On Monday I interviewed an expert on Hungarian fiddle playing, so I just loved this article on the Henle Verlag website about Michael Struck’s re-decoding of a postcard from Brahms that had already been (wrongly) decoded once in a book over a 100 years ago. Superficially, this looks like nerdy Urtext stuff, until you read the detail and watch the video of what the re-interpretation of those tiny markings in the Brahms score mean in practice.
I only ended up watching Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet because I’d been stood up, so instead of seeing Life of Pi in 3D in what would have been my first trip to a cinema in almost a decade, I sat self-pityingly at home, trying to decide between Steam Iron Sale Pick of the Day and Alice in Wonderland, the ballet.
In the end, I turned to iPlayer, and Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet, a documentary about the golden age of British Ballroom dancing, and within minutes, was hooked. What I loved about this programme is that from the very start, Len Goodman told you without any sadness or regret that what he was talking about was already over, a thing of the past. Peggy Spencer was talking matter-of-factly about the 1950s and 60s when she said that ballroom went ‘underground’, and became a thing for dancing schools rather than dance halls, whereas the heart of ballroom, years ago, she said, had been to go out and meet people.
Near the end, about 57 minutes in, Mary Lee, singer with the Roy Fox orchestra, smiles warmly and reminisces “it was lovely” in a tone of voice that tells you instantly how lovely it was, but again, with no hint of regret, just a fond and respectful memory. “It was lovely,” she repeats, “You were hearing good music, and with a wee bit of luck, you got a wee cuddle and a kiss on the way home. You know. It was nice.” You have to hear the way she says ‘nice’, and see the expression on her face to understand that nice can, after all, be full of meaning.
The researchers pulled in musicologists, musicians, dance teachers, writers, singers and dancers, visited dance halls, and included intelligent discussions about changes in music and the social history of dancing over two centuries. It was more intellectual weight and good sense than I have seen thrown at ballet in a long time. What absolutely no-one did in this programme, was to make any claim for ballroom-dancing as a thing, as some autonomous form that lived independently of wider society. No-one talked about ‘dance’, it was all about dancing, and what that meant in real terms – the materiality of dance halls, dance bands, going out, meeting people and kissing them.
It was warm and but not sentimental, accessible without dumbing down. I’m not a fan of ballroom, or of Strictly Come Dancing, but I’m a huge fan of trying to make sense of culture. It’s just a shame that the BBC couldn’t have thrown similar resources at a programme that could explain why we still make ballets that portray an upper-class tea party in Victorian Oxford. I can’t help feeling that the assumption is that we’re supposed to believe that ballet is timeless and autonomous, and hence needs no explanation. I for one would love Len Goodman to investigate.
Class has a ritual, liturgical quality to it, particularly in a company. It is daily, it happens at a particular time, with such religious regard for punctuality that a teacher will begin class without music, rather than be late. It must be done regardless of whether anyone feels like it, and there are rules and formalities to be observed. In companies or open classes especially, teachers are more like ‘celebrants’ or ‘officiants’ than teachers in the conventional sense of the word. Experienced teachers have a way of vocally marking exercises for a class in a way that is both reassuring and instructional, like a priest intoning a blessing. To ‘take’ class, significantly, can mean both to do it or to teach it.
It probably doesn’t have to have music. People do class without it, if they have to. But music seems as integral to a class as it does to a religious ritual, and probably for the same reasons. It connects people, it gives them something meaningful to do together; it’s the vital medium through which the ritual is enacted, and it’s part of the ritual itself.
And oddly enough, some of the arguments about what is right or wrong for class have parallels in the ecclesiastical world. Some people think that popular music has no place in the church, the only way to God is through Palestrina, others think that the church will die unless it embraces the popular. And speaking of death, what classes as ‘funeral music’ these days is whatever people have at a funeral, not a category of music with specific features. Some churches insist on live music, or that you use their particular organist, others don’t have an organ at all. For some, only an organ will take you nearer to God, for others, the guitar, the piano, or the bagpipes will do just as well.
You can probably guess that I think a lot of similar arguments in ballet are pretty nonsensical – live music won’t automatically make someone a better dancer; children won’t automatically become better dancers by playing classical music at them; ‘ballet music’ is anything that people use for ballet, it’s not a thing that has universal qualities; there is nothing intrinsically ‘correct’ about using a piano for class.
That sounds like I’m saying that nothing matters and anything goes. I’m not – quite the opposite, in fact. My point is that music matters toomuch to people to reduce playing for class entirely to a system, a set of rules, a technique, a book of ‘suitable’ or legitimate repertoire that you can impose from outside.
So the final tip is this: don’t listen too much to people (like me) who offer advice on how to do it. Respect the ritual, the people who enact it, and your place in it, and you’ll find new ways of interpreting it, giving it meaning, and making it work.
A lot of pianists are frightened of ‘improvisation’ because the term is widely (mis)understood to mean that you play a chord with your left hand and wait for God to tell you what to do with your right. It’s seen as a gift, or – even more damning – as a sign of liberation from the constraints that hold lesser mortals (like you or me) back. But this is just wrong. Improvisation is all about working within conventions and constraints. That’s why I haven’t even mentioned it until now – how can you improvise if you’ve got no models to work with? The appearance of spontaneity is the result of years of enculturation and practice, some of which looks much more like ‘composition’ than improvisation. For more on that, read Peter Martin’s excellent chapters on improvisation in Music and the sociological gaze.
The line between composition and improvisation is fuzzy: composers try stuff out in an improvisational way before working that material into something more studied; improvisers privately use compositional models and techniques to develop material that they’ll use ‘spontaneously’ in a performance. And contrary to our modern concept of composition as drawing inspiration down from heaven to create something completely original on a blank sheet, 18th century composers learned their craft in a way that looks more like what we’d call improvisation, working with models to create music within the conventions of a recognisable style.
18th century composition manuals offer wonderful lessons in how to ‘improvise’ for class, because they draw attention to the mechanics and processes involved in conventions that are so conventional it’s hard to so how they’re constructed. My favourite is Riepel’s Anfangsgründe zur musicalischen Setzkunst (Fundamentals of Musical Composition), which is a written-out conversation with a student on how to write a minuet. Even better than the original is Stefan Eckert’s article on it, So, you want to write a Minuet?” – Historical Perspectives in Teaching Theory, free to read over at Music Theory Online.
One of the first thing that Riepel teaches you is about the phrase construction of a minuet – ideally, two zweyers and a vierer (two two-bar phrases and a four-bar phrase). Don’t screw this up, he says (well, in so many words), because this is what makes a minuet a minuet. Then Riepel has all kinds of advice about how to construct melodies in this framework, using an imaginary student composition as an example, pulling it apart, improving it according to rules and procedures, until it begins to look like a minuet you’d buy in the shops.
Look at your average plié exercise, and you’ll see that this, too, is built on the same pattern (two demi-pliés and a full, 2+2+4). Most of what goes wrong with music for pliés is when the phrasing can’t breathe with the exercise, and all you need to get it right is to think like Riepel about whether you need zweyers or vierers. And if you think you can’t improvise, then this surely makes it easier – it’s two things, another two things, and then four things. If you think you can improvise, don’t think it’s all about ‘breaking convention’. Some of those conventions help the dancer to phrase their movement.
Another fascinating insight into the improvisational and artisanal character of composition is in the use of Gebrauchs-formulas, described by Robert Gjerdingen in his article of the same name. That article is behind a Jstor paywall, but you can view his translations of composition manuals at the wonderful site, Monuments of Partimenti.
And on that subject, a big round of applause, please, for Simon Frosi, whose bacherlor’s dissertation (The Improvisation of Structured Keyboard Accompaniments for the Ballet Class) is probably the first and only place that you’ll see a discussion of the relationship between partimenti and ballet class improvisation. It’s free to read – press the ‘download’ button.
Update on 16th Feb 2013: If improvsation and the baroque interests you, you might also like this article just released from Music Performance Research online: Incorporating long-range planning into the pedagogy of Baroque-style keyboard improvisation (Vol. 5, 59-78)
You’ll sometimes hear dancers and choreographers talk about music having ‘space’ for dance, or being ‘spacious’, and although it’s difficult to define, it’s something to do with allowing the dance to speak, giving it room to do what it does and let the audience see it, rather than enveloping it in musical fug.
‘Musical interest’ is often the enemy of good dance music, because it orients the audience to dramatic processes in the music, pulling their attention away from the visual. This is why so much ‘art music’ just doesn’t work for dance, at least not for class. It’s just too ‘musical’, in the sense that it’s overly interested in its own development. Charles Rosen sums it up nicely in The Classical Style:
The application of dramatic technique and structure to ‘absolute’ music was more than an intellectual experiment. It was the natural outcome of an age which saw the development of the symphonic concert as a public event. The symphony was forced to become a dramatic performance, and it accordingly developed not only something like a plot, with a climax and a denouement, but a unity of tone, character and action it had only partially reached before. (2005, p.155)
It’s a good thing in class to keep looking for ways that you can do less with music. The occasional use of tacets, playing quietly, pretending to be pizzicato strings, playing unisons, wide-spaced chords, playing off-beats, repetition with variation, all of these things are ways of stepping backwards and letting the dance speak louder.
My favourite example is this: in a petit allegro or fast barre exercise, take a fiddle tune (Drowsie Maggie works particularly well), give a nice clear vamp as an introduction, and then take the left hand right away, and play just the melody, no accompaniment. Particularly in a jump, the sound of the dancers feet landings become part of the music, like an invisible bodhrán in the room.
My working title for this (pardon my language) was ‘don’t get pissy about time signatures’. In other words, if a teacher says they want a 4 and then mark something that sounds like 6/8, don’t get on your high horse, play something in 4 and say ‘But that’s what you asked for’. Look at the exercise, listen to all the clues you can, make a judgement about what you think the teacher is looking for based on all the information available (not just what they said when they started), and if it’s ambiguous, ask. In fact, rather than asking, it’s probably better to take a punt and play something on the first side and see what happens. If the rhythm seemed ambiguous in the marking, it might be that it doesn’t matter that much, or that the teacher is not sure what would work best – in which case, there’s no point in asking, just let everyone have a go with some music and see whether it works.
If it goes wrong, there’s your answer. This empirical approach to music for class is a much better way to find out what works than trying to pin down and theorize everything in advance, or trying to find fail-safe names for everything. The obstacle to working this way is fear of getting it wrong, of losing face, and once that fear sets in on both sides (teacher and pianist), you’re on a terrible journey. But if you don’t look to the teacher to know everything in advance, and instead create an atmosphere where it’s OK for both of you to get it wrong now and again, you’ll live long and be happy.
Life without time signatures
The other reason to forget about time signatures is that if you categorize music by time signature, you’ll miss a lot of cases where the metre of the music as it sounds is ‘hidden’ behind the time signature. Here’s a few examples:
- Music for grand allegro which is in 6/8 rather than 3/4 – think of all the wilis music in Act II Giselle, or the male variation of Tchaikovsky pas de deux. If you think ‘waltz’ or ’3/4′, you’ll mentally rule out some of the best repertoire.
- Slow music in 4 that has accompaniment in triplets can be reclassified as 3/4, 6/8, 12/8.
- By the same token, a lot of ballady type music in 12/8 is of course effectively in 4
- Hornpipes, if you swing them, turn from 2/4 into a kind 6/8, but you feel them as four. There’s not really a term for this – it’s just ‘bouncy’ music, and time signature is less relevant than what you do with the notes.
- A baroque gigue-y type of music in 12/8 could be construed as four bars of 3/4. Teachers use the term ‘waltz’ or ’3/4′ generically to mean something in triple metre, but don’t let the terms distract you from other forms and repertoire
- The opposite applies to the ‘waltz song’ which can be, metrically, much more like a ballad in 4 with a triplet accompaniment. Disaster for allegro – not all that has ‘waltz’ written on it actually waltzes.
- Hypermetrical organization is important - Morning has broken might be written in 3/4 (it isn’t always) but hypermetrically it’s 9/8 or 9/4, and you can hear it as a slow six. The one thing it isn’t, particularly, is ’3′.
A lot of those bullet points came out of everyday experiences with music, but Justin London’s Hearing in Time , a wonderful book on the perception of time and metre in music, gave me a whole set of theoretical tools with which to look at music in different ways that became very useful when looking for new repertoire. His online lecture How to talk about musical metre introduces some of the concepts from the book.
Think of the scene in Nutcracker where all the guests go to bed, and in particular the tune in the bass that repeats and fragments until everyone’s gone. Then listen to this:
and look at this:
And now compare it with this:
Coincidence, or borrowing? In his article On Meaning in Nutcracker, Roland John Wiley remarks that there are more borrowings of tunes in Nutcracker than the other ballets, despite being much shorter. Tchaikovsky was, by his own admission, in a rut. He needed tunes. This hardly sounds like a tune, and it’s simple enough that it could be just musical waffle.
But it does match almost note for note a line from ‘Le Reveil du Peuple‘, reprinted in The Gentleman’s Musical Companion as ‘The celebrated French air’, which is a song against the excesses of the Revolution. Since Tchaikovsky’s sympathies were monarchist, this has potential as a theory, and it’s a nice touch that this reveil is played as the people are in fact all going to bed. It also occurs just after the comedy battle in the party scene with all the toy trumpets.
Is Tchaikovsky having a private joke, saying ‘Calm down you lot’, or is this apparently meaningless transitional material perhaps the key that connects the reality of the party scene battle with the dreamed one that is about to occur? Is Clara’s mind beginning to turn boys and their toys into revolutionaries? Two of the characters in the party scene are called ‘incroyables, after all. There’s a book on Tchaikovsky’s ballets which runs with a theory of Nutcracker as an allegory of the French Revolution (Petipa even wanted a carmagnole in Act II) – can’t remember what it’s called, but I will. If this borrowing is what I think it is, then the story has more legs than you might think. I’ve googled but I can’t find any evidence online that someone has found this tune before. Do I win a prize, or am I the last to find out?