Today we have John Nevin with us on “10 Questions With…”
You’ll be getting to know John better in the coming months as he signs on as a contributor, sharing his insights about music and dance with us here on 4dancers…
1. Can you tell readers a bit about how you got into music?
I started by working in recording studios, recording all kinds of different music by whoever booked the studio — a lot of R&B, rock, metal, and several of the first House records when that all started. After a year or so, some of the artists started asking me to produce them, and I still think of myself first as a record producer.
As the world of music began to change, though, producing began to include much more original composition — we were writing parts on drum machines and keyboards — so I started writing original music as part of the group ‘ohana Dreamdance. It wasn’t until one of the choreographers from the Thodos Dance Chicago New Dances series (Jillian Chu) asked me to compose music for her work that composing music for choreography became such an important part of what I do, and what ‘ohana Dreamdance does.
2. How did you wind up working with dancers?
I began working with Melissa Thodos mixing and editing the tracks for her choreography. When she began Thodos Dance Chicago, we did the music for most of the company’s work together, but it was when she founded the New Dances series that I really began to work extensively with a lot of different choreographers and dancers.
3. What are the special considerations you must address when arranging music for dance?
Music for dance performance is really different from music for listening. The reason is that the dance is the most important part of the work, and that leads to several important issues in arranging, let alone composing, the music. Most choreographers, certainly in contemporary and jazz, will include several different pieces of music in their work, and creating a through-line with them is the key to making it work. There can be extreme variations in mood and intensity, but even when the sound design is sparse, it’s crucial to maintain an unwavering progression for the audience. Once you draw an audience into your work, you can’t do anything that breaks the momentum and let’s them remember that they have other things to think about.
Even when a piece has to come way down, to get really intimate or quiet, there are ways to design the score, and even the silence, so that the enchantment of that special world that is the moment of performance never fades.
4. What do you enjoy most about working on this type of music?
The variety of music that choregraphers bring me is astonishing. I’ve always tried to learn as much as I can from everyone I work with, and that’s especially true with choreographers and dancers. What I enjoy most is the constantly expanding world of things I discover — especially about music and how people are inspired by music — from dancers and choreographers.
5. What kind of music do you listen to for enjoyment?
I listen to a lot of beat-driven music, to classical music, to world music, to rock and alternative music, and to chill electronica. I spend a lot of time at the DJ sites like Beatport, and Juno, so I hear a lot of different kinds of electronic music. But because of the artists I’ve produced and all of the artists who are my friends, the music I like covers a lot of styles — a lot of the time I’m listening to tracks that they’re working on.
6. You work closely with Thodos Dance Chicago. Can you talk a bit about what that is like?
The artistic scene that centers around Thodos Dance Chicago is one of the most exciting ones I’ve ever seen. Melissa Thodos makes artistic development such a priority that there’s a kind of multi-faceted excitement in all of the Thodos Dance projects. Their Production Director, Nathan Tomlinson, is a great example — he’s one of the most gifted lighting designers in the country, but he can also stage a huge show so gracefully that it runs like a tech ballet, and the whole organization is like that. I think the New Dances series has created a environment that’s more like a cultural scene. It reminds me of places that you hear about, like London in the sixties, where a group of people who all create independently also work and collaborate together, always drawing new people and new ideas into the scene.
7. Would you talk a little about the process of composing music? What is that like?
Every track becomes its own world, so it’s a lot like traveling through imaginary worlds, but with real friends. When I’m writing a song-based track, it’s a very abstract process that starts with a groove or a melody. Then depending on if I’m working on my own, or writing with somebody else, it moves into a dynamic balance between the purely creative part of dreaming up ideas, and the practical art of record production — which is mostly the art of sharing what you love with people who might love it too.
When I compose for a choreographer, it’s very much the same, except that there is a different and equally priceless part of the process that is the choreography. It’s like two artists painting two imaginary scenes — the unfinished choreography and the unfinished music — at the same time on the same canvas. There’s a special art in that communication, an art that doesn’t have a name, and it’s really rewarding.
8. Has a dancer (or teacher, or choreographer) ever told you anything about your music that surprised you or made you feel good?
The ones that surprise me are usually different from the ones that make me feel good. I often hear really positive things from the dancers about how they feel performing to the music, and from the choreographers about how the music helped to inspire them, and that always makes you feel good.
During the process of actually building the piece though, I’m regularly surprised by the shocked look on a choreographer’s face sometimes when I play them an idea I’ve been working on which, as it turns out, doesn’t sound anything close to what they had in mind . But that’s what I like most about the process, that they always lead me someplace I could never have found without them.
9. How does it feel to see dance movement created specifically for music you have written?
It’s a wonderful feeling. It takes a while before I can really see the movement, because what I see most is the shared creativity, the expression in movement and performance of the personal qualities of the artists I worked with through the process. It’s always a bit mesmerizing as well, because during the process, I’m so concerned with making sure the music is working, that then to see the performance is like a completely new beginning, where all of a sudden I see the full reality of what we made together.
10. What is next for you?
A major focus is the release of the ‘ohana Dreamdance album, probably in a few months. It’s an unusual project, because it includes the really diverse choreography compositions, most of which we’ve already released as singles, with more song-based tracks. That’s a really unusual thing to do for the music industry, but it’s who we are. In any case, we’ve had such good response to that approach in the Dance Community that we’re going to remaster the existing tracks, see if we can make videos of the brilliant choreography that they were composed for and do some remixes of the beat-driven tracks. It’s all music for dance, it’s just a larger perspective.
BIO: John Nevin is the Resident Composer and Sound Designer for Thodos Dance Chicago, as well as an independent record producer, and a founding member of the group ‘ohana Dreamdance. In addition to his work as a composer, John works with choreographers and other artists in the sound design for their creative works, and writes extensively about music and dance at aotpr.com.