by John Nevin
Arranging your music into a successful sound design involves the same challenges, for the most part, whether you’re working in ballet, modern or jazz, because the need for an effective through-line is important in any performance regardless of style. The essence of the challenge is to keep the audience absorbed in the Dance, and the issue is not so much to create something powerful in the musical arrangement (unless you’re working with a composer on an original score) as it is to reinforce the power of the choreography. Most important of all is to avoid anything that may distract the audience from the choreography itself.
Assuming that you’re working with two or more selections of music, the most difficult issues are always transitions and endings. If you’ve found music that has an ending that you can use, it may simply be a matter of finding useable edit points within the existing music, either to remove a section to reduce the time, or to repeat a section to extend it. This is relatively easy with music that has a consistent meter, but more difficult with freeform performances, like solo piano music or classical ensembles.
Otherwise, you have to face the often difficult problem of how to get out of the track. Fading out has to be done with real care because there is a very fine balance between two potentially serious problems. A fade that is too fast is really distracting to the emotional flow of the work, but a fade that lasts too long is very difficult to choreograph to, and can become difficult for the dancers to follow. Although this is most true at the end of the piece, it’s a balance that should be kept in mind when cross-fading between two selections during the work.
Cross-fading is an art in itself, and how easy it is depends to some degree on how the keys, tempos, and styles of the two pieces relate to each other. If at first it sounds all wrong, it’s well worth persevering a little; it’s remarkable how different a cross-fade can feel as you vary the time it takes and the relative balance between the tracks. Unless you’re a DJ, you don’t have to beat-match them, so try several different approaches before you give up.
As for the ending, even if you don’t want to use the last section of the track, it’s often possible to find the ending (the very last chord in most cases), and paste it onto a similar musical passage from the middle of the track. When this doesn’t work, I’ve often been able to find a piano chord and play it right at the end of a section, quickly fading the track into the chord. Although this only works if there was piano in the original track, there often is, so it’s worth thinking about.
In many cases, it may make sense to consider some sort of sound effect, even a musical effect, just to cover what would otherwise be an awkward gap between sections. This can often create a very successful atmospheric effect, besides avoiding a gap that would otherwise distract your audience.
Finally, nothing is more helpful in finding a successful arrangement than giving yourself some time to live with it. If at all possible, get a draft of your arrangement that you can listen to, and perhaps rehearse to, for a week or so. Even for experienced producers and mixers, this sort of distance can really bring clarity to your judgement of what will really be effective for you work.
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