RIP Kevin Richmond

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Photo of Kevin Richmond in Prague, 2008

Kevin Richmond in Prague, 2008.

Very sad to hear by chance (through this posting on Ballet.co forums) of the recent passing of the dancer Kevin Richmond, far too young. When I first started playing for ENB as a pianist in the late 1980s, and on tours with the company when I was full-time there in the early 1990s, Kev was one of those rare people who was able to make the ballet world comprehensible and interesting for me as a novice musician in that field.

In 2008, I wrote a blog post about Kevin as part of my Advent Calendar that year, which was about favourite moments from conversations with dancers, dance teachers and choreographers.

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Learn quadrilles for a day in Charing, Kent, 28th April 2019

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Here’s a lovely idea for a Sunday in April—come to Charing in Kent for a day of learning to dance 19th century quadrilles with early dance expert Nicola Gaines.

Nicola and I have done a few of these workshops before, and they are great fun, but also a wonderful challenge, as there are so many variants and possible embellishments of the basic idea. They’re also just very jolly and social.

The day runs as follows:

10.45 Registration and coffee

11.15 Session One – Warm up, Steps and Patterns

1.15 Lunch – please bring snacks

2.00 Session Two – learning the first set and adaptations for use in class

4.15 Finish

It’s a bargain at £35 for the day, £25 for concessions, £20 for observers.

Download flyer with more information and application form

Location of Charing Parish Hall

Quadrilles — some background on the music

Readers of this site will know that I have a bit of a fascination for quadrilles. The interest began when I realised how much of the 19th century ballet repertoire owed to the rhythms and structures of quadrilles. Like other ballet pianists, I had searched the classical repertoire I knew for pieces that were suitable for battements glissés exercises and petit allegros in 2/4 or 6/8, and found very little. The day I discovered quadrilles, I realised I’d been looking in the wrong place all the time. (see earlier quadrille post).

Quadrille music is kind of the Hooked On Classics of the 19th century. Composers threw together all the best tunes from opera, operettas, and ballets, making cuts and changes of tempo or time signature just so you could carry on dancing to it in the form of the dance that you were expecting. Sometimes, you have to listen twice to realise that some deadly serious tune has been turned into a 32-count galop, or conversely—as in the article on Rossini below—you are taken aback to realise that “serious music” in fact has all the hallmarks of a quadrille (Odette’s 6/8 coda in Act II of Swan Lake is a prime example—it’s prime jigging-about music).

Any production of ROSSINI must bear his mark upon it, and must breathe his spirit: what that is may be best understood from the appearance of a set of “Stabat Mater Quadrilles.” This publication—a gross outrage upon decency, it must be confessed—shows the sort of ideas which ROSSINI’S music generates: and it shows also that those ideas are the very reverse of those which are conveyed in the words. Why is not PURCELL’S Burial-Service turned into a set of quadrille?—Not probably, from any regard to decorum if the speculation would be a profitable one, but simply because the thing is impossible.

(From The Spectator, No. 749, week ending Saturday November 5th, 1842, p. 1068)

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A guide to some 19th century repertoire for ballet class by Ethan Iverson

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Air de Ballet is a guide to 19th century piano repertoire for ballet class by Ethan Iverson, who used to be music director for Mark Morris’s dance company, among other things. The page is richly illustrated with scores, audio recordings and useful commentary. Although you can play all kinds of repertoire for class, the 19th century dance tradition (waltz, polka, mazurka) provides the workable rhythmic framework for exercises, even if your tunes come from Maroon 5 and Ariana Grande. 

My favourite creative tip from this page is the idea of improvising Czerny-esque etudes over the chord sequences of  jazz standards (listen to his recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’ for an example).  I’m also beginning to read some of the other articles on Iverson’s site, such as  Mixed Meter Mysterium, a brilliant article on Stravinsky. Well worth stopping a while and browsing! 

I’ve added the Air de Ballet link to my Playing for ballet class: Links, books, suggestions page. If you have any more suggestions let me know, and I’ll add them. 

 

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Ballet pianists on film

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Film clips of ballet pianists playing for class are so rare. There are films (such as the World Ballet Day online classes) where pianists play for a class that is being broadcast, but that is quite a different thing. The pianists are usually already in place in their corner, expertly making the class work, the piano mic’d and mixed in with a mic feed from the teacher, so that you never hear what a class sounds like as a natural observer, from a particular corner of the room. You don’t see the moment the pianist walks into the studio, whether they have music with them or not, how they are greeted (if at all) by the teacher, or what kind of people they are when they are not playing the piano.

So it was great to find this short clip, (starting at 28:20—should start playing there automatically)  in The Children of Theatre Street (1977) a feature length documentary, with Grace Kelly, about what is now called the Vaganova Academy. 


 

The voiceover intones mournfully, “Maria Ioseyevna Pal’tseva has walked these halls for 40 years. Like Madam Frankopolo [?], she has become part of the fabric of the school. The dancers come and go, but Pal’tseva remains, going from class to class with her purse and her old bag of music.” 

Meanwhile, Pal’tseva is filmed walking down the corridor; the camera shifts to behind the piano, and shows her ambling slowly towards it.  There is an almost embarrassing wait—as if editing hadn’t been invented in 1977—  while the pianist puts her “old bag of music” on the floor, and places her right foot on the sustain pedal almost before she has finished sitting down properly. And no wonder: without a second thought,  she provides a tinkling flourish to accompany the entrance of the teacher into the room. 

There then follows a short interaction where the teacher explains to Palt’seva what the exercise is, and what music she wants for it. It’s a noticeable contrast to the 2007 film about the young English dancer Henry Perkins who studied at the Bol’shoi, where the pianist was invisible, and just supplied music on demand as the teacher barked “AGAIN” repeatedly at his student. 

Both may be fictions. I doubt whether such interactions ever happened in quite that  way in real classes in 1977 (any more than they do now). Documentary makers seem to swing between portraying idealized forms of collaboration, or cherry-picking tense moments which they may even have induced themselves,  so I am likewise cautious about drawing any conclusions about the status of the pianist in the Bolshoi documentary.  But that’s precisely why I find these clips interesting. You have to unpick so many strands of fiction to get at any kind of truth, and to do so would involve a lot of difficult work. 

For more on this, see an earlier post on communication in ballet classes, featuring a great clip from Stepping Out. 

 

 

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More on the Nutcracker party galop

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Thanks to Kathie Brobeck who commented on one of my favourite posts, about the origins of the children’s galop in “Tchaikovsky’s” Nutcracker, saying that Steamboat is a Scottish tune. I have to say I’m still keeping my options open as to where the tune originated, and whether maybe it came to Scotland first via Spain/France. But Kathie’s observation that the tune is just called Steamboat in Scottish music circles sent me searching, and here, for fun, is another version of the tune. I have now heard so many versions of this tune in folk music contexts that it seems exotic when I hear it in The Nutcracker. 

 

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Dites-moi pourquoi, Giacomo

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Just a random observation this. There’s a little snippet of Les Patineurs (the red girls pas de deux, for which the music was taken from the Prelude to Act III of l‘Étoile du Nord)  which is almost note-for-note the tune of “Dites-Moi pourquoi la vie et belle” from South Pacific. 

For comparison, see/hear below—though I’ve no doubt the South Pacific clip will go offline before long 

 

 

Screen shot of music by Meyerbeer

Prelude to Act III of l’Étoile du Nord by Giacomo Meybeer, used in Ashton’s Les Patineurs—highlighted part is straight out of “Dites-moi pourquoi” from South Pacific (or rather, vice versa)

 

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Research on marching music and dotted rhythms

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Nice to see an article about marching music, one of the weird, esoteric topics  that perplex ballet pianists like me: a 2018 conference paper by Niels Hansen, Nicholas Shea & David Huron called Do Dotted Rhythms Increase Performance Precision: Why Marches Have Dotted Rhythms (free to download from Academia.edu, but you’ll need to sign in with Google or Facebook, or create an account). 

Read it for yourself, but the take home point is that although we’re prone to believe that marches have a dotted rhythm, a carefully selected sample of 200 pieces from IMSLP that are categorized as marches appear not to fulfil the stereotype. I think what the authors are getting at is that there are many reasons from a perceptual-motor point of view why marches would be better off having dotted rhythms: it’s easier to synchronize to a beat when it’s divided thus, particularly in the preparation for a downbeat. Despite this, the numbers just don’t stack up when you take a sample of marches from IMSLP, so the roots of the “conjectured propensity” for marches to have dotted rhythms lie in culture, rather than practical, physical concerns.

The march as  musical topic

An example (mine, not theirs) of such a cultural source for the idea can be found in Raymond Monelle’s  The Musical Topic: speaking of  a march in an 18th century opera Monelle notes that “the musical figures are in a dotted rhythm, like marches in all ages” (p. 161). Here’s another: dance and music historian Marian Smith in “The Forgotten Cortège,” in Bewegungen zwischen Hören und Sehen: Denkbewegungen über Bewegungskünste (2012, pp. 405-416)

“The Opèra procession’s sense of immediacy was enhanced by its music, for the march (the usual type of music used)—in real life and on the stage—attracted its listeners physically. After all, it was a genre intended to inspire and sustain walking; to supply the energy of forward motion. This attraction was achieved mainly by its rhythms (which typically included triplet figures and dotted rhythms), whatever the tempo or mood—though the tempo was always (by definition) walkable.” (p.411).

Annoyingly, I cannot remember where I read it — possibly in Eric McKee’s book on the waltz, maybe in one of Lawrence Zbikowski’s many articles on music, dance and meaning—but someone more scholarly than me has made an important point that the more music is composed as a recollection, a souvenir or representation of dancing, as opposed to music practically intended for dancing, the more prominent are the rhythmic patterns that signal the dance in question.  Listening to music for aesthetic enjoyment, watching an opera, you are being presented with the idea of other people marching, you aren’t doing it yourself, nor is there probably much marching going on on the stage—there isn’t room, or a large enough cast.  The responsibility for signalling “this is a march” thus lies more on the music than on the physical movement.  

By the same token, many different dance/music forms—polkas, reels, rags, marches, hornpipes, galops— will suffice if you want to do a polka as long as it’s roughly the right tempo, but if you are in the Wigmore Hall and you want to titter behind your fan at your neighbour and gesture knowledgeably “Oh what a pretty little polka the pianist is playing!” then you’re going to need big signals from the rhythm of the music that it’s a polka that the composer wanted you to hear (so it’s likely to be a tune with a rhythm that sounds like “potato chips”). And it won’t particularly matter about the tempo either (which is why you’re unlikely to find ballet pianists by going to the Wigmore Hall). 

The conclusions of the conference paper don’t undermine Monelle’s point, which is that  the dotted rhythm is a kind of musical-literary symbol of a march and the military, regardless of what people actually march to—rather like his other concept, the cheval écrit: a horse represented in music, not a horse-horse. Similarly, even as early as Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911), there was a  musical symbol for “ballerina” (slow, tinkly waltz) which persists today, though Stravinsky surrounding it with music which itself defied the stereotype while real ballet was going on. 

Perhaps it was a little reckless for Monelle to say “like marches in all ages,” and perhaps he was seduced in that regard by the proliferation of dotted rhythms in the musical literature that he specialised in, but he was talking about soldiers and the military as a topic in music, not a genre of music for marching to. It’s not altogether surprising  that in  music that was actually intended for marching, dotted rhythms are somewhat redundant and unnecessary. For one thing, you’re already marching, so the rhythm of your step is doing half the work. Marching to a tune that sounds like it’s marching is like buying a dog and barking yourself. . . kind of. 

 These relatively simple questions—about what makes a march a march, and how is listening to a march as a cultural signifier different to actually marching—are quite basic to choosing repertoire for ballet classes, and ought to be lesson one in talking about dance rhythms in the context of ballet, yet it’s rare to see them raised or discussed in a scholarly context, supported or challenged by empirical research. I have some issues with the sampling procedure: the collection of music on IMSLP is to my mind a strange place to look, given that what is there is dependent on what is out of copyright, and what people around the world have decided to upload. I’d be more interested to see data drawn from, say, recordings of march music made by bands that actually march or play for marching. 

Keeping in time in real-life marching

William McNeill’s book on marching and drill (Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History)  is frequently cited whenever an author wants to quickly make a scholarly reference to the joys of being together in time. Less well-known is the excited flurry of expert argumentative correspondence that followed a review of the book in The Times Literary Supplement in 1996 (I’m indebted to the detailed footnotes in Kate van Orden’s 2005 book Music, Discipline, and Arms in Early Modern France for pointing me towards this wonderful exchange of views.) The debate on those pages is inconclusive, but eye-opening.  A particularly interesting one was  from 6th September, by John Keegan, who argued that drums might serve a number of purposes in troops, including frightening the enemy, but keeping in time was problematic: 

“Music can detract from precision drill. The explanation was suggested to me recently by a former adjutant of the Scots Guards, who revealed that the end of a column, if it marches to the received beat of the band, will be out of step with the head of the column. Guardsmen therefore learn to carry the pace in their heads, and actually march off the beat they hear, when they know that the speed of the sound through the air is misleading them. (The Times Literary Supplement (London, England), Friday, September 06, 1996; pg. 17; Issue 4875.) 

As a result, he concludes that  “soldiers had, from about 1760 onwards, to programme themselves to the idea of a cadenced step” —that is, I suppose, it’s something they had to do themselves, based on judgement and skill, not by synchronizing to an external beat.  I recognize that sensation: in the days when I used to be an organist, there was one church that had a “choir” organ in a side chapel. The delay in sound was about half a second, so to keep in time you had to pay attention to the rhythm and tempo of your hands on the keyboard, and ignore what you were hearing.  As an accompanist, there’s a kind of reversal of this in class: you clearly can’t accompany everyone at the “right speed,” and even in a solo, you have to look at a dancer and judge the tempo that you think they really want overall, rather than the one they appear to be giving in the moment—they may be rushing, or lagging, or have tripped over themselves. I imagine that for dancers it must be similar: if the tempo of the accompaniment is unstable, they have to find a way of being more or less in time, without being pulled hither and thither by the music. 

I thought of this whole topic as I was re-reading an interview with a conductor talking about the way that you conduct the front desk of the violins, but the ones at the back are following the movement of the bows in front of them;  if you conduct for the back desk, then the ones in the front are going to be ahead, and so on. And that’s leaving aside the fact that people hear and respond to beats differently.  

And finally, the “ballet march”

Over the years I’ve played for ballet, I’ve come to realise that there are dance rhythms that are particular to ballet class: the habañera/tango that is so slow, it almost grinds to a halt; the ronds de jambe waltz that is like stirring a vat of porridge with an oar; the medium allegro 6/8 that is neither a jig nor a waltz; the “waltz” for grand allegro that is so big and fat you could fell trees to it. And then there’s the Grands Battements March, which I’ve already written about in an earlier post. People of my generation used to refer to this as “stripper tempo,” referring to the David Rose tune The Stripper of 1962 [NSFW], but even that tempo sounds too jaunty for the 21st century grand battement.  

Interestingly, though, the rhythmic model of that grands battements march, often sung (slowly) by ballet teachers is Non più and’rai from The Marriage of Figaro, or the march from The Thieving Magpie, both of which have the dotted rhythm-to-downbeat rhythmic figure that the authors of this research refer to, yet tend not to find in their survey of the IMSLP marches. That illustrates their point again, that the figure is probably a cultural phenomenon, rather than one occasioned by the needs of marching itself. At the same time, the ballet example perhaps indicates one of the routes through which such cultural work is done: the tune comes out of the opera house and into the ballet studio, and tends to stay there. Play Colonel Bogey or The Liberty Bell and it won’t feel like a “marchy march,” even though those tunes are probably much more common as actual marching music.  But play the much more recent Darth Vader theme from Star Wars (the “Imperial March“) and there is that dotted rhythm again, illustrating once more the resilient potency of musical topics—which was exactly what Monelle was writing about. 

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Christmas carols for ballet class: free downloads

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Christmas carols for ballet class: get ready for advent!  

Five years ago, as an “advent calendar” I uploaded a free ballet-class version of a Christmas carol every day for advent. As it’s getting to the time when teachers start putting their festive classes together, if you haven’t had enough of these already, or haven’t tried them yet, here’s the link to all of them as a list. The last one in the list is a link to download all the tracks at once.

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Black Swan, the design of everyday things, and the extended mind

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I’ve been very nervous of trying out the orchestral reduction I made in January 2015  of the Black Swan female variation for real-life principals in companies  in case I became too distracted by the unfamiliar feel of the arrangement to concentrate on what the dancer was doing (see this  entry about the terrors of playing for this variation). Finally, this summer I had the chance to play it many times for repertoire classes at the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague.

The result? Though I say it myself, I was delighted to find that I actually forgot I was playing this variation at all—I usually hate it—to the extent that I enjoyed the rehearsals without any dark interior monologues.  There is something about the way that you get to spread your hands properly over the keyboard that literally helps you to “get a grip” on the solo; when it’s thin and whiny like the piano version, it has no body, it runs through your fingers, away from them.  

The design of everyday things: including orchestral reductions

As I was playing it and thinking about these things, I was reminded of a section in Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things   about the importance of physical constraints in design, and how these enable us to take the right actions without having to think about it:  

“Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behavior and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all the knowledge required for precise behaviour has to be in the head. It can be distributed—partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in the constraints of the world.” (pp. 45-55)

There are four reasons, Norman says, that precise behaviour can emerge from imprecise knowledge: information in the world, great precision is not required, natural constraints are present, cultural constraints are present. Of natural constraints he explains: 

The world restricts the allowed behavior. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features—projections, depressions, screwthreads, appendages—that limit its relationship to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on. (p. 55) 

An arrangement of Black Swan plots out specific combinations of piano keys that have implications for how hands can move around in time. My arrangement is much more constraining physically than the original piano piece. The presence of Drigo’s countermelodies, for example, introduce a secondary web of semiquavers that keep time, keep the fingers occupied in finding a way to play the melody and countermelody, keep the brain occupied by introducing the difficulty, and keep your spirit challenged and alert. All of this automatically constrains the possibility of rushing individual beats or moving too fast generally. (Conversely, though, my simplified version of the final chords—without those ridiculously unnecessary repeated spread tenths—frees up your mind and eye to concentrate on the much more important task of seeing how the dancer is doing on her diagonal.) 

The extended mind

It’s taken me since August to actually go to my shelves and find the book and page, so I could write this post. The impetus for doing so is probably because I have recently bought and started to read Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension.  Clark’s book is a huge elaboration on this idea that some of our “thinking” is in the world, not entirely in our heads. It’s at once rather mind-blowing, yet persuasively simple. 

In turn, I finally bought Clark’s book because I was re-reading my notes in my computer on Tia DeNora’s work where she introduces the notion of musical affordances, and the musically extended mind (for a recent conference paper on this concept, see Joel Krueger’s “Musical Worlds and the Extended Mind.” (published in 2018, from a conference in 2016). 

And as it happens, the reason I’m writing this post, the reason I have a website at all is increasingly because it’s a useful place to offload things like this into the world, so my brain has more room to remember where my glasses are, and which bit of my bag I put my umbrella in. I also get tired of thinking “It’s like that bit in that book by whatshisname, it’s a concept called I can’t remember, I’m not sure where the book is.” Occasionally, when I go back to look, I find that I have misremembered or misinterpreted, but in this case, I’m delighted to see that it’s not the case. 

 

 

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Book review: Tia DeNora’s “Music Asylums”

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A book review (of Tia DeNora’s Music Asylums: Wellbeing Through Music in Everyday Life) I did ages ago has now been published online in Current Musicology. 

It might not look like much, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write, but it was worth it. The book itself seemed such an easy read first time through, but when I came to try and condense the main points for a review, it was a lot tougher. 

I was going through some kind of romantic phase at the time when I thought there must be something organic and better about making notes in longhand. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of using a fountain pen again, but in truth, it turned out to be the biggest waste of time and effort: I’m now re-typing those handwritten pages into MaxQDA so I can make some use of them in my other work. 

DeNora uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the complex temporality of music therapy, whose effect might not be immediate or direct: the good that music does in a person’s life might come later—perhaps much later—than the intervention itself. To capture this, she describes it as being like the future perfect  tense (e.g. “I will have done”). That idea has dropped into my head at least once a week in connection with some experience of my own. Whenever people ask me if I enjoyed the three years I spent in Berlin, for example, I have to try and explain that when I was actually there, I was often miserable—but it was one of the most enriching and wonderful periods of my life, from which I continue to draw so much in different ways even today, It’s not retrospect or nostalgia, and it’s not the same as saying “it was awful, but it was good for me.” It’s a feeling that something is by nature good (not awful) in some kind of eternal time zone where when you are ready for it, you can draw on its goodness. 

 

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