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taped music

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Taped music has a "dead" sound, for one thing, and, probably more importantly, there can be no interplay between the conductor/orchestra and the dancers. It's also hard to find a tape that's exactly the right tempo. I watched a rehearsal for a competition once in Copenhagen with a young dancer struggling with Tape A, the 50-second version of Corsaire, and Tape B, the 90-second version. He simply could not dance slow enough to fill out the 90-second version (he was a demi) and the 50-second version would have defeated any human. So both practical and artistic reasons, I think.

But, since Balanchine could live without sets or costumes but kept the orchestra (with an excellent conductor, as long as he was alive), I'd trust his instincts!

Any more musically sensitive and/or aware people out there with other ideas?


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Well, there are those machines which, although small, are frightfully expensive (along the lines of $1500), but they allow for tapes of an extraordinary high quality - no background sound whatsoever - and I think that you can regulate the speed too. It would seem to be a good compromise.

Anecdote: I don't remember where I saw this, but it struck me, so here it is: (attempt at paraphrasing/recalling the correct quote) "There was this new piece which was to be danced. The lights dim. The music starts. The dancers remain in place, but their muscles contract extremely hard. The music goes on, and the dancers just stood there, the tension building, it was magnificent - almost palpable. At which point one dancers says between his/her teeth: 'You... are... playing... the... wrong... tape.' The actual piece was an anticlimax."

Has anybody heard of this?

Celia, trying hard to picture a 50 seconds version of Corsaire in her head.

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As a former musician, I'd be loath to get rid of all those jobs!! And I like the flexabilty and collaboration that comes with having a live orchestra.

When I think of taped music, I think of those "Stars of the Kirov" groups that come around: taped music, programs changed at the last minute, never knowing what dancer is going to perform. All poor planing that almost defeats the usually fine dancing.

A few seasons ago, the NYCB had a ballet to Wourinin's (I might have spelled his name wrong) two-piano transcription of an orchestral piece by Schoenberg. The two pianos were on stage. I liked the ballet very much and never missed a performance. However, the next season the costumes changed and the pianos were replaced by an orchestral version. But when I looked into the pit, it was dark. When I asked one of the information people what happened, they said I must of got two ballets confused. They were really demeaning. Well, the next time the ballet was performed a protesting member of the orchestra thrust a flyer in my hand. It said that the Schoenberg performance was the first time in the 48-plus (or so) years that NYCB used taped music. I never could understand why the company just didn't have the orchestra play the piece live. It's not as if they couldn't handle it.


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Celia -

The 50-second Corsaire was just the man's solo. Sorry I wasn't clear.

I'd also say that in live performance, a live orchestra matters. It's part of the electricity.

Dale -

Agree wholeheartedly about the little Russian touring companies. It's especially unfortunate when they make tapes to accommodate five-minute curtain calls -- except the audience stops clapping after about 90 seconds, and there's just dead air and huffy dancers.


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Alexandra, sorry that I, myself, was not clear, but I did understand that it was the male solo. I have seen it many times, both live and on video, and I had some troubles picturing it in such a fast version.

Regarding the taped music with pre-set intervals you were telling about, I had heard that things like that happened. I have never seen it, but I would assume that it can get pretty awkward. I also recall, and correct me if I'm wrong, that Russian dancers, amongst others, expect lengthy applause after each variation, as it is, amongst other reasons, a good way to recover.

I also agree with your and Dale's opinions on the importance of a live orchestra. I have some musical training, and I can picture how hard it would be to get the orchestra and the dancers completely in touch with each other. But when this connection is achieved, when everything is there, the result can be pure magic. For example, in Les Sylphides, Chopin's music can require a lot of rubato. And the dancers don't necessarily need to be perfectly on the beat, especially, perhaps, when the music is played rubato - sometimes, being just ahead of or just behind the music can convey more feeling. When in a ballet, there is total fusion between a top-notch orchestra and top-notch dancers, it can become absolutely magnificent.


[This message has been edited by Celia Yves (edited 12-29-98).]

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On the subject of lenghty applause for russian dancers, I read somewhere (the problem is I can't remember where and when) that it was also a matter of russians dancing so little on stage. Under communist government, even the principals might dance only once a month on stage, because everybody had to be equal, so each principal got the same number of performances as all the others. Management would not consider the public's preferences, the star system did not exist and selling tickets was not an issue because there were always full houses (politicians, party members etc.) So if you love dancing enough to make it your life, but get to dance in front of the public once a month or even less, then you really want that applause... and I could understand that.

The problem is, I think conditions changed a lot, russian dancers are a lot more exposed to public performances but they did not change and they still try to "milk" the applause. That can be very disturbing.


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A lot of modern dance troupes use taped music--possibly because that is what they can afford. Many companies barely pay their dancers, so hiring musicians would be prohibitive.

Taped music for ballet, however, is another matter. I saw a touring French company last year that used prerecorded music and it was distracting. The two piano reductions that have been mentioned can be extraordinary in the hands of talented pianists (although I prefer the pianos in the pit). Opera companies on tour sometimes use the piano reductions to some very complex works--and the music seems to be all there. Such is the magic of the theater.

The interaction, when it happens, between the pit and the stage is probably better mentioned in another thread--possibly one on the dearth of good conductors available now.

A few years ago the Louisville Opera tried what they called a virtual orchestra--some especially programmed synthesizers in the pit, run by two or three people. An idea whose time has not yet come and which I pray is not the wave of the future.

Hope everyone had a joyous holiday season and did not get Nutcrackered and Messiahed to distraction!

ed waffle

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Sometimes taped music is required by the choreographer...

For example : some Forsythe works have to be performed with taped music...His ARTIFACT II, have to be performed on a particular recording of Bach's Partitat No 2, Chaconne. A live performance by a soloist violonist could destroy the work, as it was choreographed on the special nuances of a particular recording.

But I agree, a performance without live music, is missing the magic that happens when performers bound...

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The reality is that an orchestra is a hugely expensive investment. I agree that it can be wonderful; I have also seen, heard, been involved in shows where it was not so wonderful to have a live orchestra. (let's just say that a bad French horn solo in Nutcracker's Spanish can give you a headache for days)

As to tapes...the tape is only as good as the engineer making it. It doesn't matter how noise-free your playback system is, if you are not playing a good piece of source material. And there are many options besides the tapes now. Many companies have CD playback, and mini-disc, in addition to the standard DAT and reel to reel and cassette.

Unfortunately, few companies have the luxury have having a good sound tech on full staff, whether they are using live or recorded.

The speed of the music can be unobtrusively altered, by computer, to fit whatever the ballet master needs, or even to particulars of each dancer performing the variation. And it is not the overall length that matters, so much as the tiny variations through a piece of music. Slower here, faster here, etc.

And once in the theatre, assuming that the homework was done for the recording, varies parts of the music, that make the whole, can be sent to different speaker locations through the space and pit and stage, to essentially recreate the orchestra.

Care, planning, and artistry, and yes, money, have to go into the sound tape from the very beginning. And if this is done, you can have people peering into the pit, wondering how you did it.

I have worked with ballet and modern companies, and have heard great music from both venues, recorded and live.


(whose dead hands will still be gripping her beloved mini-disc player)

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Thanks, Barb, for the information on how a good tape can be made. I found it fascinating.

I understand that orchestras are expensive but there is an edge to live music that just can't be replaced, even by a good tape, I think. The unpredictability is gone. And I'd miss the horn player (in the Kennedy Center orchestra, some guy has managed to play the same wrong note in every performance of Romeo and Juliet I've ever seen. But he always plays it wrong a little differently).


p.s. Hi Ed! Good to hear from you. Missed you.

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As a "former" horn player who studied for four years with the principal horn player for the NYCB I have to say that the French Horn is one of the hardest and most unpredictable instruments to play. It's not like the piano or flute, where you push the right button (s) and presto! the note comes out. The horn has three keys (as does the trumpet and tuba) but unlike those instruments, the interval system on the French Horn is so close, especially in the upper register that you can play a note such as G with no keys pressed, 1, two, 1 and 3 or all. The range of the instrument (as written by most composers) is tremendous, spaning sometimes four octives. So, please be kind to your local French Horn player as he or she is butchering the nocturn solo from Midsummer Night's Dream, they are probably doing everything right but that blasted funny instrument is getting in the way!

Thanks, Dale

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To Dale and all current and former pit musicians:

God bless you!

It will be straight to heaven after you shuffle off this mortal coil, because you have served your time in purgatory in various orchestra pits. Often ignored when they play beautifully, always vilified when problems arise, hidden from the audience who often don't even know that they are taking a bow when they finally get to do so.

Those on stage, of course, know just how important the orchestra is. While it is often the prima donna who first acknowledges the orchestra during the calls, it is not unusual for several singers who take bows before the star to do so. They know what went on during the performance and just how much they were dependent on the musicians under the stage. A great orchestra can't make a poor singer (or dancer) sound or look great, but it can elevate a performance--from average to good, from good to great, from great to demented.

There are lots of just horribly exposed solo parts that are commented upon only if there is a bobble--and some are as difficult as anything can be. Dale mentioned the French horn solo in MND. Add to that the first flute in "Lucia Di Lammermoor", the third horn in "Fidelio", the concertmaster in "Swan Lake", all the first chair winds in "Carmen," many more than I can list here. The artists who fill these roles should be listed in the program and take a bow on stage.

The other side of it is boredom. You don't have to be able to play an instrument or even read music to appreciate these talented people. Just listen to your favorite ballet with score in hand a few times. You will find some really sublime passages and a lot of really boring passages that seem to go forever--page after page of the most banal "ompah" band music. Lots of it, in both ballet and opera.

So, give a thought and a few BRAVOS to those artists in the pit, without which whom the magic could not happen.

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I would have to concur with Barb on the benefits of using CD's in a house with a wonderful sound system....cost...and the fact that many orchestras in small towns or cities just do not have the caliber of musicians to handle a score properly...Of course it is magical when you have a wonderful orchestra, conductor, and enough rehersal time with them to achieve the ultimate harmonious balance between dancers and musicians! - but unless you are in a major city and have major financial backing - these days it is near to impossible to achieve this, and i dare say i would rather hear a quality soundtrack any day than a poor quality orchestra or even a wonderful orchestra without the sensitivity to the dancers.

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I can understand, Barb, that when you had to sit through a performance of the Nutcracker with a French horn solo in the Spanish variation, you ended up with a severe headache, simply because it's usually played by a TRUMPET.

And although I agree about the unlimited possibilities of sound recording and reproduction at present, using taped music in a ballet performance is like playing soccer without a real ball. It's really no use doing it. Besides, most ballet companies won't even consider investing in the first-rate equipment needed for reproducing decent sound.

Many ballets which are available on commercial video were filmed with playback, by the way. Even the applause is playbacked. This also explains why sometimes a variation or a solo, where the dancer has to start and the music has to fall in at the right time, is missing on the tape, simply because the technician wasn't able to push the button of the player at the right moment... How ridiculous can you get?

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The system that you hear the taped music through is the same system that the live orchestra is being played through; the only difference being the one mechanical piece playing the recorded music. And these systems exist in the house and are not dependent on what the company has. I would hazard a guess that most any big theatre you step into has a sophisticated means of playback, and I would go a step further to say that most of the major companies have access to means of playback. And as to the cueing of a piece of music, as with lights, it starts with the stage manager. A technician doesn't do anything until he/she is told to, just as the conductor is "cueing" the musicians.

I think it would be wonderful if all companies could afford the luxury of live music when called for, but unfortunately, that ideal world doesn't exist for every company these days. Fortunately, there are other methods to still produce the art, and maintain the integrity of the work, without bankrupting an organization. I personally feel that though a live performance with live music is to be savored, as any other fine experience in life, I don't think belittling what organizations do to taped music is the answer. I think through education, we can heighted the technical quality that all companies are able to bring to their audiences. And that's what is really important, that there is dance out there, everywhere, for everyone to have a chance to appreciate whether in New York City or Youngstown, Ohio, 50 million dollar budget or 500 hundred thousand, or 5 thousand.

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Orchestra vs taped music, I think everyone in ballet would prefer the use of orchestra but is it unfair to see less fortunate companies due to location go belly-up due to this. I feel if a company performs in their "hometown", the ballet company should use every means possible to supply an orchestra. But, if a company decides to tour than taped music should be accepted. As Barb has already stated, taped music can work but only if you plan well and allow artists to be involved in the recreation process. Let's not forget that by expanding the visibility of a ballet company through touring, (tape/orchestra) can only benefit the world of dance. I would rather see a quality-taped music touring ballet production than not to see one at all.

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Everything that's been said about the economics of using live music is, I'm sure, true. And in some cases (sorry, musicians), I think musicians have priced themselves out of the market. There was a movement in the '80s and early '90s for the "pick up" orchestras (like the one the Kennedy Center used) to become "real" orchestras, or be paid as thought they were a real orchestra, when, in fact, they are not.

That aside, and with all sympathies to smaller, poor companies, if you want to play in the big leagues, you have to use live music. Or, said less crudely, a first-rank classical ballet company must have first-rank productions, dancers, and musicians. It's that simple.

I have great respect for civic ballet companies. One of the nicest "Giselles" I ever saw was by a tiny, once-a-year troupe in Virginia, with imported principals (not stars), one 16-year-old boy as Wilfrid AND peasant pas, and a passle of girls who would never get into even a minor regional company. But the production was genuine, in the way a first-rate high school production of Hamlet is genuine, and the families and friends of the performers (the audience) got a very good idea of what "Giselle" is like.

The bar re taped/live music is being bent all the time -- summer pick up companies, Soloists of the You Name It Ballet -- but, clear sound system and high tech aside, I agree with Marc. I'ts like playing soccer without a ball -- great analogy. We'll soon have virtual dance on the Net, too -- or we would, if there were enough dance fans to make it economically viable -- but it's not the same thing.


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Great idea (and this is of course another thread -- sense and nonsense of touring), to expand the visibility of a ballet company through touring. But not at all costs, I think. The result is at times anything but benefitting the world of dance. For instance, it's sad to hear from people, who went to see a ballet performance of some visiting company for the first time in their lives, that they came back with a big disappointment because of the obvious poverty and low-standard of the whole event. Even before the final curtain came down they already had made up their minds: This was the first and last ballet performance they would ever bother with. Indeed, "Is ballet only THAT?"

As could be seen a couple of years ago when "The Stars of the Kirov Ballet" were touring the USA for several (some dancers said "endless") weeks in a row, with taped music: is this the proper way to get acquainted with ballet or with a famous company?

As for the hi-tech efforts to "recreate" the orchestra, with even manipulating the speed of the music by computer and so on, that really sounds frightening. For when the computerized ballerina?

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Re: Taped vs Live music & small-time touring ballet companies.

I think it is approaching outrageous that the discussion on these topics tends to imply that unless a ballet company has a first rate orchestra and is "judged" to be competant enough (by whom in advance?) to properly represent ballet to the general public, it should stay at home and only invite the local townsfolks. Clearly most companies are second-rate , when compared to the very few which can (or should be able to) present "the highest calibre" dance performances.

I'm sure there is no disagreement that having less than the best orchestra (or none at all) or having less than the most accomplished dancers produces less than the best dance performances. The discussion has addressed this truism. No problem there.


There seems to be a kind of tone in the discussion so far that when "less than the best" dance is presented too conveniently or goes on tour, some grave damage is done to ballet as a whole. If none but the best were to be presented , how could anyone ever judge what is the best? Let the dance-going public decide what they want to see or not, and if a company can survive on what it has at its disposal, then that too is good. The more that is presented the better, is how I would view it.

And besides, who will serve on the "dance police" committee to issue permits to allow dancing by only the most qualified companies in public?

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Paul, it's not that they "can't" go on tour. It's that if they want to be considered first-rate companies the standard is still live music, for all the reasons that have been stated here.

While I don't subscribe to everything Arlene Croce wrote, I do agree with much of it, and the Croce line that applies here is: "Ballet is good only when it is great." There is a lot of truth in that.


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Yes quite, Paul, let the ballet-going public decide what they want to see or not. The public has been doing nothing else, here in Western Europe.

The last ten years or so we have been treated to several visiting companies from Eastern Europe, Russia (I guess they appeared in the USA as well). The first time the company presents 'Swan Lake' with almost no sets (you know, 'Well-filled ballroom' says the program for the third act, and there is nothing but a chair on the stage), dusty costumes, a hissing tape that makes so much noise that you wonder if the house is on fire -- and I won't say anything about the quality of the artists involved.

Yet, everybody is fooled, partly also because the company sometimes appears under a "borrowed" (read: "false") name of some other more illustrious company ("Kirov", "Bolshoi" seem to be favorites), which allows them to ask even more money at the box-office.

But the second time this company appears here, hardly anybody is fooled anymore and the house remains painfully empty. The public has decided. The company won't even think of appearing a third time.

And the ballet world became a little poorer again.

Nobody decides who "can" and who "can't" go on tour, nobody decides about "good", "the best", and so on. But heaven forbid if that would be the only way to see ballet.

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Guest jonathan s

What gets lost with recorded music for dance is what I can only call "now-ness". We have all - dancers and musicians alike - experienced those days when you just 'got through' a performance . We have all had those weird days when everything was wrong -you're tired, nervous, depressed - and then suddenly in the middle of the performance, you just fly with the music or dance.

One of my favourite performances ever was of Ben Stevenson's Three Preludes. There was a last minute cast change, and I suddenly found myself on stage playing for two of my best friends, who were partners off-stage, but not usually on it. To cap it all, we happened to be sharing a room on tour as well. The atmosphere was extraordinary when the curtain went up - it didn't feel like a performance at all, just something fun that 3 friends do together of an evening. It went like a dream, and there was something special about everything - music & dancing - that I'll never forget.

Since the advent of home hi-fi and video, the meaning of the word "performance" has shifted subtly to imply "perfect performance".

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Alexandra & Marc, your points are well taken! As I think I implied, I AGREE that a real orchestra is probably always preferable to taped music. And certainly one prefers truly professional sets and lighting to something just thrown together. I guess I have not YET experienced such poor performances or orchestration to feel there is a threat to ballet as a whole. I suppose if I had experienced what Marc describes has happened in parts of Europe, I would be more concerned. Not having a resident ballet company nearby makes those of us with growing interest in ballet hope for as many visiting companies as possible, even if they only bring their tape recorder.

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And I agree with that, Paul. It all comes down to (may I bang my tin drum again) the integrity of the artistic director. A small company that tours, bringing ballet to people who couldn't otherwise see it, and has no pretensions to grandeur, can get away with a whole lot more, in my book, than Marc's example of, say, The Glorious Stars of the Fabulous Kirov Ballet, who comes with no sets, no costumes, and no music. I saw a "Bayadere" danced by a small Russian provincial company a few years ago that used (I am not making this up) a wheelchair ramp for the Himalayas, and, I swear, had all six corps de ballet members go it down three times. Just don't bring Bayadere, is the answer to that question.

Back when Eliot Feld was trying to be a classical choreographer, he only used chamber music, something he could afford. (It's cheaper to rent a string quartet or a violinist than a whole orchestra.) So it can be done, even on a budget.

I think what people are afraid of, and why I was so strict on the "if you want to be considered one of the big guys, you have to have real music" line, is that if more and more people start using taped music, people will get used to it. This is what always happens. A standard slips, people yell, and everyone is terribly upset the first year. The second year, less so, etc., until a decade later, the slipped standard has become the norm. The tie between ballet dancing and music is so deep and so spiritual, as well as practical, that many people will fight hard to keep it from happening.


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