Tag Archives: notation

Music theory for (ballet) dancers, the last word for now? Grant’s “Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era”


I’ve just added Roger Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era as my top choice for books on music theory for those interested in music-dance relationships (see my metre and rhythm page for a brief bibliography on  that topic). I don’t want to say too much, because it figures largely in a chapter in my PhD, and it’s too detailed and scholarly a book for me to summarize hastily. Suffice it to say, if you want to know what think about time signature and meter and movement, it’s all in this book. I’m glad I hadn’t read it when I was writing How Down is a Downbeat?, a journal article on music, ballet teaching and time signature that I wrote a few years ago; it would have tempted me to rewrite the whole thing. On the other hand, I wish I had read it when I first started teaching music for dance teachers back in 2000. However, some of the significant books and articles that Grant refers to in building his theory were published some years later than that. Is theory even the right word? I’m not sure: it’s history, but in order to understand the history, you have to change your ideas about what you thought was music theory. It’s amazing that in the 21st century, we’re still solving the problems unexamined or hidden by “rudimentary” music theory, e.g.—to name but one— why is a 6/8 called a compound time signature? What’s compound about it? 

The biggest problem with what is conventionally called “music theory” is that it presents as simple and straightforward (a matter of counting two or three) something which is exasperating in its complexity, not least because “time signature” as a subject leaves out the people who use it and the way they interpret it, but it is virtually meaningless without the (changing) practice in which it is embedded. I’ve hinted at this in many of my more recent postings on triple meter and Rothstein’s theory of  “Franco-Italian hypermeter.”   Grant discussed the way that the meaning of beat as movement has gradually disappeared, morphing into the concept of time as a endless stream of motionless, durationless ticks. This in fact was exactly how I used to teach music theory and meter, without realising the entailments or history of my own beliefs about what meter or musical time was. 

I am in awe of the way that Grant makes sense of such a complex assemblage of notation, musicians, practice, ideas, primers, teachers, and so on. It’s only when you’ve struggled to sort out some of these problems yourself that you realise how courageous and hard-working someone else has been at grappling with similar issues.  


The perils of video


Two recent conversations have caused me to remember an interview between Christopher Hampson & his long-term notator Caroline Palmer about his ballet Canciones that  I transcribed and posted on the web 12 years ago (see full interview here). If you were around, you may remember that at the last moment, he had to pull the intended score by Manuel de Falla and replace it with something else, because of an issue over rights. It seems like 12 minutes ago.  At the time, I thought the following tale was quite funny – with the passage of time, it seems really rather sad…

CH: I know that people use videos, but a good example of why not to use a video is…

CP: (laughs) Do we have to go down this route?!

CH: We do, because a good example of why not to use a video is that there is one version, which is a rehearsal tape of the Manuel de Falla version

CP: The only one

CH: The only tape, and you know, I just love it dearly because it’s what it was what it was meant to be. I went round, and took Caroline out for her birthday, which… I don’t know if I’ll do again [laughter], because half way through the last section, the jota, she’d taped Lorraine Kelly, GMTV…

CP: Over it…

CH: … interviewing someone from Coronation Street over it. But you know, because the notation is there, that puts my mind at ease.

‘Social loss’, dance notation and Josephine Baker


What do Glaser & Strauss’s grounded theory study The Social Loss of Dying Patients, dance notation and Josephine Baker have in common? Well, I’m making a few conceptual leaps here, but I think it’s worth considering as a theory. I’ll walk you through it.

I was struck by a sentence in this article by Susan McClary & Robert Walser about Theorizing the body in the African American music. Their point, amongst others, is that it’s popular music and dance forms that have had the biggest and widest effect on dance generally, not avant-garde choreography which just borrows  ‘vernacular’ movements to present in ‘legit’ works:

The fanaticism and hysteria that have greeted each new African-American dance in the last hundred years attest to the centrality of this music in contestations over the body. And the dances invariably triumphed over whatever opposition they faced, even in they were toned down somewhat in the transition. It is this music, these dances – not the hot-house experiments of the avant-garde – that have shaped us, body and soul, throughout this century.

When I read that, I thought of a dance teacher friend of mine who was saying how fabulous Josephine Baker was, and how she was sure she did more for dance in the 20th century than….and then named one of the greats, can’t remember – Isadora Duncan? Martha Graham? I tend to agree.

Now skip across a few years to yesterday, when I was reading Glaser & Strauss’s ‘social loss’ study. They looked at what happened when people were dying, and noticed that nurses had a notion of ‘social loss’ that might affect the way they dealt with the patients. Normally, young patients are perceived as high value because you shouldn’t die young, but an old person might gain a few points by being a wonderful character. You get the idea.

Now think about dance notation – why do some works get notated, whereas all kinds of popular dance forms don’t? Could it be that there’s a similar concept of ‘social loss’ here, too? The idea is kind of obvious, but only because we think it’s obvious that some works have ‘aesthetic value’ that’s worth preserving and some don’t. But what if it’s no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived social value of the person doing the dance, disguised as an aesthetic judgement? The  interesting thing for me would be to see if the category of ‘social loss’ provides a good explanation for what happens in dance. That’s got to be a gift of a dissertation or an article for someone, to do a comparative study using Glaser & Strauss’s original study to see how well the categories fit across the two scenarios. Any takers?