by John Nevin
Choosing music for choreography is one of those things that seems so simple, but always ends up being complicated. That’s not because people underestimate the process, it’s because the process is at the same time very simple and very complicated — and that’s only the first of several contradictions that a choreographer faces when trying to choose music for a new work. To do so successfully, you have to ignore your audience, and you have to think only of your audience. You have to have to forget the whole work and think only of the parts, and then you have to do exactly the opposite. You have to trust yourself completely, and not trust yourself at all.
Fortunately, there’s a sequence to all of this, and not a very complicated one at that. There are two parts to the process of choosing music for choreography — finding the music, and then arranging it. In many ways, the way to succeed in one part is to do the opposite of what succeeds in the other.
Finding the Music
What are you looking for when you’re searching for music for a choreographic work? You’re looking for inspiration. You’re either looking for music that will inspire movement and design, or you’re looking for music whose inspiration complements the movement and design that you already imagine. In either case, this is the time to forget your audience, your sponsors, and especially your peers, and trust yourself. These are personal and abstractly artistic judgements, and in most cases the basis for them can never really be put into words. It’s a time to look for anything you love, anything that makes you want to create, to move, and to share, and unless you’re choreographing a three-minute competition piece, it’s almost impossible to do this well while thinking of how to arrange the sequence and success of the entire work. This is a time to look for sections that you love, and to trust that with only a vague eye toward consistency, there will be a consistency later in arranging all of the separate ideas that inspired you. In fact, the very diversity and contrast that comes from keeping this process somewhat separate often adds a priceless creative depth to the finished work.
Of course, there are practical issues even in such an abstract process. Where do you find music at all? Part of that has to do with thinking about what kind of music you’re looking for. The next article in this series will go into much more detail about exactly that, but there are a couple of surprising ideas that you could check out until then. Although almost all choreographers will go to the best-known download sites (hopefully not to any of the music-stealing ones), there’s much to be gained by checking out some of the more genre-specific sites and wandering through them. For one thing, they can be much less intimidating, and often less corporate, and there’s often music at genre-specific sites that you’d never find at iTunes.
Here are just a few examples. If you’re looking generally for classical music, classical.com is one place to start, or for world music, there’s a site called mondomix.com out of France. Surprisingly, I’ve referred choreographers who I know would never choreograph to club music to DJ sites, and they’ve found tracks that they used. The secret is to go to junodownload.com (a leading UK DJ site) or to beatport.com and dig into specific genres. At Juno, start with what they call ‘downtempo’, at Beatport the same style is called ‘chill’.
Arranging the Music
Of course, there’s almost never a clear moment when a choreographer finishes finding the music and switches immediately into arranging the music into a complete soundscape. In fact there’s a cyclical dynamic to this; at some point in finding music, working on ideas, and creating basic motifs, a sense of the whole work begins to come into focus. As it does, you inevitably begin to see what’s lacking in the parts. For many of the choreographic works I’ve seen develop, this is actually the hardest part — finding that last piece of music that will bring the whole work together.
At some point though, you’ve found, or hope you’ve found, all of your music, and somebody has to put it together. This is when you have to think of your audience first. It’s one thing to find inspiration, to develop and express it, and to feel that even if everybody doesn’t like it, at least it’s an honest expression of your own vision. That’s artistic courage. It’s another thing altogether to lose an audience who might have really loved the work, just because of that dreadful fade-out you did in Garageband on the second-to-last section. That’s not artistic courage, that’s just a shame.
Here again there are a series of practical issues to consider, and we’ll get into them in much more detail in the third article on this subject. There’s at least one basic rule though — as much as possible, the music should be able to play from start to finish without ever giving anybody in the audience a chance to remember that they’re part of an audience. If it can do that, they are much more likely to feel that they are part of the Dance.
There are a number of techniques that are crucial to making that happen, and while some can get a little complicated and might require a little help, many of them are not that difficult. What they all have in common is a recognition that how someone perceives a work they’re seeing for the first time is very different from how it appears to everybody who’s been working on it. This is when you have to think of the whole work, not of it’s parts. This is when you have to trust your respect for the audience more than your artistic vision; in doing so, you’ll almost always arrive at an expression that you yourself will find even more true to the vision you had hoped to express. More on how to do that in the article after next.
Contributor 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