that collaboration - what happens between the musician and dancer from their perspective and what the audience see from the other side of the footlights. Certainly I care, but I don't necessarily understand the nature of the interaction from where I'm sitting....

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I know that live music makes a whole lot of difference to a performance. Perhaps it's easy for NYCB audiences to take it for granted b/c it's always there.

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A performance without live music is like a performance lit with flourescent light... Our attention is focused entirely on the dancing, but... the subliminal effect of the quality of the music is HUGE...

Like listening to a piece of music played by a student musician or a master musician... It's the same piece of music, after all, but in the master's hands it is much more effective.... The dancing is still the dancing, but it's lacking.

Of course, a bad orchestra/conductor is like bad lighting... It can get in the way of enjoying the art. I wouldn't mind canned music so much if it sounded as good in the theater as in my earphones... but usually it is subjected to awful sound systems. Canned music makes the performance feel like it is missing a dimension...

I can't imagine the difference to the dancers... Sure, canned is predictable... But how many dancers would prefer to take class to canned music over a live accompanist.... Very very few, unless the accompanist is incompetent.

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We often heard badly-reproduced canned music for MCB years ago, so I wrote a letter, pointing out that it had been decades since we had put up with that quality of sound system in our living rooms, so why in the theater? (I allowed for the difficulty of filling a room many times the size of a domestic room with natural-sounding bass.) Next season, I thought I knew what I was hearing, because most recordings have their own acoustic to add to the acoustic of the theater we're sitting in, but it sounded so natural and realistic I had to go down to the pit at intermission to check! Yup, nobody there! So it can be done, and when it is - speaking in general now, not about MCB, whose musical forces are often very good, if not so good as what the Kennedy Center provides TSFB - we can have the advantage of a great, large orchestra in the hands of a good conductor rather than a small group limited in size and quality by budget constraints.

But while the dancers get the flexibility of tempo "live" players provide, which matters most to them, I'd imagine, they still get the sound quality of canned music regardless, I gather: Theaters seem to be constructed so the audience hears the musicians well, but for the dancers the music is typically amplified into the wings, regardless whether there are musicians in the pit or not. And I prefer to think that dancers find some freshness from this flexibility rather than the mechanical rigidity of reproduced music - I've heard of some studios using several recordings in rehearsal for just this reason - there are limits:

At a panel discussion at the Museum of Broadcasting six months after Balanchine's death, the general question what it was like became focussed on this point, and Suzanne Farrell, with a meaningful glance down the table at Balanchine's great conductor, Robert Irving, said, "Well, we never knew what the tempos were going to be." "Horses run better under rein, Suzanne!" Irving shot back. So the enlivening potential for live accompaniment can go too far, I guess.

(Video of this panel has ben available at the Museum and at the dance archive at the NYPL at Lincoln Center.)

This matter to me, because I like the presence and reality of the dancers on stage to be matched by similar characteristics of their musical accompaniment. The best ballet, IMO, looks like the dancers are moving as the music tells them to - although no improvisation could be so good for so long! That effect puts me more or less in awe of what I am seeing and hearing.

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On the subject of live vs. pre-recorded music, even when pre-recorded music is deliberately chosen, it still sounds to me that it's disembodied sound, no matter how good the sound system. For example, in the beginning of "Fancy Free", which starts with a recorded period song, when the first chords of the orchestra are played, it's always a shock to my system to hear the live orchestra emitting from the stage, not from somewhere on high in the theater.

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