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


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#46 Klavier

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 04:17 PM

I am curious. Do dancers generally use musical scores when learning their roles? are they generally well-versed in reading music? or do they work with recordings of standard works, or just the rehearsal pianist? I am much more a musical person than a dance person, and as it happens I have two study scores sitting besides my desk at the moment: one is a complete Sleeping Beauty, which just arrived in today's mail, and the other is my old copy of Stravinsky's Agon.

Obviously much of the Sleeping Beauty music can be heard in clear 8-bar phrases that are easily memorized; I don't think it would be a huge effort to memorize a section from a recording. But Agon is a whole other story rhythmically: to the "naked ear" on hearing a recording you might think the opening pas de quatre starts on a downbeat with the first chord and continues to the next downbeat with the next. But in fact the first chord is syncopated, an offbeat to the third beat in a 4/8 measure; the next chord is an offbeat to the first beat in the second measure. And then there all the meter shifts - 4/8 to 3/8 and back throughout the movement. Later sections of Agon are even more complicated, perhaps the most difficult being the Bransle Gay, where the castanets are written in a steady 3/8 rhythm and the flutes, bassoons, and harp shift between 7/16, 5/16, and 3/8, only occasionally in synch with the percussionist. Just how does a dancer learn such rhythms and how to coordinate his or her movements with them? The Stravinsky Movements for Piano and Orchestra is if anything worse.

Another question regarding musicality. Do dancers - who everyday experience some of the gretest classical scores, like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bach - tend to take a greater interest in classical music than the public at large? or are these scores "what they do at work," and they have other musical interests when they're not dancing?

#47 Hans

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Posted 16 August 2006 - 04:21 AM

Klavier (great screen name, by the way!) I have never seen or heard of a dancer using a musical score to learn a role. They just work on it in rehearsal with the pianist (or a recording if it's the one to which they'll be dancing). Some can read music and others cannot--it depends on whether the school where they were trained offered music lessons or if they studied music elsewhere.

As far as learning complicated music goes, the answer is "Rehearsal!" They (usually) rehearse over and over and over until they know the music and the movements that go with it backward and forward--basically, it's learning by rote. Once that is accomplished it is possible to start "feeling" the music more and being more expressive.

Whether dancers take a greater interest in classical music than most, I couldn't say; I'm not sure it's been studied. There are certainly dancers who are also musicians, but it has not been my experience that they know much more about classical music than anyone else. Many dancers are interested in other types of music (in addition to or instead of classical) for personal listening.

#48 carbro

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Posted 16 August 2006 - 10:05 AM

I don't know whether there's any evidence to support this, but it seems reasonable that since ballet dancers are exposed more than the population at large to classical music from a quite early age, they are more amenable to it. It's difficult to imagine a person who has little interest in music becoming a dancer -- or at least succeeding as a professional. So my guess is that yes, dancers probably like classical music more than the general population, partly because they make a self-selected sample, and partly due to frequent exposure and familiarity.

#49 bart

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Posted 19 August 2006 - 11:47 AM

Another question regarding musicality. Do dancers - who everyday experience some of the gretest classical scores, like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bach - tend to take a greater interest in classical music than the public at large? or are these scores "what they do at work," and they have other musical interests when they're not dancing?

Great question. I'd love to hear from others who are more knowledgeable about this than I am.

Dancers do seem to like all kinds of music. However, I suspect that few would listen to Minkus-Pugni, or even Adam-Delibes or Tchaikovsky, on their time off.

On of our local companies is Ballet Florida, classically based, but now mostly contemporary in rep. They dance to Bartok, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and high-brow contemporaries. But what music would the dancers themselves select if they had the chance?

To quantify as much as possible, I turned to the last 5 years of programing for Step Ahead, a choreographer's workshop which the dancers themselves create and produce at the end of each season. Most of the work is by current or former company members. In these 5 years they produced a total of 29 dances.

Classical
Only 4 out of 29 would be considered "classical music" by most of us: Ravel (Bolero), Beethoven, Mozart, and Lizst (Liesbestraum).

Non-classical, but I've heard of them.
There were 11 in this category. Yo Yo Ma (with our without the Silk Road Ensemble) led this pack with 3 works. Among others were Aretha Franklin, Queen, the Beastie Boys, Pink Floyd (performed by the Royal Philharmonic), Clint Mansell (performed by the Kronos Quartet), Harry Connick Jr., John Williams, and the film score from Frida.

I don't remember whether I've ever heard of these, and don't really know the terminology for their kind of music, but they certainly sounded vaguely "international," "new age," souply, rhythmic, and/or world etthnic.
14 dances fit into this category. Among the names are Michael Nyman (twice), Peter Gabriel, James Asher, Jaz Coleman and Hinewehi Mahi, Pants and Corset, Oynstein Sevag and Lakki Patey, and Depeche Mode.

So, there it is -- just one company, just 5 years. The music was simple, film-score-ish, rather exotic, with long lines and fairly predictable rhythms.

I wonder whether this kind of music would be chosen by dancers today in other companies and other parts of the world.

#50 Klavier

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Posted 21 August 2006 - 07:50 PM

Dancers do seem to like all kinds of music. However, I suspect that few would listen to Minkus-Pugni, or even Adam-Delibes or Tchaikovsky, on their time off.


I don't think I would listen to Minkus-Pugni, or even Adam-Delibes on my time off! (Tchaikovsky is another story.)

But part of what I'm getting is that I would think to dance many of the more demanding scores in at least a repertory like that of NYCB - which includes complex 12-tone pieces like Webern's Concerto and Symphony (for Balanchine's Episodes) and Berg's Violin Concerto (for Robbins's In Memory Of), one does need an above-average understanding of some quite difficult music. These are scores that many classical music lovers and even some musicians I know find completely opaque ("atonal crap," in the words of one friend of mine). I wonder if there are dancers who would throw up their hands given such an assignment and say, "I can't make any sense of this music at all! I'd rather do 64 fouettés in Swan Lake than dance to this noise!" (Of course they may not have a choice.) Do pieces like the ones I've named tend to be more difficult for dancers to learn and perform as a direct result of the musical context?

I'm not sure where I'm going with any of this, but it does strike me that if a dancer is to manage such an assignment, they have to have some grasp of the music beyond the ordinary. And it would seem that at least at SAB, there is some attempt to educate students in understanding music, and perhaps to include some of the difficult scores they might have to deal with as professionals:

Each student's progress toward professionalism is inextricably related to his or her understanding of music. The School's music curriculum (for levels B1, B2, C1 and Intermediate Men) develops and strengthens not only students' musical skills but begins effectively to cultivate musical sensitivity and understanding. In the first year, students learn basic rhythm training and the harmonic system. In the second and third years, students begin developing musical sensitivity by listening, learning musical terminology and history; and they become familiar with composers, especially those associated with dance.

http://www.sab.org/wt_curric_music.htm

Kind of a rambling, inconclusive post, I know - but just trying to see if it sparks some interesting replies.

#51 Hans

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Posted 22 August 2006 - 04:36 AM

As honorable as SAB's efforts to educate its students in music are, they unfortunately do not have anywhere near enough training to be able to analyze a Stravinsky score (or any other score). It's mostly very basic music theory and piano technique. I don't blame the school or their excellent music teacher; there just aren't enough hours in the day for that combined with the dance schedule.

#52 bart

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Posted 22 August 2006 - 05:48 AM

Stravinsky wrote:

To be a good listener you must acquire a musical culture, as in literature. You must be familiar with the history and development of music, you must listen. [ ... ] To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.


How necessary is for a dancer to "understand" a score in order to be able to perform it effectively? Or is it sufficient to be able to feel the music, do the counts, and follow choreographic instructions?

Another question: How many accomplished dancers also play musical instruments? (In my experience, actually playing clarinet, and singing in a serious chorus, have had a much bigger influence on my appreciation of, and ability to listen to, difficult music than any theory or history course I was exposed to.)

#53 papeetepatrick

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Posted 22 August 2006 - 07:40 AM

Stravinsky wrote:

To be a good listener you must acquire a musical culture, as in literature. You must be familiar with the history and development of music, you must listen. [ ... ] To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.


How necessary is for a dancer to "understand" a score in order to be able to perform it effectively? Or is it sufficient to be able to feel the music, do the counts, and follow choreographic instructions?


This is Stravinsky speaking, so one stops in rapt attention as with any demigod. It should nevertheless be taken with a grain of salt and refers to something that he then describes as almost a professional level. I think it is an absurd requirement for anyone who is not a professional musician to be called a 'good listener' only if such rigours are observed.

In fact everyone, including musicians, first has to be able to hear like a duck--and it's even important not to forget to hear like a duck (a little like the id hearing maybe). Naturally, the more deeply one goes into any art the 'better' listener one becomes, but you have to start somewhere and just keep going.

Years before I discovered Ballet Talk and Gretchen Ward Warner, I went to the ballet without knowing exactly what balances and bourrees were. I knew what rondes de jambe and grand jetes were (somewhat) from playing ballet classes, even though I didn't pay much attention and was just doing it for the money. I like knowing about these facts and techniques more and more, and think it makes me appreciate ballet much more and go on to higher levels. But I know that in going to NYCB and other companies for 25 years before I was still already a good ballet audience member: That is the way I came to love it, by immersing myself in it for the sensation and easily accessible beauty of it, not by starting intellectually. So that this sort of quote is an unforturnate kind of thing I've read among various great artists insofar as it can be misleading and discouraging. It is sometimes probably meant just to keep the field protected, but is off-putting to a lot of people who would go on to discover and explore more if not told something so severe. You can hear this sort of pronouncement in Balanchine's entirely subjective opinions of great composers and which had more to do with his own personal needs for music as a choreographer than anything otherwise profound. You hear Elliott Carter say that a composer must always be able to explain clearly what it is he is doing, when it is not something I imagine Duke Ellington always did (nor do I think he ever needed to explain) when he wrote music that was less formal but that I certainly prefer. Pierre Boulez will give all sorts of reasons why even the highest 'other listeners' such as Stockhausen and John Cage are more or less nowhere because they don't write like he does, are 'underfunded' or 'refreshing, but not very bright', respectively. Writers like Mailer and Updike take it upon themselves to instruct Tom Wolfe, saying he only wrote 'entertainment, not literature', in 'a Man in Full.' (I haven't read that book, but prefer 'Bonfire of the Vanities' to anything Updike has recently written, especially 'Brazil' and 'In the Beauty of the Lilies', both of which I thought were a lot of hot air.) What's really important for one's culture is to go ahead and dive in and do it and not pay so much attention to remarks by the masters, who often make these off-the-cuff remarks in moments of levity and, although they don't think of such remarks as Gospel, other 'groundlings' get hold of them and begin to decipher them like they were the Unpanishads. I know, because I've been through that stage myself.

One of the most interesting things about the 'master-directive' or quote is that it is often also made with the legitimate concern of preventing over-familiarity by fans who would sometimes like to get too personal without having any real business with their object of adoration. How many times does one hear a great dancer, musician or writer refuse to get involved in any emotional talk and always force any discussion onto the brass-tacks matters of discipline and hard work, 'there's always something you can practice,' getting to bed early, writing every day on a set schedule, keeping appointments--that's how they've earned the positions their talent has allowed them to inhabit, and they are right not to let people in to their immediate world without paying their dues. But you can tell when you've paid your dues when you don't ask the masters for anything but specific things that only they can know and not for general directions about how you should approach whole systems of thinking and understanding art. If you do, then you really do not ever enter into any art on terms that should, at least for that purpose, be essentially your own.

With many complex scores as in the NYCB repertoire, it's obvious the dancers become more and more conscious of what makes the scores work, even if we don't know in what fashion and in what detail. Otherwise, they could not be described as musical. At that level, it's difficult to imagine that many dancers would not voluntarily do a good bit of study on the composers, just as many of us ballet fans start doing research and study on ballet to enhance our understanding.

However, I think there is a great deal to be said about the 'feeling one's way into a score' that a dancer must do as far more important than formal study (for one thing, every dancer has to do this anyway, even the ones who can't.) You could still be a musical dancer without knowing much or even anything about Baroque music development, for example, but you couldn't if you just kind of got out there and counted from one phrase to the next without imbuing yourself in the sensation the music offers. Artists don't like to talk about sensations much, but they know as much as anyone that that's what people are interested in. I think the feeling of the music must come first, therefore, for a dancer, long before he becomes Stravinsky's 'good listener', and even with both approaches there will be some dancers who are not musical. But there could be many musical dancers who didn't study the Grout survey (and there are many musicians who did not like having to use it in Music History classes.) As for Music Theory, that's usually taught rather mechanically and drily, as if excised from the business of actually making music. a musician needs some Harmony and Counterpoint; a dancer would never need this unless he was personally interested to do it.

#54 dirac

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Posted 23 August 2006 - 10:56 AM

papeetepatrick writes:

But I know that in going to NYCB and other companies for 25 years before I was still already a good ballet audience member: That is the way I came to love it, by immersing myself in it for the sensation and easily accessible beauty of it, not by starting intellectually.


That's absolutely right, IMO.

So that this sort of quote is an unforturnate kind of thing I've read among various great artists insofar as it can be misleading and discouraging. It is sometimes probably meant just to keep the field protected, but is off-putting to a lot of people who would go on to discover and explore more if not told something so severe.


Years ago I remember listening to an interview that Terry Gross conducted with the late Uta Hagen for the NPR show “Fresh Air.” Gross ventured to ask a question about technique and Hagen slapped her down hard – how could Gross possibly understand? Wasn’t she condescending to acting? Would she ask a violinist such questions? (Gross stood her ground and said, yes, she would.) Hagen was reacting against the perception that acting is something that “everybody” can understand without any study or technical knowledge, and I know why she felt that way, but it can certainly be discouraging to those who don’t know much and would like to know more to hear that from an artist.

#55 innopac

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Posted 10 June 2011 - 03:05 PM

A new post by Ballet Bag on musicality.

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