Why dancing to a CD recording should never replace live accompaniment
Just recently I learned that renowned Scottish choreographer David Hughes is using a piece from my CD ‘The Raven Nevermore’ for his new choreography ‘Trialogue’, currently on tour in the UK. I am very excited about this, but also wanted to use the opportunity to ponder about the common use of ‘canned music’ in live dance performances.
Dance needs music, and music needs dance. There certainly have been attempts to do one without the other (sometimes unwittingly) but there is no doubt that these two art genres share a deep connection that goes back to the first musical attempts of our ancestors and which is still alive in surviving indigenous cultures.
Throughout history dance and music have always successfully joined together. Even when the famous Florentine Camerata created the new genre of opera it was clear to them that it should rely heavily on dance as well as music. (That some of these early ballets actually featured what was then the predecessor of contemporary football as a theme is another story…).
Certainly the history of music for dance has resulted in some of the greatest and enduring musical works ever written. Not all composers were happy with the sometimes obligatory ballet in operas – Wagner tried to get rid of it for example, as it seemed too trivial for his much more philosophically inclined ideas. That the greatest philosophy is sometimes embracing the energy of life itself without asking about the ‘why?’ is an insight that perhaps eluded Wagner. And is there an art form that celebrates life more sublimely than dance?
The late 18th century saw the emergence of what we today perceive as ‘classical ballet’, and it also saw the rise of the ‘ballet composer’ who created works specifically for the ballet, usually with the use of a full orchestra. After the artistic heights of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) ballet slowly developed into new and more experimental directions (like the Triadic Ballet from 1922) which led to the division of what is today called ‘classical ballet’ and ‘contemporary dance’ – two entirely different genres with different physical demands on the performers, the former seemingly mostly stuck in 19th century tradition.
What is very common today in contemporary dance and increasingly common in classical ballet today though is one fact: At some point in history the music mostly stopped playing…live! When you go to a dance performance today chances are roughly 99% that you will listen to a canned musical performance, usually from CD or a sound file. If you are lucky you will have live music or at least a more ambitious electronic performance that can react to the scene in ways that are similar to traditional instruments. But usually you will listen to the choreographer’s favorite piece of the moment from a CD. The dancers will be live (unless they are replaced by holograms in the year 2100), but that essential quality of direct interaction between musicians and dancers will be missing.
The reason for this is manifold. First of all it is of course cheaper and easier to play something from CD instead of paying a bunch of union musicians with difficult work contracts who have to stop at set times when the dancers have just started to warm up. The choreographer can know the music inside out as it is essentially always exactly the same, same tempi, same timing, again and again, repeatable with the click of a button. The dancers will not have to face the dangers of an unreliable conductor with wavering tempi or mistakes in the music when executing that technically difficult timed jump.
But of course exactly these dangers and pitfalls are what make live performances so exciting. If everything is planned out and running smoothly, it is missing the important element of artistic spontaneity.
A good conductor can ‘feel’ the current energy and tempo of the dance company and can react to their mood. He or she can ‘catch’ them at the right moments, rectify mistakes on the fly. A great ensemble can imbibe the dancers with energy and passion, because they are not playing to a microphone but to a live audience.
And of course there is the fact that it is simply much more impressive and inspiring to have a full orchestra in the pit accompanying the action, or live musicians playing on stage. This for me is the main argument against the complete digitalization of orchestras that somehow is on the horizon again these days (after the end of the orchestra was already prophesized in the 1980s) – it is simply more fun to listen to and also watch live musicians instead of staring at a boring Apple logo on a laptop like in many contemporary music concerts. Everybody has a computer at home, and probably also a decent sound system – but neither an orchestra nor a football match fit into your living room, and they are completely different when experienced live instead of on any kind of digital medium. Permanently replacing the musicians makes as little sense as replacing the dancers with robots.
More importantly – for composers of contemporary music learning the special (and endangered) craft of really writing well for dance – the experience of sitting through the sometimes grueling rehearsals, the need of being present, the need for honing the musical composition and performance until it fits the needs of the dance performance is essential.
Choreographers know all this, and they – even against all odds, usually having to do with money constraints – seek to kindle that ancient fire of the direct collaboration between music (composers) and dance. The use of canned or digital music is probably here to stay (and can of course result in thrilling artistic results, no doubt) but it is good if we don’t forget where it all came from – from the mutual celebration of life itself realised by joining two art forms.
And life and live go well together, I think.