Tracing the evolution of a new ballet – from the stage to the recording studio

Tim MurrayWed 23rd April 2014

Conductor Tim Murray on Mark-Anthony Turnage's Undance

When Sadlers Wells commissioned Mark-Anthony Turnage to write the music for a new piece called Undance, they started a fascinating and unusual conversation between three major artistic figures. Turnage, choreographer Wayne McGregor and artist Mark Wallinger formed an artistic ‘supergroup’, collaborating closely on the creation of a major new work. I was engaged as conductor for the project, first running the workshops where we developed the piece, then conducting the performances at Sadlers Wells, and finally making a recording for NMC, which has recently been released. Crucial to turning a muscular dance score into a recording was ensuring the immense physicality of the music remained as powerful as it was in live performance.

In early 2011 we had our first workshop on the music. The 'supergroup' had been working for a while on the conceptual themes of the piece, including ideas from photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and sculptor Richard Serra, and this was the first time they had heard any of the music. After this first read-through the structure of the piece changed quite radically. This is typical of Turnage’s way of working – like all great theatre composers he understands the role his music plays in the bigger picture of the piece, and especially for someone who has achieved so much, he is refreshingly undogmatic. I worked in this way with Mark on his opera Anna Nicole, which was also developed over many workshops. My role is to facilitate the creation of the piece, but at various stages of development of both Anna Nicole and Undance, I found myself questioning, encouraging, and occasionally provoking the creative teams – and quite often sticking up for what Mark had written, sometimes to Mark himself!

Undance was written to be danced to, and during the second workshop we made a scratch recording of the whole (revised) score, which Wayne used to make the choreography. This is always a crucial moment – unless strong musical parameters are set down early on, life can be tricky at a later stage. Tempo is obviously an important issue, but it is by no means the only one. Since Undance is essentially a set of character pieces, I remember working hard on making each number really vivid, knowing that Wayne and the dancers would be listening to it many, many times, until their bodies responded to every phrase of the music.

Of course the music was not set in stone by that scratch recording, and once we were rehearsing for the shows conversations between composer, conductor and choreographer took place as normal. We were constantly refining the music, and exploring the relationship between the different elements of the piece (which by then included pre-recorded video). The final gesture of the piece changed quite a few times until everyone was happy that what was happening musically and visually was really strong. Wayne has an instinctive but also highly analytical approach to music; his choreography seems fluid but is structurally very closely linked to the score – the contribution of the music really matters. Undance was paired with Mark’s monodrama ‘Twice through the Heart’. Both pieces used a wonderful group of musicians created by Mark for the event, which we named the ‘Undance Band’, and that is the group that reassembled for the NMC recording nearly two years later.

For the NMC sessions the challenge was to recreate the energy and precision of the original performances after quite a long gap, especially hard as we had no rehearsal beforehand. However, the Band responded wonderfully well, and we all worked hard to recapture the spirit of 2011. Undance was written for the theatre, and I wanted to make sure that I conducted each take with the same ‘oomph’ as I did in performance. A slightly different version of the recording will be used occasionally for performances – disappointingly for those of us who think music should always be live – but happily there have been discussions about the score being played live in the future. It deserves to be.

Whilst I am first and foremost and opera conductor, dance conducting has heightened my visual awareness which is crucial, even in opera. I am conducting Porgy and Bess at the Liceu in Barcelona in July with the Cape Town Opera chorus, who have a wonderful physicality to their singing and performance. Although the nature of this physical movement is very different from Undance, an understanding of how music and dance relate can only help the coherence of the performance.

Tim Murray

Tim Murray recently conducted the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest with the Britten Sinfonia, to great critical acclaim. Last season saw several significant debuts: Kurt Weill’s Street Scene at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, and Porgy and Bess at the London Coliseum with Cape Town Opera and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014