Tag Archives: ballet

Musicology, ballet teaching and time signature

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A proud day for me, my first proper article published in Empirical Musicology Review. “How Down is a Downbeat? Feeling Meter and Gravity in Music and Dance?” came out of a single teaching session, when about 12 years of trying to teach about meter and time signature finally imploded in a discussion with students. For people who wonder why I’m doing a PhD, and what I’m writing about, this will give you an idea – not of the subject, but of the problem.

What I’m really chuffed about is that both Arnie Cox and Robert Hatten agreed to write commentaries on the article (see Arnie Cox’s here, and Robert Hatten’s here).

It would be nice to think that perhaps this might open up a conversation about the musical components of dance teaching courses, but I somehow doubt it will – and for as long as that’s the case, I guess dance teachers will keep saying “By the way, I don’t do time signatures,” and be perfectly justified in doing so, in my view.

I’m still hopelessly behind with the 52 cards, which is annoying me, but I’ve not given up yet.

Ballet classes and dance calling

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I’ve had two conversations with people who play for ceilidhs which have made me think that there’s much more in common between dance calling and teaching a ballet class than we’d like to think.  And now I’ve found a website which has convinced me even further.

The first conversation was with a fiddle player some years ago who explained in two sentences the relationship between marches and single jigs (you can replace one with the other) and how double jigs can be replaced with another dance (can’t remember which one now). The second was with someone recently who was explaining that they were going to do their first gig as a caller rather than just a player. When he gave an example of what he was going to do, I thought “hold on, this sounds just like someone teaching ballet, except with different steps.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me, had I not just transcribed a bit of a ballet class, and seen on paper what teachers say when they mark exercises.

The point I’m getting towards is that I think we often make far too much of a palaver out of what music for ballet class involves, because we (by which I mean “the ballet world”) would like to think it’s more classy and distinguished than it really is: elegant smoke and mirrors (literally, in the case of the ballet studio). We worry about whether this piece of music or that will have the right feel and atmosphere for that exercise, but if you look at fiddle books like Kerr’s Merry Melodies, you can see immediately that for a polka, for example, you can use all kinds of music, as long as you can still polka to it – and as the fiddler pointed out, single jigs and marches are interchangeable. Whether the music’s called a galop, hornpipe, reel or whatever is neither here nor there, it’s how it goes that matters; and if nothing else, people don’t always give their tunes correct names (classical ones are the worst at that – like Widor’s so-called Pavane in 6/8).

pavane-widor

“It’s a Pavane, Jim, but not as we know it.”

And then I came across this, a “Caller’s Workshop” on the website of Colin Hume, a caller himself.  There, on a page, is about the best introduction I’ve seen to dealing with music in a ballet class – all you have to do is imagine he’s talking about ballet rather folk dance calling. It’s concise, it’s clear, it’s down to earth.  He deals with  Working With Live Music  music in a few paragraphs, without making  a (excuse the pun) song and dance about it:

So that’s one thing to discuss with the band beforehand: who counts?  The other is signals.  “One more time”, so they can go back to the original tune or just give it everything they’ve got.  “Out” — particularly in a patter square where you’re jabbering away.  “Kill”.  “Slower”.  “Faster”.  You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue.  Walt Tingle uses a circular movement of the hand to mean “Wind it up — finish”, but many callers use that to mean “Faster”.  Make sure you know who to give signals to — it might not be the obvious person.  I tend to give signals to the whole band, for safety.

I reckon if ballet teaching manuals were written in this style, no-one would get in such a flap over it. It’s only music, it’s only dancing, but we’d all like to think that it’s something more, something that transcends the everyday. For sure, ballet at it’s best is extraordinary and out of this world, but when it comes to class, “You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue” is what it boils down to (on both sides, in fact).

 

 

 

A year of playing cards #3: Talisman pas de deux (3h)

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This page is about one of the lesser known Talisman pas de deux. For the famous Talisman pas de deux, see this page.

Talisman pas de deux, piano solo

Click to download

Talisman pas de deux: at last another adage

I was beginning to worry that I’d got past the summer equinox of my year of ballet playing cards, and still only had two adage-like things, and that I’d spend the last three months of the year having to try to find slow music. which would be a real pain. Then, out of the sky dropped the Talisman pas de deux, something I’d been meaning to transcribe for years, ever since Adam Lopez told me about it.  It’s apparently by Drigo, though – see what you think – it’s either not by Drigo, or it’s Drigo with a hangover. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous, and one to pull out when you have real ballet fans in class. It’s a kind of Ballet World Citizenship Test, if you recognise this tune, then you can have indefinite leave to remain.

Now when I say it’s the Talisman pas de deux, I don’t mean it’s THEEEEE Talisman Pas de deux, but the one danced by Damayanti & Noureddin from the second act of the full-length ballet. The other (“real”) Talisman pas de deux by Gusev c. 1955 is by Drigo, but it’s a pot-pourri of Drigo (and a bit of Pugni thrown in). As always, I would know none of this without Adam Lopez, who deserves some kind of international medal for his work on all this Russian stuff.

The canonical ballet class adage style

After all this time playing for class, I’ve come to the conclusion that this piece is what “adage” means when teachers don’t specify anything at all: 12/8 at this speed, with the tune moving mostly at the 8th note/quaver level. If in doubt, play this kind of thing, and it’s Get Out of Adage Jail free.

I can’t promise that all the notes are absolutely correct: I’m taking it down by dictation, and the accompaniment is just a bit of chord-y wash. If you can get harp into the right hand rather than the bass register, it will sound nicer, but it would have been a week’s work to make an arrangement like that, and I probably wouldn’t end up playing it anyway. Amazingly (for Drigo) it’s actually in 8 bar phrases, and if you repeat C-D, you’ll have four sets of something.

For the “real” Talisman pas de deux, see this page.

A year of playing cards #19: A medley of (double) jigs (6h)

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Image of the double jig medley

A medley of double jigs: click to download the score

I’m a few weeks behind, not least because it’s that time of year when everyone has a show, or is preparing for one. I thought that while I had O’Neill’s 1001 open (see previous post), I’d fill another gap: jigs. Good job I did, because I ended playing for a lot of children’s classes recently, and boy, do you need jigs for that. Skips, galops, horses, they all need jigs (particularly the kind called the “double jig”). I hadn’t quite finished this set when I suddenly needed it for a skipathon, and – as has happened a few times already – I became one of the most grateful users of my own 52 cards project.

Make mine a double: the difference between a single and a double jig

If you need jigs at all in a class, double ones seem to be better than singles almost all of the time (double jigs are the one with the continuous 8th notes and slightly slower than single jigs, which—like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall—alternate between long and short notes). I think it’s because they are (sorry about this) truly triple. By that I mean they’re not just 4/4 with a bit of a lilt, the melody actually moves in 3 (see an earlier post, And now for something completely sextuple for a fuller explanation). I can’t really identify what my criteria are for choosing these jigs rather than the many, many others in O’Neill’s 1001, except I like the ones that sound a bit like a The frost is all over that I heard on a friend’s album when I was a teenager – I think it was Planxty, but it might have been The Chieftains. I couldn’t resist including the jiggy version of Green Sleeves. The Vaughan Williams version is lovely, but it could do with a rest.

Harmonising these tunes for the piano is not as easy as it you’d think it ought to be, and I change my mind several times no sooner than I’ve put down a version. It helps to listen to some bands playing the tunes. Guitarists often use fewer chord changes than you’d be tempted to make on the piano, and bassists make particular shapes with their bass lines. Here’s a version of the first of the set The Joy of My Life. 

A year of ballet playing cards #48: Three French petit allegros (9d)

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Image of sheet music for petit allegro by Auber

Click to download the score

Music for petit allegro: time to put that rag away for once

Several times since I started this “playing card” project, I’ve found myself looking for music that solves whatever problem turned up in class that week. Last week it was finding music for those twiddly allegros that need exactly the music that you don’t really want to play – the continuous semiquaver solos that seem to characterise a lot of French 19th century ballet music (see a related earlier post). Most of the time, I’ll try to play anything but that (rags, jazz standards, fiddle tunes and so on) but there are times when nothing else will do – in one class, the teacher made it clear she exactly wanted what she’d asked for, not some more entertaining alternative, and as it turned out, she was right – it did work better.

I’d already heard a couple of things that I rather liked while I was going through the Auber Gustave III score, so I decided to make a little medley of them. In fact, it’s only a medley on paper, you couldn’t play them in a row for class. In the third one, only the first 8 bars is even – you’d have to find a way of cutting/fiddling the last section. I started to do it myself, and then I remembered that other pianists often find much better ways than I do of finding cuts, so I’ve left the material there for you to make your own cuts in. You’ve been warned.

It’s easy to think that this music is so simple and lacking in harmonic/rhythm interest that you could just make it up as you go along. But actually, it’s not that easy to do, and you’ll find this isn’t that easy to play either. Maybe why this works so well as music for petit allegro – it’s tricky for the musician, as well as the dancer.

I picked the first one, which starts at 9’47” because it has a half-bar anacrusis, and that’s my new favourite trick for class, experimenting with what William Rothstein calls  “Franco-Italian hypermeter” (see earlier post).  You could start it on the beat if you wanted, but I’ve found that these half-bar anacruses things bring a lightness to duple meter things that works like magic. In this case, there’s also a forte-piano dynamic marking from the weak to the strong beat, which creates even more lightness. Little touches like this are counterintuitive but look perfect with the right exercise. Try it and see.

The second one starts at 5’19” and is the most usable of the three perhaps.

The third one starts at 12’18” and isn’t really a “running 4” at all, but I like it, and I seem to be short of things that go like this. Be warned about the second section (see above).

A year of ballet playing cards #29: A Chaconne and a grand dance (3c)

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Image of the chaconne by Purcell

Click to download the score of Purcell’s chaconne

Why is the chaconne so rare in ballet class culture?

I’ve no idea. Given that ballet’s history is supposed to have its roots in Italy and France, it’s odd that things like minuets, chaconnes, bourrées, sarabandes, gavottes and so on are some of the rarest things ever to be heard in a ballet class.  If there’s any cultural hegemony going on, it’s Austro-Hungarian: the waltz and the polka.  Of all the music that isn’t played in classes, it’s the chaconne that seems to miss out most. I don’t think there’s a reason why, except that the only kind of three people can think of in a hurry is the waltz and the mazurka, and those rhythms get embedded in the technique, I suppose. Can there really be something about ballet that requires the waltz? Or is it that chaconne requires learning a new rhythmic trick, and ballet habits are remarkably resilient?

Install a new chaconne instead of your old waltz

I discovered a while back that if you’re lucky, and the exercise isn’t too slow, you can replace the thick, porridge-like stir of a waltz played too slow for ronds de jambe with a Chaconne like this (albeit played rather too slow for a chaconne). It has a push on 1, but not the feeling of a wellington boot sinking into mud that the slow waltz has. The dotted rhythms and true triple metre (see earlier posts on the topic of triple meter) keep the music moving.

There’s something hypnotic yet interesting about the variations on the ground bass: it’s amazing how  much harmonic interest Purcell squeezes out of a single 8-bar bass line.  It’s also handy that there’s loads of it – 16 eight-bar phrases. I’ve put rehearsal marks on each one so you can pick and choose depending on the length of the exercise, but beware of – it’s the only time the phrase ends in a dominant.  There are some great recordings available, but I chose the one below because it has some baroque dance in it as well – which helps to give an idea of what a central tempo for this could be, even though it bears playing more slowly.

By chance, I started to input this just before going to a wonderful concert of the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto at the Barbican, and I was thinking of how the first of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues is a little chaconne, rather like the one in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Then In the violin concerto there’s also a kind of chaconne-like passacaglia in 3, which I felt peculiarly prepared for, as if inputting the Purcell had been a kind of mental warm-up.

On wikipedia there’s a wonderful list of other compositions that have used the chaconne as a basis. Well worth looking at for other ideas, if you liked this one.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #45: A country wedding (polka) from Má Vlast (6d)

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First line of the polka by Smetana

Click to download this polka by Smetana from Ma Vlast

How this polka fell into my hands, and why I love it

A friend and I were talking the other day about how even something as apparently soulless as a bit of computer code (try telling that to a programmer like him) can have a history to it that marks it emotionally.  Every time you use that useful, remarkable snippet of code, you think fondly of when you learned it, and from whom, and how you felt about them and the job at the time. I think of a particular musical theatre conductor every time I sellotape photocopies together, because he showed me how to do it in a way that’s easy and works perfectly, and I’m grateful to him for teaching me whenever I have to prepare a score.

Likewise, a lot, maybe even most of the things I play for class have the feel of a handshake about them: they are things handed on by others, liked by others, mentioned by others, or offered to others in tribute. What I like about this method of collecting music is that the repertoire comes pre-loved, so to speak, so you have to try and work out what it is that made it appeal to the person who recommended it to you. Even if you are wrong, you’ve made the effort to get inside the piece with good intentions and a positive frame of mind, and you end up loving it yourself.

A dancer friend told me a few years ago that this “Country Wedding” scene in Smetana’s Má Vlast was one of the pieces he’d love to hear for class. I don’t think I’d ever concentrated enough during Má Vlast to notice it (that’s my fault for being a very distractible listener, nothing to do with the music, which I like). What an odd piece of music to like that much, I thought, and vowed that I’d learn it one day, even though the chances of anyone else except him recognising it or wanting it for class are fairly slim. [Starts at 4.38 – should begin automatically by clicking on the link below]

Arranging the polka dots: problems of transcription and reduction

I thought it was going to be an easy job – just copying someone else’s (public domain, before you ask) piano reduction. But I couldn’t leave it alone. The piano reduction I found was a mess, and even left out my favourite bit, which is where the violins go up to the top D (5:08″-5:09″, or bar 20 in my score) because it transcribed the woodwind instead of the string parts at that point. So I got the orchestral score and started again. It took me ages.  Although it sounds like a simple piece, the simplicity is achieved by elaborate means – there’s something happening on every semiquaver, and in all kinds of registers, in parallel and contrary motion, in thirds, sixths and octaves, and it’s impossible to transcribe for the piano in a way which conveys this richness. I’ve done my best, but it doesn’t lie that easily under the fingers.

boats_on_vltava

Where that tree is in front of the cream-coloured building on the left is the café/bar we called “Smetana’s Arse” because there’s a larger-than-life statue of a seated Smetana there, outside the Smetana museum. The willow tree used to be one of the most distinctive features of this bit of Prague and of that bar, but it was uprooted in the floods of 2002, and what you see is the newly planted one, not a patch on the old one yet.

In this respect, it’s rather similar to Jaromír Weinberger’s score for the polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper. It sounds like a simple tune, but the orchestration consists of multiple streams of non-stop chromatic semiquavers cascading over the tune in a sea of black beams. When a colleague of mine first saw the score, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, and said he wasn’t sure he’d like to play it if he saw it on the stand.  But the effect is nice: what goes on between the notes of the tune happens so thick and fast that it’s affected you before you’ve had a chance to hear what it is properly.

This would be really handy for the kind of exercise that needs rhythm but not sharpness. All that movement, all those suspensions and appogiaturas give it a tender  kind of accent, like a tenuto plus a staccato plus a marcato in brackets.

I also couldn’t help wondering whether there’s more than a family resemblance between the rest of Vltava and the opening of Act II of the Nutcracker: same key, same time signature, same evocation of a journey by water.