Today on 10 Questions With… we have Allan Greene, a pianist that works in the dance world…
We would also like to welcome Allan to our contributing writer staff here at 4dancers. He’ll be writing a new monthly column appropriately titled, “Music Notes”…
1. How did you get started in music?
I started composing on my own when I was eight years old after I tired of copying songs from our third grade songbooks. The next year I began studying the cello at my elementary school, and the next year I began studying piano with the wife of one of my father’s electronic engineer colleagues. Things moved rapidly from there.
The cantor at my family’s synagogue recommended me to a Viennese choir-master who passed me on to an eccentric Juilliard-trained pianist. The intensity of the Juilliard training was too much for me and conflicted with Boy Scouts and after-school basketball. I moved on to a retired violinist / pianist who devoted his Saturdays to me, and presented me in recital several months before my 16th birthday.
All the while I was composing on my own. At the age of twelve I was composing suites of atonal works, for various chamber music combinations as well as solo piano. My high school choir performed a setting I created of a poem by James Joyce. Stylistically, I was heading out the trajectory blazed by Charles Ives, inventing what I called “stream-of-consciousness music” analogous to Joyce’s literary technique: I created a musical narrative out of musical objets trouvés, using juxtaposition of styles and recognizable snippets to shape the drama. A generation later, due to the invention of sampling synthesizers, personal computers and audio production software, some of my ideas were independently showing up as common compositional tools in film and television scores.
2. What brought you into the dance world?
Accompanying ballet and modern dance classes was a work-study contract gig available at Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota) in my freshman year. After a term washing dishes at one of the college’s cafeterias, it was a god-send. I found it easy, delightful to watch and participate in, and, importantly, made being a musician both quotidian and artistic. I’ve never liked having the spotlight trained on me, so this allowed me to participate and observe simultaneously. Accompanying dance became a laboratory for me to study the effect on collaborating artists of all kinds of music and all sorts of harmonies, melodies, rhythms and textures. It still is.
3. Where has your career taken you in terms of playing for dancers?
After having spent a year immediately after graduating college fulfilling two fellowships (the Watson, allowing me to spend a year in France and Italy composing; and the Camargo, as artist-in-residence at a American scholarly foundation outside Marseilles, France), I started playing for dancers again at the New Jersey Ballet, where one of my fellow airport-limousine drivers was an apprentice. After a year I was hired by American Ballet Theater to accompany their scholarship program, which necessitated moving to New York City. While at the ABT School, I was hired by the Juilliard Dance Division, and thus pursued those gigs simultaneously.
In December of 1980 a former Juilliard dancer who was dancing in Italy hired me as company pianist for the young contemporary ballet group Aterballetto. I returned to New York the next year and played at Juilliard and Barnard College. Subsequently I was hired by Arthur Mitchell as company pianist for Dance Theatre of Harlem, which took me around the world, playing Stravinsky, Hindemith, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov in concertos and symphonic works.
By the middle of 1983, having triumphed at the Spoleto USA festival in Charleston, SC in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, I felt that I’d experienced about all I was going to experience as a pianist. That’s when I enrolled in the architecture program at the City College of New York.
Unfortunately, by the time I graduated with a professional degree in Architecture in 1988, a deep recession was gripping the construction industry and 30% of the architects in the US were out of work. So I went back to music.
While at City College I had been supporting myself commuting to Princeton University to play for the Program in Theater and Dance with Ze’eva Cohen. By 1994, architecture jobs opened up for the next generation, and I left the performing arts again to guide several Manhattan firms in their fledgling attempts to incorporate computers into their offices.
I never much liked offices and office culture, and in 1996 jumped at the suggestion by a musical theater person I had met to establish myself as a music director and vocal coach within the vast theater community in New York City. At that time I did mostly cabaret and musical theater, culminating in a 1999 National Tour of the Roundabout Theater’s production of 1776, on which my wife Juliana Boehm, a violinist, joined me.
I returned again to the dance world in 2000 as a staff pianist for the short-lived New School / Joffrey B.F.A. Program. That collapsed in 2003, after my first child, Oliver, was born, so I had to go outside the city to Scarsdale, New York and Stamford, Connecticut for steady work. I was the Music Director at The Ballet School of Stamford from 2005 to 2008.
4. What are you currently doing in the field?
As a stay-in-town father of two sons (Ravi was born in 2005), I’ve divided my time among the Joffrey Ballet School, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
5. What is it like to play for dancers?
Ah, Grasshopper, that is the crucial question.
Playing for dancers is the most single most challenging form of musical accompaniment. The choreography is almost never written into the musical score, so the accompanist must divide his attention between the dancers, over there, and the musical instrument, down here. Use your imagination to ponder the complexity of the situation. The musician, who thinks in terms of finger-speed, has to process a simultaneous translation into the the dancers’ slower limb-speed. And for everything to go right, the musician has to both anticipate and lead the dancers, dynamically and expressively.
The single most affecting experience I’ve had as a dance musician was in a rehearsal at ABT with Julie Kent dancing the “White Swan” Pas de Deux. As I was playing, I was watching her react like a thrummed string to my every nuance and turn of phrase. For all the thousands of hours I’ve poured my soul into motivating dancers, that was the first time I physically felt someone was completing my thought, and then some. Since then, I’ve had other evanescent moments like that. The first one, though, will remain the most searing.
6. What are the challenges in playing for class?
The principle factor that makes for an outstanding dance class is the collaboration between teacher and musician. While the class is still about the art of the dance, the music, and by extension the musician, as my colleague, the great Joffrey ballerina and teacher Francesca Corkle points out, “is the boss”. The teacher must “get” the musician, and vice versa. Even if the teacher isn’t a trained musician the teacher must be able to use whatever the musician is providing to bring emotional life to the lesson.
It’s my job to make the teacher emotionally coherent to the dancers. At the microscopic level this means playing (or frequently improvising) music that has either an identical or complementary energy to that of the movement. At a somewhat broader level, it means keeping it fresh by changing keys constantly (modulating), introducing varied levels of detail, and often changing styles of music. At the cosmic scale, considering the class as a unified experience, it means weaving a musical tapestry from beginning to end of class that makes the entire class into a performance, a work of art.
And, of course, I never repeat a class. Sometimes I go several months without repeating a single piece of music – because no two days are ever the same, even spending them in the same place with the same people. Such is the case most dance students find as their course of study unfolds.
So the predominant challenge accompanying a class is to translate a psychological understanding of the teacher, the technique and the intangibles into danceable music. In a normal week I may play for ten or twenty different teachers, and what each needs will be different. I draw and re-draw these musical portraits week after week, month after month, ad infinitum.
7. What are the rewards?
I’ve worked with the most talented, most industrious and most brilliant dancers in the world. I assume that every dancer who takes a class I’m playing is preparing to deliver later that day a performance that audiences will remember their whole lives.
But I rarely see any of these performances. So my satisfaction comes from knowing I’m holding up my end of the bargain. My job is to prepare and motivate. I can tell whether I’m getting it done by the seamless rhythms of the class, and in the heightened awareness in the bodies and faces of the dancers.
The pay, as long as we’re discussing rewards, has never been very good, and in the years I’ve been doing this, the actual value of my income has been on a straight-line downcline, to the point that I would consider myself and my family among the “working poor”. This speaks to a failure of values in our economic system. To our “Masters of the Universe”, I’m all but invisible.
Life as a dance musician is a Sisyphean struggle.
8. Do you have any favorites in terms of music you like to play for dance?
I like to play music that I know no one else plays for dancers. Liszt transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies would be a good example. My own mash-ups (combining “Popeye the Sailor Man” and the “Waltz of the Flowers” would be a typical concoction) are fun and, obviously, unique. The daring use of silence is something I’ve learned can be employed effectively. I enjoy, as an intellectual challenge, improvising fugues, preludes and Baroque dance forms in the the manner of J.S. Bach, which inevitably has the effect of making listeners feel more rational than they actually are. And I play all 180-odd Beatles songs, which generation after generation love.
9. Can you share a favorite moment from your career in the dance world?
Favorite moments have come thick and fast over the past decades, but I’d like to share two recent very personal ones.
In April of 2011 I was invited to participate in a fund-raiser for disaster relief in New Zealand and Japan put together by the professional trainees at the Joffrey Ballet School. Rather than rattling off some bravura piano pyrotechnics, I had decided to compose a little evocation of the re-awakening of the broken cities Christchurch and Fukashima, scored for violin (my wife Julie) and piano. While taking our bows after the performance, our five-year-old, Ravi, spontaneously ran up from the audience, stood between us and bowed.
This past December the top-level class of trainees, now called the Joffrey Ballet School Performance Group, asked me to do something for a company fund-raiser. I created an avant-garde performance art piece for myself, Julie and my two sons, who had both just started taking music lessons, on piano (Oliver, 8) and drums (Ravi). I called it December, a little collage of the sounds of the season in New York City, featuring a parody of Beethoven, quotes from an 11th Century Hebrew song Maos Tzur, Jingle Bells and Auld Lang Syne. I took particular pleasure in this first ever performance by the entire Greene family, and in that the boys had to overcome the extra challenges associated with Asperger’s Syndrome to perform in front of a large live gathering.
10. What’s next for you?
I would love to develop my website, www.balletclasstunes.com, to be a more comprehensive portal to dance, dance pedagogy and dance music. I never seem to have the time to focus on making the changes in it I would like to make.
I’d love to tour again, but I don’t see that happening for at least another few years until the boys are older.
And, being a composer, I want to compose, especially for new choreography.
BIO: Allan Greene has been a dancers’ musician for nearly forty years. He is a composer, pianist, teacher, conductor, music director, father to Oliver, 9, and Ravi, 6, and husband to Juliana Boehm. He has also been an architect, an editor, a writer and a boiler mechanic. He lives and works in New York City. His ballet class music can be found on www.BalletClassTunes.com.