[Dixielandjazz] Visualizing the Music

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Jul 12 06:55:06 PDT 2004

This is a long, but intellectually stimulating article about the visual
aspect of music. Primarily for musicians and band leaders so don't get
involved with it if you are not into the nuances of music and the
performance thereof. And the whys and wherefores of how to improve its
audience appeal. For ALL types of music, not just OKOM.

For non musicians who want the gist of the article without reading all
of it, see the last paragraph.

Steve Barbone

July 11, 2004 NY Times

Let's Play the Music (and Dance)


     THE gold-dappled light of a summer afternoon flickers through open
doorways of Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the summer music festival in
the Berkshires, and Mark Morris, the choreographer, holds the stage. He
wears a lime-green shirt, matching socks, seersucker shorts and black
sneakers, and at 47, he has a slight paunch. He looks more like a nerd
you might see at a miniature golf course than what he is: arguably the
most successful and influential choreographer alive. And indisputably
the most musical.

He claps his hands exuberantly, pivots, executes a lightning-quick duck
walk, then flings his arms open as if to embrace the universe.
"Fabulous! Fabulous! Wow!" he says. An ensemble of two dozen or so
instrumentalists and singers have just danced — or at certain points,
awkwardly muddled — their way through his "Marble Hall," a piece from
1985, some of them exchanging embarrassed glances and giggles.

"Wasn't that great?" Mr. Morris says over his shoulder to the small
audience, consisting mostly of other students at the Tanglewood Music
Center and dancers in the Mark Morris Dance Group who have witnessed the
spectacle of musicians dancing.

The musicians look pleased with themselves as they shuffle offstage. In
two days they will play more accustomed roles, accompanying the
professional dancers in "Marble Halls" and other works from the Morris
repertory. The performances are part of an unusual weeklong residency by
the Morris company.

"This experience makes musicians better," Mr. Morris says after the
workshop. "Way better!

"The thing is, I'm the enemy of the conservatory, because it kills
music. Nobody gives a damn about intonation. It's not about that.
Imagination has been wrung out of these people, and it's tragic. Really,
musicians have lousy rhythm."

Mr. Morris was the bad boy of the dance world in 1980, when he founded
his company and burst on the scene as a choreographer in New York. In
1988 he moved his dancers to Brussels, where, as resident choreographer
at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, he created his first masterpieces,
including the evening-long "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," to
music of Handel.

Since his return to America in 1991, Mr. Morris has repeatedly been
called the heir to George Balanchine, another exceptionally musical
choreographer. Like Balanchine, Mr. Morris has devoted much of his
energy in midcareer to founding an institution to enact his artistic
vision. In 2001, the company opened the 30,000-square-foot Mark Morris
Dance Center across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"With my company, sometimes I say, `That's nice, but it's not
inhabited,' " Mr. Morris says when asked how he works with dancers. "I
tell them it looks like footprints painted on the floor. Learning the
steps is only like learning the notes, but I want more."

To teach the Tanglewood musicians about dance, Mr. Morris simplified the
choreography of "Marble Halls" and assigned two of his dancers to lead
workshops. In "Marble Halls" as in all of his other dances, Mr. Morris
hews closely to the music (too closely, his detractors say).

The music in this case is Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BWV
1060). The oboe soloist is represented by a group at center stage, and
the rest of the orchestra is danced by groups on either side, with
Bach's intricate patterns and variations mirrored by gestures and steps.
But the choreography is saved from mere literalism by Mr. Morris's
wildly creative ideas about how the human body can move. Although he
never seems constrained by beauty (his dancers crawl across the floor or
take gangly bent-knee strides), the overall effect is achingly

His creative process is structural and analytical. "Well, in the Bach, I
have the arm doing A-B, A-B, A-B, B-A and then B-A, B-A, B-A, A-B, while
the bottom half of the body is doing the same and then the opposite,"
Mr. Morris explains in a rush of words. "The coordination switch is
something that can pique one's interest musicologically. The theme has a
hopping variation, then a jumping variation, and there are permutations
within the step. But that's all in Bach. I mean it's all right there."

Guy Fishman, 25, a cellist and a fourth-year Tanglewood Music Center
fellow who is pursuing a doctorate at the New England Conservatory,
said: "His dances are like watching the score presented visually. It's
not like watching classical ballet, where you see a big athletic leap
that seems to bear no relationship to the music."

With three other students, Mr. Fishman was rehearsing Bartok's Fourth
String Quartet for a performance with the Morris dancers, and they had a
coaching session with Mr. Morris.

"Everything he told us was based in music," Mr. Fishman said. "It was
never, `Give us more time, so my dancers can finish this move.' For
instance, in the third movement there is a long cello solo, and for the
accompanying static chord he wanted the tone starting without vibrato,
then adding vibrato. That's in the score, but we weren't doing it,
really. He wanted a really jarring effect."

The residency project began last year, when Ellen Highstein, the
executive director of the Tanglewood Music Center, invited the Morris
company to work with Yo-Yo Ma. The featured dance was "Falling Down
Stairs," which Mr. Morris had choreographed for Mr. Ma to Bach's Third
Suite for Unaccompanied Cello as part of a film project that won an Emmy
in 1997. Mr. Ma also accompanied the musicians as they danced in a
workshop performance.

"That was a big thrill for them," Ms. Highstein said in her office, just
across the lawn from Ozawa Hall. "For several of the kids, it was the
highlight of what they achieved and learned last summer."

Ms. Highstein has instituted other cross-disciplinary projects,
including a collaboration with Shakespeare & Company, a local theater
group, which allows student composers to write theater music. This year,
the music center's six resident composers will write music for
experimental filmmakers.

"We are trying to break down the parochialism of the conservatory, where
the singers sit at one table and the brass players at the next," Ms.
Highstein said. "We want to put the different arts together, artists
with musicians, instrumentalists with singers."

The residency took two years to plan, and Ms. Highstein says she had
only Mr. Morris in mind, because he is one of the few choreographers who
work from musical scores and insist on dancing to live music. As to how
the residency may develop, Mr. Morris says he would like to spend more
time in Tanglewood and work in opera as well as more instrumental music.

"It's interesting how the instrumentalists dance, as opposed to the
singers," he said. "The instrumentalists have such perseverance, and
they are willing their bodies all the time: my hand does this, my foot
does this. They are accurate, serious and make very small gestures. But
it's the singers — most of them have some dance training — who seem more
worried about how they look."

One singer who seemed entirely self-assured in "Marble Halls" was
Anne-Carolyn Bird, 27, a soprano living in Seattle, now in her second
summer as a Tanglewood fellow.

"Dance has always been a love of mine, but that's not true for most of
my colleagues," she said. "Before the first class, there was a bit of
complaining among the students: `Oh, why do we have to do this? I'm
going to look stupid.' But then Mr. Morris's ideas about music were so
apparent, and everyone realized that this was not about dancing. It was
about seeing music."

Several days before, Ms. Bird saw a performance of Vivaldi's Gloria
danced by the company and, because of the choreography, discovered that
the soprano and bass lines form an interlocking duet: something she had
never fully appreciated, even when she had performed the work. Dancing
in "Marble Halls," she said, made her far more aware of instrumental
entrances and exits, which were paralleled by movements on and off stage
in the dance.

"Ever since I worked with Mr. Morris last summer, I've heard concerts
differently, even without dancers there," she said. "I hear more layers
in the music. Something just woke up in my ear."

If Mr. Morris can awaken the ears of musicians to their own art, what
must he be doing for audiences? At a time when appreciation of classical
music seems to be waning in our culture, his choreography provides a
counterforce affirming the power of music's intricate architecture to
move listeners. In a visual age, he has made music visible in his
dances, and by doing so, he may be one of the foremost advocates of
music itself.  

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