by John Nevin
For most choreographers, finding music for a new work isn’t all that difficult, at least not at first; in many cases a new work may actually be inspired by a specific piece of music, and many choreographers have a long list of tracks they would like to choreograph to. Yet even if finding some of the music isn’t difficult, what can really be a problem is finding the rest of it. The first article in this series talked about how different the two steps in choosing music can be; that finding music is a personal, almost unconstrained process, while arranging that music into an effective score is a much more practical challenge.
You can really choose any kind of music to choreograph to, but as soon as you do, that music begins to shape the rest of the work. Sooner or later there has to be a transition from the purely personal choice of what inspires you to the more restricted choices of what will inspire your audience and your dancers, and what will go with the music you’ve already chosen.
None of that matters until you have a place to start, and on a practical level, the ways you find music, and the places to find it, are much the same whether you’re looking for music for a brand new work, or searching for that last section to complete your score. Besides the sites mentioned in the first article in this series (classical.com, junodownload.com, mondomix.com and beatport.com), there are several other approaches worth thinking about. One of them would be to subscribe to a streaming service, which doesn’t cost much at all. This gives you an important ability to listen to tracks all the way through, instead of just to excerpts, which becomes an important consideration when you have to arrange your music into a successful sound design. When you find something you like at one of those sites (napster.com, rhapsody.com, and classical.com has their own in-site), most of them make it easy to buy a legal copy. (Please don’t steal it, either by going to one of the illegal music sites that Google will be happy to guide you to, or by copying it from somebody you know.)
Beyond the download and streaming sites, there is another legal space for music discovery that is almost completely unknown to choreographers — the under-the-radar artist sites. Bandcamp.com and soundcloud.com are both well worth finding. At Soundcloud, you need to be careful because some of the tracks are not uploaded by the artists or their labels, but many are, and in many cases are available for free download. There’s also a brand new legal music store at vimeo.com, and because Vimeo is a film and video site, there’s a tremendous choice available there of soundtracks that can work well for choreography. In any case, finding that first piece of music, whether for a work you’re about to begin, or just for some possible future project, is best done with an open mind and plenty of time.
Finding the rest of the music can be more difficult, because practical matters begin to intrude. In the next article in this series, we’ll look more into the problems that arise when you’re trying to arrange different pieces of music together in a sound design, but it’s a good idea to have some idea of those issues when you’re looking for music. You can divide these into two categories — the practical issues, and the artistic issues. The practical issues include key and tempo, which help determine how difficult it may be to edit the tracks, as well as other issues like style and musical texture. There’s also a more artistic, more abstract idea to think about as you choose, though. What are you trying to do, and for who? Should your audience, or at least some thought of them, have a role in what music you choose?
Jessica Wilson recently wrote an insightful article at 4dancers (“Musical Productions: What Brings Success?”) about why some musicals can’t get a foothold in London’s theater scene while others are very successful. She observed that “the shows closing are generally those which are not based on an existing concept such as a book or film, whereas those that survive are based on an existing commercial success.” This is part of a larger and often unavoidable reality in art, and the best expression of it I’ve ever heard came from a Chicago DJ named Lance Harmeling. A few years ago a friend of mine (who Lance had hired and was training in the art of banging out a party) had cleared a packed dancefloor by playing a great, but unfamiliar record. In the world of the working DJ, that’s a dance floor disaster, and talking about it on the ride home, Lance made this simple observation about what had happened: “People don’t know what they love. They love what they know.” (The whole story is in DJ Corchin’s column at marching.com.)
As a choregrapher (and speaking from more experience, as a record producer), you wouldn’t want to apply this too literally or take it to seriously. For one thing, dance audiences are more demanding (and more appreciative) of imagination than most dance floors. Besides, it would be a shame to abandon what you are hoping to express just to bow to an audience’s expectations. But there’s an important principle in Lance Harmeling’s classic observation about how people perceive art, and how they like to spend their time and money.
You can at least keep your audience in mind. It doesn’t hurt anybody to think of somebody else, and while you’re looking for music, giving a thought to your audience will probably help. Whether you want to entertain them or challenge them, educate them or enthrall them, you may want to start by thinking of them.
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