Friday, May 11, 2012

Is It Modern?

Fifth in a series on my collaboration with the Atlanta Ballet.

The premiere of Pavo is only seven days away. Since posting my last article, I have made some tweaks to the score based on feedback from Tara and have attended two very productive rehearsals with the musicians. Today, dancers and live music will be put together for the first time. Ironically, I will be waiting for texts, phone calls or email messages to learn how rehearsals went. The same goes for the actual performances themselves. This is because I am writing this blog entry from the serene beauty of the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I will not complete my residency here until after all five performances of Pavo have taken place.

The fabulous musicians of Pavo: (L-R): Jan Berry Baker
(sax); Michael Celbuski (perc.) & Charae Krueger (cello)
How is this possible? It is simply a result of timing. My commission from the Ballet came after I had already been awarded the Fellowship and residency. I will write about my experiences at the MacDowell Colony in a later blog entry. For now, I thought I would touch on something that I have rarely discussed in this series: the actual music for Pavo. In past articles, I have commented on issues of collaboration as well as developing a dramatic narrative and theme for the piece. I have been keenly aware throughout the process that music is not the central aspect of the work. People are paying money to see wonderful dancers, breathtaking choreography as well as beautiful costumes and set design. Yet, without the music none of the above would be possible. I’m reminded of the comic scene in the film Amadeus (1984) where Emperor Joseph II attends a rehearsal of one of Mozart’s operas. Mozart had written a scene incorporating ballet expressly against the wishes of the monarch. Instead of cutting the scene, the composer instructs the dancers to perform their choreographed steps in utter silence. The perplexed emperor looks on and asks, “Is it modern?”

Our incredible D.J., Jen Mitchell
Clearly, the music is important. For this particular work, the music is also unusual in two basic ways. The first has to do with instrumentation. I began work on the score with an ensemble largely selected by Tara. Coming from a background of dance, Tara was not tied down to established chamber music norms. We were given a budget to accommodate four performers and Tara simply selected instruments that were attractive to her. She had some help by visiting my website and hearing some of the chamber pieces I had written prior to this collaboration. This is how we arrived at the unusual combination of saxophone (soprano doubling on alto), cello, percussion and, most intriguing, a D.J.

Detail from the score.
Luckily, I had written a short piece a few years ago for clarinet, violin and D.J. so I had some inkling of how to proceed. The trick is in writing music that can exist on top of electronic dance tracks and feel as though it belongs with the underlying groove. As I wrote lines for the instruments, I had to imagine how they would interact with more complex grooves underneath. I trusted that Jen Mitchell (our D.J.) would be able to select tracks in the same key centers as the music I was writing. That’s why I like working with a good D.J. like Jen. She is used to matching tracks based on key and is also able to adjust tempi as well. In short, D.Js. like Jen have to use their ears as well as any “traditional” musician. However, there is more than simply matching tempo and key center. The grooves have to allow space for the instrumentalists. Otherwise, the piece could feel like poor karaoke. This issue was solved by writing music in the upper ranges of the instruments and by Jen’s careful selection of tracks with a deep bass and little high resonances on top to interfere with what the instrumentalists were doing.

Tara follows along & keeps us
 on track during rehearsal!
Another issue we encountered had to do with the phrasing of musical ideas. I usually do not write music with phrases that are symmetrical. Because virtually all groove-oriented music is in recurring 4 or 8 measure phrases, my instrumental lines continually move in and out of phase with the tracks. The underlying tempo remains constant but the resulting combination feels like a very hip hemiola. Fortunately, the dancers in the company are all very hip themselves and this phasing does not throw them off!

The other non-traditional aspect of the piece is its overall structure. As mentioned in some detail in my last article, the dramatic narrative of Pavo demanded a five-movement scheme played continuously without pause. There is nothing unusual about this. What is a bit non-standard is the fact that the more energetic music, including the aforementioned groove-oriented combination of D.J. and instrumentalists, occurs in the first half of the 18-minute work. The piece concludes with a slower, lyrical section. Typically, music is not structured moving from fast to slow. More often, it is exactly the reverse. I must admit to feeling a bit of pressure to write music powerful enough to make for a satisfying ending. After hearing the computer realization of the piece for the first time, Tara was quick to point out that this structure works. I’m grateful for her confidence.

Composing Pavo and working with Tara has been a uniquely positive and exhilarating experience. More than that, it’s been a distinct pleasure. I think we’ve created good art and I have made new friends along the way. This work is one of those pieces that, for me, pokes a little bit above the others in my catalog. It’s a piece that has stretched me as an artist and taught me how to be a more sensitive collaborator. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity given to me by the Atlanta Ballet and their Artistic Director, John McFall. It is a great honor to have been entrusted with creating a new work with Tara and this distinguished company. At this point, there is very little left to say, within the confines of this blog, about Pavo. Now, the rest will be said onstage.

Pavo premiere performances will take place on May 18, 19, and 20, 2012 in Atlanta, GA at the Alliance Theater, Woodruff Arts Center. Click HERE for more information. If you go to the performances, drop me a line here and let me know what you think!