by Allan Greene
I was thinking of starting this series by getting a few things off my chest that have been weighing me down for a while. Not a list of grievances (I can wait ’til Festivus for that), but instead a few lectures that I was going to give at an unnamed professional training program which, as happens, got lost in an administrative power play. I have decided that these would be no match for summer’s long days and their journey into, uh, serious refreshments, so I came up with something else.
Conductors. Tempi. The irrational fraction expressed by dividing the musician’s meter and the dancer’s meter.
Let me start with a story the late conductor/rehearsal pianist Harry Fuchs told me. Harry was working at the New York City Opera in the mid-seventies when they were producing Sarah Caldwell’s celebrated production of The Barber of Seville. As a conductor, Harry was curious as to how Ms. Caldwell would be beating time in the finale of the overture, at the point at which the tempo accelerates suddenly and concludes the piece in a breathless finish.
Now, this is the principle: the faster the musical pulse, the fewer beats the conductor can make per measure. In very slow music a conductor may indicate eight separate beats in a measure that is written in 4/4, four quarter notes to the bar. For a more moderate tempo (think “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”), a four beat pattern is best. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or most Sousa marches would be conducted two beats to the bar, as are most of the famous Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, like “Getting to Know You”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”.
Even though the coda of Rossini’s overture accelerates to “William Tell”-like excitement, a conductor beating a nice compact 2 to the measure will be clear and intelligible to the orchestra. But what raised Harry’s eyebrows was that Ms. Caldwell was putting out one single, slightly lazy beat to the bar, which is called “conducting in 1”. She was swinging her right arm in a great catenary curve while Seville was supposedly burning. While the New York City Opera Orchestra pressed on feverishly, fire buckets at hand, Ms. Caldwell led them with all the urgency of an afternoon nap.
For an opera conductor as feted as Ms. Caldwell to be telegraphing drama to her musicians in this way was downright weird to Harry. As it should have been, and as it no doubt felt to the surprised orchestra. But they did what house orchestras do best, ignored her, and the performance went on with nearly no one catching on.
Why did Harry tell me this anecdote, and why am I telling it to you? Because body movement is just as crucial to playing music as it is to dancing, and playing music to be danced to requires several kinds of movement be amalgamated simultaneously. Getting a result that works for everybody requires mediation on everybody’s part, and a determination to raise the level of the compromise to the level of artistry. What the choreographer wanted the movement to express, what the dancers are counting out, what the composer wants the music to express and what the musicians are counting out are in most cases all different things. Reconciliation on a grand scale is the only way to go.
As many insiders know, when live dance and live music come together, the result is often less than perfection. Frequently it’s an out-and-out disaster. Why? Often the conductor and the balletmaster don’t have enough time to truly learn what each other is doing. The rehearsal pianist (or company pianist) hasn’t succeeded in communicating to the conductor what the dancers are doing, nor to the dancers what the musicians are doing. The show is running late and running up against a union deadline: the conductor speeds up his baton. The conductor has to catch a flight (this is one that’s frequently told about Hugo Fiorato, former long-time conductor for the New York City Ballet). Dancers trained in a certain tradition (shall we say Soviet?) have a tendency to slow down as the choreography gets more and more elaborate; the orchestra surges ahead.
These mis-communications are not without their consequences. When I was Company Pianist at Dance Theatre of Harlem, a dancer’s embarrassment over a wrong tempo in Graduation Ball led to a backstage shouting match between the artistic director and the conductor. The conductor was gone the next day.
Why can’t we all get along, you may ask. Here’s one reason. Hold out your hand and wiggle your fingers – fast. Wiggle them like you were playing a really, really fast piano piece. Okay. Now try doing a port de bras, any port de bras, at the same speed. Not happening? Try it with a pétit allegro. Doesn’t work (no cheating, Ms. Farrell!)? Do I need to ask you to try it with your whole body?
Here’s the point. A musician’s fine motor skills by design and definition out-race those of a dancer. What a musician manipulates (fingers, tongue, wrists) is miniature; a dancer’s tool-kit is physically more massive by powers of 10. Musicians simply initiate and respond with more liquidity than dancers. Music can speed up (and does) far beyond the dancer’s most nervous sur le cou de pied. Dancers and dance musicians need to appreciate this.
Another anecdote from my time at DTH illustrates this. At the time (the early 1980’s) the company had Balanchine’s Serenade in the rep. We performed it a lot. It was a staple of our tour repertoire. And though we performed with live orchestra at a few major venues, for the most part local presenters could not afford the sufficient numbers of musicians to provide this luxury. So we had to do it to a recording (two-track reel-to-reel tape in those days) 95% of the time.
As it happens, when there was live accompaniment, the company tended to perform the piece much more deliberately than NYCB did. Arthur Mitchell got comfortable asking conductors to slow it down. Fair enough. But what did we do when we performed on tour, to a recording? The company didn’t want to pay to have their tempi recorded, which was break-the-bank expensive. The recordings they had been using were pirated by the company’s music contractor from live performances at City Center in Manhattan. (He sat in a seat in the front row of the balcony with his tape recorder on his lap, covered, I was told, by an overcoat to avoid being busted.) There were many of these reel-to-reel recordings in the company’s archives, each one slower than the next, each one sounding muffled, each one with some additional fatal flaw.
When we were in mid-tour in Seattle, I was deputized to find a commercial recording to solve the problems. Tower Records had six different performances of the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, and I bought all six. Predictably, they were fast, faster and hyperspeed. Useless, in other words. When we got back to New York, I talked our music director, Milton Rosenstock, into taking them to a recording studio to be transferred to tape and slowed down, something that is automatic today but was done manually and at great expense in the analog recording era.
The final, acceptable slowed-down version changed the tonality of the different movements willy-nilly, so that the opening C Major movement ended up in B Major, the G major waltz dropped to F major and so on. Instead of hearing the aural perfection of Tchaikovsky’s sequence of tonalities (C to G to C to G), DTH audiences heard something kind of out-of-kilter, while enjoying much exquisite dancing.
Did Tchaikovsky squirm in his necropolis during these performances? Did Mr. B suffer arrhythmia each night at 8? Who knows?
But I did, and still do, thinking about how much has to be done to bring dance and music together.
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.