Category Archives: Dance

Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy — online journal (with English abstracts)

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Am I the last person to have noticed that the Vaganova Ballet Academy has published a serious journal containing the work of Russian dance scholars, Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy,since 2015, with six issues a year? The articles are in Russian, but all have English abstracts. Given that there’s such a divide in most countries between academic scholarship and practical ballet teaching, it’s astonishing to see both together in the institute most famous globally for producing dancers rather than scholars. 

I came across it by chance, because I was looking up something about airs parlants, and found an  article by Galina Bezuglaya on airs parlants in early 19th century ballet—which will give you some idea of the level of scholarship. A glance through the contents pages reveals a huge breadth and depth. 

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On-screen commentary from pianist Joshua Piper during YouTube ballet class

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When I first learned to drive, I read a book about the police driving test, in which you had to do a “commentary drive,” which involves describing to the examiner (while you’re driving) what you are observing on the road ahead, explaining the decisions you’re making, the precautions you’re taking, and so on. I often think of this during ballet class, because as any ballet pianist will tell you, although we seem to “just” play when the exercise starts, there’s a whole series of observations, analyses and decision-making processes going on before we lay a finger on the keyboard, and then a dozen more as we’re actually playing, some of which are so quick as to seem unconscious and instantaneous. For the novice pianist trying to learn something about how to play for class, watching another pianist has limited use, because you don’t know why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes, they don’t know either, or have forgotten by the time class is over. That’s why the video below by ballet pianist Joshua Piper (aka heavypiano) is really useful: he’s filmed a real class, with him playing, put it on YouTube, and put a short text commentary over it, usually at the beginning and ends of exercises, so you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. [If you can’t see the embedded video, click here to see it on YouTube]

He explains, for example, that at a certain point in the barre, the teacher likes a “less is more” approach to the music, so he holds back, avoiding too much subdivision, playing chords in light touches, which gives the dancers space to move, so to speak; elsewhere he talks about trying to maintain tempo, and create a feeling of ebb and flow, of introducing a bit of stride, but not too heavy. It’s a great lesson on making your repertoire stretch, too—adapting tunes according to the tempo and feel of the exercise, so that you only just realise by the end that you know the tune, but in a different form (I’m thinking here of his styling of Korobeiniki, a.k.a. the Tetris theme.

He emphasises that what’s happening in this class at times is fairly unusual: the teacher wants him to play quiet, thin, and spacious music for exercises that would often be accompanied by more robust, circussy stuff. But that’s why the video is so useful—it demonstrates how a particular pianist adapts his style to a particular teacher and the dancers, rather than making any claims that you can apply the same musical template to every ballet class in the world. It’s the necessity to adapt that is what makes the job difficult, but also rewarding. One of my favourite comments is where he says he’s trying to “imply round movement with my LH pattern” in ronds de jambe, an exercise that’s normally taken in 3/4, but which he’s playing in 4. Finding ways to trick people’s ears into thinking they’re hearing three when they aren’t is one of my tactics, too, as I’ve described in another post.

This is a great video, and Joshua Piper plays beautifully—but I also have to say he’s lucky to have this teacher, and that class (I’m guessing it’s Ballet Austin, but I’m not sure). There are other videos to be made, where the pianist—like a police driver explaining how he is going to manoeuvre a skidding car out of a muddy ditch while pursuing criminals— shows how they try to make the eternal fondu-tango-that-is-too-slow or the ronds-de-jambe-stirring-porridge-waltz still feel like music against the most challenging odds.

The more I watch and listen to this video, the more I love the way Joshua Piper plays, his repertoire, stylings, and commentary—and the video itself, too: it makes such a nice change to have a static, wide camera angle, and a focus on a good quality recording of the sound, rather than a body mic given to the teacher, and fetishistic close-ups of dancers’ feet and sweaty faces. Ballet on TV is so darn predictable. This video gives you a feel for the calm, peaceful concentration that you get in a ballet classes, and an idea of just how exposed and focal the music can be when you’ve got a teacher who isn’t screaming over the top of it.

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RIP John O’Brien

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John O'Brien, June 2016, photo by Andrew Florides

John O’Brien in June 2016, at Café Richoux in Mayfair. Photo by Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

In all the years I knew John, he always seemed the same age, and always young, so I never thought I would be writing this post. He was also one of the most present people I have ever met. I’m lost for words to hear that he died yesterday, so here is a post I wrote about John   a few years ago; another about the time the actress and singer Gertrude Thoma and I surprised him in Barnes at the crack of dawn on his birthday , inviting him to a house where we’d just spent the night at a party (they had a piano), with a rendition of the Marlene Dietrich number Johnny, Wenn du Geburtstag hast. And the last word, the thing that made John’s classes different from any other teacher I’ve known, his gentle philosophy of “This thing is bigger than all of us.” 

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“Ballerinas in the church hall”—Virginia Taylor’s thesis online

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Joyce Kilmer thought she would never see a poem as lovely as a tree; well, I’m pretty sure I will never see a thesis as lovely as Virginia Taylor’s  Ballerinas in the church hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet and dancing school.” (PhD, University of Chichester, 2003). I had known Virginia Taylor’s work from the papers she published on why girls go to ballet, but only recently noticed that her thesis is now freely available online. 

It is so beautifully written, I thought all the time about what John Law wrote in After Method (2004): 

Why do the books fall into two heaps, the novels on the one hand, and the academic volumes on the other? [. . .] What difference would it make if we were instead to apply the criteria that we usually apply to novels (or even more to poetry) to academic writing? . . . if we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all. [. . .] How, then, might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the quality of its own writing? With the creativity of writing? (Law, 2004, pp. 11-12) 

I enjoyed reading this thesis as much as any of my favourite novels, and I could read it again and again for pleasure. She takes apart woolly, ideological thinking about ballet so elegantly, it’s like watching a surgeon at work. I burst out laughing several times, and I copied and pasted quotes from almost every single page of the thesis, sometimes several paragraphs from the same page. If you have suffered for years with the art form you work in being denigrated as girly, fluffy, pink, feminised, uncreative, hierarchical etc. (as if all those things were inherently wrong) and ideologically inferior to state dance education, then this will be the oxygen you need, but she’s paid for every cylinder with razor-sharp arguments and critiques of texts that are often regarded without a second thought as canonical in the dance education world. The thesis pre-dates the Jordan Petersoning  of ballet which requires it to be manned-up  into something masculine, athletic, and sciencey for boys and girls alike, but the tools you need to unscrew that screwed-up thinking are right here.

It’s not just that. It’s beautifully structured, and her methods are so clear and down-to-earth, there’s never a point where you can say “Ah yes, but. . . ” because she’s already pre-empted you. One of my favourite moments is when she asks  a senior examiner from one of the dance teaching societies how she would explain the global spread of ballet teaching: 

“She replied, ‘Parents all over the world want their daughters to be graceful’; although indeed she laughed when I added ‘just like us.’ (I was washing the car, she was walking her dogs.)” (p. 128)

I’ve been at conferences where people post up quotes from their respondents on the PowerPoint screen (“Anna, aged 19, name changed to preserve anonymity”), against the snazzy colours of an off-the-shelf template with a University logo in the corner, sharing  Elizabeth’s hope in Pride and Prejudice that it will be “something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.” To admit that you were washing the car or walking the dogs at the time is—never mind that it’s also responsible scholarship—pure class. 

Altogether, the paragraphs I copied and pasted for my own notes amounted to 6,467 words. I think I’m going to be saying “see Taylor (2003)” for many years to come, because there is, to my knowledge, almost nothing out there right now that attests to and celebrates the lived experience of everyday ballet teaching and ballet dancing. What is more commonly represented and what is studied is the rarified world of professional ballet companies, or the vocational training that serves as preparation for them, as if this were the platonic ideal of ballet of which dancing in church halls is a corruption, or not even an instance at all. And that would be correct, because the two are different things, but it takes a doctoral thesis to unpick the political and ideological problems that confuse them. Increasingly, dance education research also focuses on the experience of dance students in higher education, but that’s another story. 

One of the things that she dissects is the idea that there is something  old-fashioned, “traditional” and anti-progressive about ballet teaching (and therefore morally wrong), and something inherently ideologically pure about state education and child-centred progressive education philosophies.  In her interviews with children about how they felt about it, something quite different emerged: they like dance school, because they get seen, not stuck at the back of the class. It’s so simple, and yet I hadn’t really thought of it before: of course, for all the formality of ballet class, there are times when it’s your turn, when you’re in the centre, when your line is at the front, when it’s your turn to come from the corner. You get seen. You get corrected, not because you’re wrong, but to get better. 

Choreography and ideology

For years, every time I see an article saying that it’s a disgrace that there are so few female choreographers, my first thought is “But what is so culturally important about being a choreographer that this is such a disgrace?”  It promotes the idea of the 19th century genius, but sticks a skirt on him, as if Christine Battersby wrote Gender and Genius in vain. I also wonder about  boys who have no desire to choreograph—are  they emasculated by wanting to “just” dance? I have avoided saying this for fear of being misunderstood, or changing my mind, but Virginia Taylor puts what I mean more clearly: 

Here I have an unashamed polemical aim, which is to convince the reader that all dancing is creative. Ballet, and other dance, is a creative experience. It may not be original, but it is ideologically specific to consider dance-inventing a superior activity to dance-doing. Indeed, I question that ‘self-expression’ and ‘creativity’ are only to be found in dance-making, or in improvising. (Taylor 2003, p. 167) 

She exposes ideological positions for what they are, to the extent that I think this thesis ought to stored in the fridge with the EpiPen for anyone who is allergic to current educational dogma. Speaking of a performance by two dance-school girls accompanied by their friend on flute, that was frowned on by state school teachers who saw it, she says: 

If a girl thinks the tune from The Deer Hunter (1978) is beautiful, and plays it as well as she can, and her friends make what they see as an appropriate dance to a piece of ‘classical’ music borrowing classical dance forms, what is the cultural position which denies this validity?” (p. 168)

Quite. I have too many other favourite lines, but this is one of them, which wins my prize for the best use of italics in a feminist sentence: ” Thomas the Tank Engine pulls coaches Annie and Clarabel, who are identical to each other, without much of a character, and most importantly and with startling Freudian implications, they have no motor.” (Taylor, 2003, p. 102)

I love “Ballerinas in the Church Hall”  not least  because it’s so close to what I’m writing about in my own work: how teachers in everyday situations deal with music, how music gets “done” in the studio, how people deal with music in terms of tum-te-tums, diddly-diddlys and “I don’t do time signature.” It’s also about how teachers don’t deal with music, or the latest educational theory, because frankly, there’s too much else to deal with, like the former student of mine who told me about a particularly bad day in the studio: her teaching course demanded an assignment from her about peer assessment in ballet. The reality of her teaching experience was that she was having to clean the tutu of a girl who’d sat down on a very ripe banana, before taking another baby ballerina to the toilet to wash the diarrhoea out her knickers.  You won’t read about that in the scholarly literature, but you should. 

Ballerinas in the Church Hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet, and dancing schools. Virginia Taylor, 2003.  (Free download of the full text)

Postscript: on research and note-taking

Finding this thesis has ended a search that has lasted several years: some time in perhaps 2013, I was in the RAD library, and read an article that said that on current numbers,  you had more chance of becoming a premier league  footballer or member of parliament than a professional ballet dancer. It was one of those surprising, clever formulations that stuck, to the extent that I wanted to quote it several times. But where had I read it? Wherever I thought I had read it, I was wrong. I could have sworn I remembered the shelf I took the box of journals from, and what colour the journal was and so on. I couldn’t just say the same thing without acknowledging my source. It turns out, it was Virginia Taylor who said it—and I guess I must have read it an a conference paper, while I was reading a box of journals. 

I have drawn attention before to the employment opportunities – or rather, lack of them – for professional ballet dancers in the UK (Taylor 2000a, 2003). On-line company lists in February 2003 revealed the grand total of 219. Statistically therefore, you are three times more likely to be a Member of the House of Commons at Westminster (659), or thirteen times more likely to be a professional footballer (2875) than a ballet dancer with a regular pay packet. (p. 9)

Apart from shouting my joy from the rooftops at finally finding the source, this is a warning to anyone writing an essay, dissertation, thesis or whatever: keep a file somewhere for quotes, and use it, all the time. Don’t read stuff on the train, or for pleasure, unless you are at the same time rigorous about adding accurately to your sources at the point of reading. Always add quotation marks, because if you don’t, years later you won’t remember whether you were paraphrasing or quoting. 

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Tchaikovsky’s hairpins

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Roberto Poli's book, The Secret LIfe of Musical Notation

The Secret Life of Musical Notation

The secret life of hairpins

In The Secret Life of Musical Notation, Roberto Poli examines a number of notational conventions—hairpins, sforzandi, rinforzandi, pedals, stretti and rhythmic values—that have perplexed him as a performer, and led him to investigate the possibility that they don’t mean what we assume them to mean. 

I found the chapter on hairpins very interesting, and the evidence for there being a problem is persuasive: he shows  a number of examples from Chopin’s work where the hairpins don’t make a lot of sense, either because they’re redundant (they show a hairpin as well as a diminuendo, for example) or because they contradict the musical sense: a “diminuendo” hairpin just at the point where you are getting to the high point of a phrase, and to taper off seems expressively illogical. 

When is a hairpin not a hairpin? 

His conclusion is that hairpins, among some composers and in a certain time period, denoted not [simply] increases or decreases in volume, but agogics,  i.e. expressive timing. What we think of as a “crescendo” hairpin would mean pulling out (i.e. slowing down) towards the open end of the hairpin. A “diminuendo” hairpin would mean essentially a tenuto where the open end was, recovering normal tempo towards the end. Two hairpins together, with the open end in the middle, would mean treating the tempo of the bar with rubato. I’m reducing the arguments a little (the chapter is nearly 70 pages long), but that’s roughly it.  Importantly, what appear to be accents might in fact be mini hairpins, and as such, are an alternative sign for what we would normally expect to be represented by a tenuto. 

As convincing as the arguments are, It all sounds a bit too much like an engaging conspiracy theory to be true, but then he quotes Riemann’s Die Elemente der musikalischen Äesthetik (1900), where

hairpins are described as affecting both dynamic and agogic coordinates. Riemann explained that the symbol might serve different purposes, its agogic function only strengthening the dynamic one and vice versa. He formulated that, should the context in which the hairpin is found convey the necessity, one or the other function can be abandoned, as long as this would not incur a great loss of either parameter. (Poli, 2010, p. 66

The Lilac Fairy Attendants’ Hairpins

As it happened, the day after I read the chapter on hairpins, I was down to play the Lilac Fairy Attendants from Sleeping Beauty on an Easter School, a piece that is really horrible to play on the piano, and doesn’t get any less horrible when you’ve done it at every summer school for the last 30 years. I was still in two minds about Poli’s thesis about hairpins, but I thought, let’s see how his theory fares on this piece. 

Whether or not Tchaikovsky fits in to the league of composers or periods when hairpins or “accents”  could mean agogics or not, I am utterly convinced that this is a better way to read the score than any way I have done in the past. 

Using Poli’s analyses, one could interpret the “accents” over those notes as meaning tenuto marks, rather than accents. Do that once, and tell me you’re not convinced: what sense does it make to have accents on those notes when the marking is grazioso, and later pianissimo? For years, I’ve obeyed the music and put a little accent of sorts on that note, but when you get to the hairpin starting in bar six, why on earth would you get louder and accent those notes in music like this? 

But change those accents to tenuto marks, and pull out the music towards the F#, and give slightly more tenuto on the following B, and then on the bottom line, pull out towards the C#, and it all makes beautiful musical sense. You can play this music without any dynamic accents at all, only agogic ones, and it begins to sound like music again. 

Likewise, the accent on the D in voice 2 in the RH in the penultimate bar. A tenuto there makes perfect sense within the waltz, because there would be a slight hold there in the movement, but an accent is neither musical, nor does it give the right tempo feel to the bar that would be appropriate.  As Poli points out, we are so conditioned by later performance practice not to conflate dynamics with agogics, that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was considered perfectly normal and musical to do so. 

I compared the orchestral score to Siloti’s arrangement. Siloti has a narrowing hairpin in the last few bars, where the orchestra doesn’t, and it makes musical sense to pull out towards the end a bit. A conductor would do this without needing to be told in the score, but perhaps Siloti wrote his hairpin in the score to give an indication of what would be determined in orchestral practice. 

Another rather interesting thing is that the tendency towards metronomic tempi, and the going-out-of-fashion of this kind of agogics, has seeped into ballet as well. It’s a delightful rarity to work with a ballet teacher who lives and breathes expressive timing, but that may be a side-effect of performance practice in music rather than ballet. People my age will remember a time when to slow down at the end of a piece of early music was like wearing brown shoes in the city. We live in less dictatorial times I think, thanks to Taruskin’s diatribes against such things in Text and Act for example, but I hadn’t realised until this Sleeping Beauty experience how much my reading of notation followed such carefully self-policed rules. 

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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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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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Tia DeNora, affordances, and more on the lyrical waltz

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In a previous post about the so-called “lyrical waltz” (a term sometimes used by some ballet teachers) I took a long time to come to the conclusion that perhaps “lyrical” in this instance is not so much a quality of the music, as of what may be done to it.  The more I think about this, the more I am convinced of that explanation, and am enjoying developing the idea further by applying some theory to it. 

I think that for the teacher who asks for a lyrical waltz, the boundaries between the properties of the music, and what it affords, are blurred. You could go further: music has only the  properties that we assign to it, using whatever categories and terms we happen to bring to it; so for the teacher, if music affords lyrical movement, then the music itself is deemed to be lyrical. A nappy bucket, likewise, is so called for the things that it affords, or is commonly used for (washing nappies) but there is nothing inherently nappy-like about the bucket.

Waltz buckets

Think of music as a bucket, and it’s easier to see that there no such musical object as a  waltz in the sense of something that has intrinsically waltz-like properties, but there are “waltz buckets”: pieces of music that  you can fit the movements of waltzes to. This is much clearer with contemporary ballroom dancing, where the waltz-like qualities or propensities of music that you’ve hitherto only been able to hear as a ballad become evident when you see waltzing done to it, as in the example below from Strictly Come Dancing, where waltzing to Hallelujah points up the three-ness at one level of the metrical structure. Having said that, what happens on Strictly is so far removed from the practicalities of everyday ballet classes that it’s not a great example, frankly. 

What confuses the issue is perhaps the fact that there are so many musical compositions called waltz that seem to “call forth” waltzing, as if it was something about the properties of the sounds themselves that did the calling-forth. But if you have ever stood unmoved and unmoving while some dance music played that seems to be animating people around you into joyful, seemingly spontaneous dancing, you’ll probably have to admit that enculturation is important (unless you’re the kind to say that there was something better about the waltz than there is about whatever is being played in clubs now). 

Enter Tia DeNora, and theories of affordance and perception

This has been articulated theoretically by the music sociologist Tia DeNora in After Adorno (2003), in relation to music, obviously, rather than nappy-buckets: 

Music comes to afford things when it is perceived as incorporating into itself and/or its performance some property of the extra-musical, so as to be perceived as ‘doing’ the thing to which it points. (DeNora 2003, p. 57) 

Earlier, she has explained this with reference to marching music: 

Music may also afford the imaginative projection of bodily movement, as when one ‘pictures’ a type of movement when hearing a type of music. The example of marching music serves to illustrate these points. On hearing march music one may (but not automatically—see below) be reminded of or begin to imagine—to ‘picture’ marching. One may, in other words, become motivated or aroused in relation to a type of agency—marching—to a particular movement style, and one associated with a particular set of institutional practices and their particular agent-states, such as bodily regulation, coordination, and entrainment. One may ‘become’ (produce one’s self as) a ‘marcher”—that is, on the occasion of music heard, one may adapt one’s self to its perceived properties and so become, via the music, a type of agent, in this case, one imbued with march-like, militaristic agency. (DeNora 2003, p. 47) 

A ballet teacher asking for a lyrical waltz is a rather strange reversal of this, in that she is in effect saying “Play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself moving lyrically, so that when I hear it, I and the class will then be motivated or aroused to move in that way.” Or perhaps, more accurately, the subtext is: “I have been told by my teachers that if I use the term lyrical waltz, you will play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself  moving lyrically” etc. 

The trouble is, the teacher usually does not know how to define a lyrical waltz in terms that have any meaning or currency for musicians, and cannot cite or sing any examples of one; but like Justice Potter Stewart and hard-core pornography, she will know it when she hears it. (In Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964, giving his reasons for deciding that something should not be considered hard-core pornography, the judge said, in a statement which has since become famous,  “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it. . . “). 

Implications for teaching

It is things like this that make playing for ballet so wretchedly difficult at times. At the same time, trying to unpick the problems theoretically fascinates me, particularly when this has implications for the way that music is taught or thought about in ballet training. For example, the teacher who says “Can’t you hear it in the music?” may be barking completely up the wrong tree.  DeNora speaks (in the quotation above) about institutional practices and movement styles, and how the conventional association of particular music with such practices is what enables us to perceive (or perhaps tricks us into perceiving) a certain piece of music as “march” music, or whatever. That being the case, what will enable the student to “hear” music as lyrical is to do lyrical movement to it, in the style and manner encouraged by the teacher. The music alone holds no clues, no “information” on its own. 

To a limited extent—and I’d be interested to know if the experiment could be repeated elsewhere with the same results—my late colleague Holly Price and I discovered this in relation to teaching about “dance rhythms.” You could chalk-and-talk til you were blue in the face about the properties and characteristics of dance rhythms from a musical point of view (e.g. the waltz is in three four time, the polka has this rhythm, the hornpipe has these characteristics), but it was much more effective to just get a class of students to polka, waltz or hornpipe or whatever, around the studio for a couple of minutes to the relevant kind of music. 

The lyrical waltz and the not-so-grand allegro

An associated problem, though, is that both music and movement are adaptable. You can do the same movement to different kinds of music, and the same music will fit different kinds of movement. Only in the last few weeks—and I’ve been playing for class for over 30 years— I realised that a certain kind of grand allegro is ideally accompanied by the kind of (wait for it) lyrical, 6/8 music that opens the pas de trois in Swan Lake, or the entrée of  Odalisques from Le Corsaire. 

A lyrical waltz? The pas de trois from Act I of Swan Lake

The pas de trois from Act I of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.

The entrée of the "Odalisques" in Le Corsaire. It's more allegro than it looks

The entrée of the “Odalisques” in Le Corsaire. It’s more allegro than it looks

 

I realised about Odalisques because I was playing for a repertoire class where the teacher explained to the students the amount of energy and dynamics they needed to put into the movement, which made me realise how “allegro-y” it was, contrary to the way it looks on the page and feels under the fingers. As for Swan Lake, this was a rare example of a teacher (the wonderful Romayne Grigorova) citing the prime example of what she was after. 

In both cases, the music may not seem to be dynamically the equivalent of grand allegro (which is the test that I think a lot of us ballet pianists would apply) but it affords a certain kind of grand allegro, and the music would be associated in the minds and bodies with the choreography customarily done to it. It seems counterintuitive at first glance, but it makes sense: this is about doing energetic movements with grace and lyricism (there, I said it again). 

 

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10 fabulous ballet women for International Women’s Day 2018

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Picture of a rose

One of the reasons I started blogging was because I was frustrated that journalists and historians tended to focus only on the big names: the stars, the directors, the choreographers, the “game-changers,” the critics and scholars, while leaving out the people who did so much of the heavy-lifting:  ballet mistresses, teachers, coaches, notators, assistants. Another category:  those  dancers who come over during a rehearsal and help you out when those at the front charged with doing so don’t know how to.  Insiders know that ballet is a joint enterprise,  and that on the dancing side, these are the people who make the ballet world go round, who hold it together, who support and lift everyone in it, who keep the ship afloat and motivate the crew in stormy seas badly navigated.  

I wanted to do two things: to say thank you to the people who had explained the ballet world to me when I was floundering, particularly at  the beginning of my career; but also, to disrupt the web search results, so that some of the people I admired most would come out of the footnotes to other people’s biographies. It was the early 2000s, and at the time, people  believed (perhaps they still do?)  that if you couldn’t be found on the web, you didn’t exist. 

Disappearing Acts

They weren’t all women, but the fact that men in these roles are also overlooked has, I believe, a lot to do with gender, with the tendency to dismiss supportive, other-directed, compassionate, nurturing and emotionally intelligent behaviour as unimportant “women’s work,”  compared to the more attention-grabbing projects of choreography, composition, or building new premises.   Joyce Fletcher writes about this in Disappearing Acts

[C]ertain behaviors “get disappeared”—not because they are ineffective but because they get associated with the feminine, relational, or so-called softer side of organizational practice. This implicit association with the feminine tends to code these behaviors as inappropriate to the workplace because they are out of line with some deeply held, gender-linked assumptions about good workers, exemplary behavior, and successful organizations. In other words, the findings [of Fletcher’s research among female design engineers] suggest that there is a masculine logic of effectiveness operating in organizations that is accepted as so natural and right that it may seem odd to call it masculine. This logic of effectiveness suppresses or “disappears” behavior that is inconsistent with its basic premises, even when that behavior is in line with organizational goals. The result is that organizations adopt the rhetoric of change—moving, for example, to self-managed teams—but end up disappearing the very behavior that would make the change work, such as recognizing the effort involved in helping a team work together effectively. 

As an example, she cites a discussion in a manufacturing firm where everyone agrees that “the ability to bring people together, to resolve differences, and make team members feel at ease with each other is something that is very important in getting a diverse group of people working well together,” (p.2) yet these do not get added to a list of core competences because “they are not measurable or something that could be written into one’s objectives.” If you’ve ever had to write learning objectives, or been told to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. you’ll know what it feels like to have to bring yourself kicking and screaming into line with this way of thinking.

This isn’t about giving some occasional column inches to “unsung heroes.”  The concept of lone heroes and solitary geniuses is part of the problem. As Mary Beard said recently in an interview in the LARB about women and power: 

This is about women who want to be listened to and taken seriously and to make a difference to the ordinary workplace. Power isn’t just stratospheric. It’s not just about the glass ceiling. There’s quite a lot of women who feel so far from the glass ceiling that that metaphor is a real turn off. This is about how we operate together at every level in the culture, whether that’s around a university seminar, or high school, or a retail store, or whatever. It’s about thinking about who we take seriously, how, and why.

This list is 13 years old, and I could add many, many more to it now (I won’t, because if I start, I’ll end up doing a new Advent Calendar) but it’s wonderful that I still know,  work or  catch up with most  of them today, and they are still every bit as fabulous. 

10 Fabulous Ballet Women for International Women’s Day

References

Fletcher, J. K. (1999). Disappearing acts: gender, power, and relational practice at work. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

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The mysterious case of the Lyrical Waltz

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I’ve just had an email from a teacher, asking me what I understand by the term “Lyrical Waltz.” Short answer, I don’t understand anything by it, but the long answer is that I’m rather fascinated by how a term like this can gain such currency over a long time, without apparently having much meaning. 

Lyrical waltz: a potted personal history

The first time I heard the term “lyrical waltz” was when I started work at the RAD back in 1986. I think it was something that teachers had been told was a meaningful musical term to use to pianists. I used to improvise waltzes that started with  a dotted quarter note + three eighth-note pattern (as in the Sleeping Beauty lilac fairy attendants example below). I soon ran out of ideas. I think the reason I associated this pattern with “lyrical” was because somewhere in a syllabus book there was an exercise that had “lyrical waltz” as a tempo indication, and that’s roughly how the music went. 

Screengrab of the piano score of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, Lilac Fairy Attendants

Lilac fairy attendants from Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky). When I hear “lyrical waltz” I think of this rhythmic pattern of dotted quarter note + three eighth notes. But I’m not convinced that’s good enough.

What—if anything—is a lyrical waltz? 

Over the years, I have tried to work out what, if anything, a “lyrical waltz” is in musical terms, but have only come up with more questions. 

  • Does it mean something that has the quality of a song? That doesn’t really work, because there are plenty of songs that have a bombastic quality.
  • Does it have a melody that is song-like, rather than being motif-based like the Act 1 waltz in Swan Lake, or the opening of waltz of the flowers in Nutcracker, where you can hear the composer at work, rather than the singer. However, as soon as you start singing these tunes, they have a song-like quality, they’re singable. Back to square one.
  • Does it mean something that has more eighth-note motion than 1-in-a-bar feel? Not an infallible criterion, because there are 1-in-a-bar waltzes which could be described as lyrical, and eighth-note ones which aren’t.
  • Does it just mean slow? I don’t think so, because teachers who have ever asked for this didn’t (I think) want something ponderous
  • Does it mean something where the melody takes precedence over the accompaniment, i.e. something like La plus que lente by Debussy? Up to a point, but if teachers use  the word “waltz” at all, I presume they’re expecting more rhythmic predictability than this.

Lyrical waltz—a pedagogical category only?

By “pedagogical category” I mean a term that has arisen from a teaching context, but has little relation to the world outside, but has somehow stuck. Whoever started using it may have had a particular waltz in mind, like the “Lyrical Waltz” of Shostakovich, from which they extrapolated a category, without giving it much thought. I think this happens a lot—where people like a single tune, not realising that what they like about it is particular, not generic. Take La cumparsita which people have sometimes used as a generic template for “tango” — when it’s about the only tango that goes like that, and in fact, was never a tango in the first place, but a march. As an illustration of this in practice, a colleague told me of a class where the teacher had sung a tune while she marked the exercise, and then said “But don’t play that. Play something similar.” You guessed it: after a few try-outs, she said “You know what, just play what I sang.” 

Incidentally, this is the opposite of that odd, ballet-only scenario where a teacher will ask for “The same thing” by which they don’t mean literally the same thing, but something that is in metre, tempo, style and feel the same, without being, you know, the same. This is where the everyday German distinction between das Gleiche and dasselbe is useful.  There might be an interesting intersection here between musicology and everyday ballet class practice. In Music, Imagination and Culture (1991), Nicholas Cook writes of the tendency to “hear works as individuals rather than as exemplars of a type” (p. 147) and that this is  a “defining principle of the aesthetic attitude,” citing Dahlhaus’s Analysis and Value Judgement (1983, pp. 13-14). In my experience, ballet pianists are much more attuned to attuned to what dance forms are as a genre than classically trained musicians. Ask the latter for “a polonaise” and they’ll play an exemplar, of which they probably only know a couple of the Chopin compositions, without being aware of the things that make it a polonaise in the first place. 

Lyrical waltz—or little waltz?

One teacher I play for often asks for “A little waltz” and for some reason, I know exactly what she means, though it could also be the tone of voice and gesture that conveys the idea. “Little” to me here suggests something in moderate tempo, moderate volume, not bombastic, not grand, with a smooth melody line, perhaps like the Tchaikovsky E flat major waltz Op. 39 , or the Little Waltz by Teresa Carreño.  A piano piece, rather than an orchestral number reduced for piano. A miniature. Little is a more productive and meaningful term for me than lyrical, though I’m still not convinced it helps. I’m also referring mentally to particular pieces that have an overall quality elicited in performance more than composition. 

Lyrical—just a name, rather than a category?

I searched around for “lyrical waltz” on Google, and then for Valse Lyrique. Once you exclude Shostakovich or Sibelius, it’s not a huge list, so the idea that there was once a whole category of waltzes called “lyrical” is suspect (though you’ll find quite a few of them on ballet pianists’ albums, which supports my theory that it’s a pedagogical term, not a real-life one). 

In the US Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries 1945 (Music) New Series Vol 40 Pt 3 No 10 there are more compositions in the index with the word “Valse” in the title than “waltz,” and only a handful with the term “lyric.” When you look at the list of adjectives associated with “valse,” (see below) apart from lyrique including erotic, beige, parfumée, you begin to wonder whether any of them have much meaning, except as a way of flogging a generic composition as if it might be particular. Perhaps lyrical is doing the work of organic, natural, new, advanced, healthy, free-from! in food-labelling. If we’re fooled by food labels, I’m sure we can be taken in by sheet music covers.

Picture of the index from the US Catalog of Copyright Entries for Music 1945, showing a list of compositions including the term "valse"

Extract from the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Music) 1945, compositions with the title “Valse”

Postscript: Is “a lyrical waltz” something to do with the body, not music? 

Once I’d written this, I began to wonder whether the term “lyrical” has some purchase with dance teachers because of the genre of lyrical dance, in which case maybe it means “the kind of music I can do emotionally charged slow bendy dance to.” That opens the field up more, without the need to get too metrical-technical about the music. 

See also a new post on this topic here: 

 

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