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"Musicality": what is it and can you define it?


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#1 BW

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Posted 07 September 2002 - 05:46 AM

I've heard and read the term "musicality" often and would like to gain a better understanding of it. I suspect that there is more to it than meets the ear. ;) Does it indeed have a technical side to it...as in the way a step is performed? I'm hoping to hear from some of the boards teachers, choreographers and dancers - thanks! :)

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 07 September 2002 - 07:31 AM

Great question, BW. Thank you for posting it. (I also think it would be interesting to hear how audience members define it. It's a term nearly everyone uses.)

I'm sure there are a variety of definitions, and it can be quite controversial. Makarova was one example. American critics generally, as I remember it, praised her for her musicality, but I also remember reading several different British reviews that would say something like "her one sin, lack of musicality." So obviously people were using different definitions!

To me, it's when the dancer is inside the music, and that means that what I see matches what I hear; there's no air between the movement and the music. An unmusical dancer, to me, is one who gets in the way of the music, who's "off" the music or, at worst, is fighting the music.

Choreographers use music differently, and I think one should be aware of this, and not expect Tudor to be danced like Balanchine, or vice versa. Some choreographers set dances on the melody, others are more aware of rhythm.

I have two stories about dancers and musicality, but I'll wait to post them until there are other responses :)

#3 Doris R

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Posted 07 September 2002 - 07:48 AM

To me someone who has musicality is one who "fills" the music. As a member of the audience I can see it, but I'd like to know what it is to feel it.
I'd really like to see a response from a dancer on this.

#4 vagansmom

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Posted 07 September 2002 - 09:56 PM

I think Alexandra and Doris have both defined musicality really well. I think another indication of a dancer with musicality would have to be a generosity of spirit - the dancer is (often unconsciously) open to the audience. Not mugging for us, but including us. There are some dancers who are perfectly on the music in every way and technically clean yet they fail to engage the audience.

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 September 2002 - 10:41 PM

I've decided, somewhat regretfully, that there are so many different conceptions of what musicality is out there that at best we can make personal "I know it when I see it" definitions for it. I've heard choreography I considered to have an absolutely pedestrian use of the music (getting the counts, but not the architecture of the score) be called "luminously musical" by others. Try as I might, I couldn't figure out what was meant.

There are many different ways to be musical. When I danced, the other company members provided examples of different ways of being musical. One of the women was the most reliably musical; she was consistent and hit the same count that was set everytime. She wasn't mechanical, just extremely consistent. Another friend was the most interestingly musical dancer in the company. Her musicality was based on a response to the music as she was hearing it each time. It was wonderful to watch, but it also meant that she was not consistent, and it made it tough for her to be in the corps (a good thing she was strong enough to be a soloist!)

In choreography, as I implied earlier, for me musicality means getting beneath the skin of the music. If a choreographer is musical, I'll know why s/he used that piece of music to set a dance; the dance will have made me understand its relation to the music. If after watching the dance I still have no idea why the choreographer chose that music, even if the dance fits the bar lengths, in my mind, it isn't musical.

#6 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 September 2002 - 11:44 PM

So what's "musical"?

More definitions of "musical"

#7 BW

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 04:33 AM

Leigh, thanks for those links - I knew I'd read a discussion earlier on this subject but guess I didn't choose the right "version" of the word in my search.:)

I find it quite interesting to read the different and, sometimes, only slightly different interpretations. I especially enjoyed Michael's turn of the phrase when he wrote:

Also, at the risk of being a obscure, a strong argument can be made that what is most "music" is precisely what most evades verbal definition -- that the essence of "musicality" is the thing which most refuses to be pinned down in words. By virtue of that fact alone, it is most what is worthy of being irreducibly called "music". You can't catch the movement in the stream as it flows by, you will be left with a handful of water, not the flow.


I'm still hoping for a bit more discussion, if that's not beating the subject into the ground. Leigh, you as a choreographer seem to come to the question with what I might dare to call more of an architectural approach. Vagansmom, as a musician, knows the underpinnings of the music - yet still seems to approach this with a more visceral reaction...am I right on this, Vagansmom? Doris R, although I do not know your "musical" background, it seems you are more in Vagansmom's stream. And Alexandra when you write:

To me, it's when the dancer is inside the music, and that means that what I see matches what I hear; there's no air between the movement and the music. An unmusical dancer, to me, is one who gets in the way of the music, who's "off" the music or, at worst, is fighting the music.

Choreographers use music differently, and I think one should be aware of this, and not expect Tudor to be danced like Balanchine, or vice versa. Some choreographers set dances on the melody, others are more aware of rhythm.


...I feel you may be combining these two approaches. Naturally, I am probably simplifying everyone's responses, but this is the "Discovering Ballet" forum, and I do want to try to understand this subject ...so forgive my own more remedial approach! :)

Leigh, I know you have been a dancer...are there any other ballet dancers out there who might give us their views as well? Other choreographers? Just to get some more input and see if there are similarities or differences?

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 07:19 AM

Thank you for those comments, BW. I don't want to interrupt THAT flow, and am popping in only to say that even though we have discussed this, I hope we can talk about it again. These questions bubble up every six months or so, and there are about 600 people who've registered since our last discussion, so please, chime in!

#9 vagansmom

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 08:55 AM

And what about the occasional dance without music? Can we even discuss musicality in those cases?

I think so. There are still dancers who have a robotic response to the music. There's a sameness to everything they dance although their technique might be above reproach. No color, no nuance. So maybe the musicality of a dancer has to be considered not in terms of just one or two dances but a body of dances.

#10 Ed Waffle

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 02:38 PM

This thread seems to have run its course, but....

Years ago at the ballet a beautiful young dancer with technique to burn took the stage in Detroit. I was extremely impressed and wrote about it in alt.arts.ballet—this predated BalletTalk. One of the terms I used in describing this dancer and my response to her was “musical”. Shortly after the post appeared I received an email asking if I really thought this dancer was musical, since the that was one attribute that had never occurred to him concerning this dancer.

I realized that I had simply used the term “musical” as another signifier for the term “I was thrilled with this performance.” The definition of musical is one I have thought of a lot since then.

One of the first things to understand is that an artist will interpret music. She doesn’t only “play the notes as written” or “dance the steps as choreographed”, but will add her own creative sense to it. If the music is not interpreted one might as well simply read the score or the dance notation.

Music has form—to oversimplify, there is the vertical movement of melody and the horizontal shape of harmony. But musical phrases have their own shape, which can be seemingly simple, such as the first few bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its rhythmic dah-dah-dah-DAH.

An example of what musicality is not is the use of “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi . It has become overly familiar. Used for lots of commercials and in pieces in movie scores, synthesized into unmusicality so that only the melody remains. You can hear it, it may trigger the hoped for response, but it has little to do with what Puccini, the master melodist, had in mind.

Two other examples from the world of opera are Maria Callas and Irina Mishura. Callas, of course remains famous years after her death. Mishura is a mezzo-soprano from Moldavia, currently based in Detroit, who is the toast of the regional opera circuit in the USA but only one of a seemingly endless supply of talented mezzos on the international stage.

In 1949 Callas was taking the operatic world by storm. By 1965 her voice was shot. What was always part of her make-up, though, is her intense musicality, her ability, even with her instrument in tatters, to shape a phrase in such a way that you knew that Verdi, Donizetti or Puccini would have loved it.

There is a bootleg tape of Callas in Dallas in 1957, rehearsing with conductor Nicola Rescigno and a pick up professional orchestra (there is always a bootleg tape of Callas). The orchestra was having difficulty with the bel canto style of an excerpt from Anna Bolena until Callas sang the final trills with their lengthy ritards a capella for the orchestra to show them the rhythmic peculiarities, which they then grasp. Quite amazing.

Callas was one of the only singers (and the only prima donna) who regularly attended all rehearsals, including those for the orchestra or chorus only, so that she could better understand what they would be doing.

Irina Mishura has made many of the dramatic mezzo roles her own. She is wonderful as Delilah, Azucena, Ulrica, Amneris. She inhabits roles in the way that legendary mezzos like Guiletta Simonetta did and simply pours herself into the music. In one of the three great arias for Delilah there is a very tricky descending chromatic scale that goes on and on—just the type of thing to fudge, especially in the middle of several performances. We saw five of the six Delilahs that Mishura did her in Motown and she hit every note on that run every time, gave each note its full value and seamlessly blended each to the next.

One thing that both of these artists have in common is hard work—really hard work. Singers, dancers or instrumentalists are not born with musicality. It is developed, nurtured and fought for.

Which isn’t to say that years of study will be enough—conservatory graduates of schools in the USA can sight read Stockhausen, and learn all three Donizetti queens while on the plane to London. But they can’t interpret and shape musical phrases to increase the audience’s understanding of the music and enjoyment of the performance.

#11 PK

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 09:57 AM

Louis Armstrong was once asked what the definition of jazz was.His reply was"Man,If ya gotta ask"...Jazz can be defined but really just has to "be done." Musicality in dance is the same way in a sense in that the musical dancer moves and moves the audience by expression.When a dancer uses musicality in dance the dancing looks effortless.It flows with the music.The dancer knows the music,how it is put together,and can do any movements with ease.I believe skills can be developed relating to rhythm,musical form and style,but I do think some people are born with it,while others never quite get it.The naturally musical dancer is less concerned with the steps-and you can see their ability to feel the rhythm and move to the music expressively.You can see it.This kind of dancer is more than a master of the steps.He can anticipate phrasing,pauses and emphasis in music.It is harder to explain but you can indeed see it.

#12 G

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 10:24 PM

How would "musicality" differ from "personality" as in the technique or personality poll started by Leigh Witchel back in March.

G

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 10 September 2002 - 07:15 AM

Both are imprecise terms, G, and I think one could argue that musicality is part of personality, but "personality," as I think people were using the term, means more than that, it was any elements that were beyond a pure classroom technique.

#14 BW

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 05:44 PM

Just doing a bit of digging tonight and thought I'd bring this one up for air. :unsure:

#15 Amy Reusch

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 08:31 PM

For me, musicality is when a dancer's rhythmic sense goes beyond mere accuracy.


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