Tag Archives: ballet

Drigo’s “Reveil de Flore” piano score online

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Thanks to Patty Noel who alerted me to the fact that Harvard now have this available online digitally. We’d both previously searched high and low for it without success, but then it seemed to suddenly appear. As always with Drigo, some wonderful music in there that in my view (shhhh don’t tell anyone I said so) eclipses a lot of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. 

Link to Harvard University’s digital piano score of Le Reveil de Flore (Drigo)

 

 

Little Humpbacked Horse thesis online

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Great to read Aaron Manela’s masters thesis “Arthur Saint-Léon’s The Little Humpbacked Horse in Context,”  which is available online. Here’s the abstract: 

In this study I examine representations of antisemitism, fantasy, and cultural imperialism in the 1864 ballet The Little Humpbacked Horse, composed by Cesare Pugni and choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon. As the creative team adapted the story from verse to ballet, they literally morphed the titular character into new fantastical forms. They also added Jewish, Muslim, and other oriental characters and ended the ballet with a parade of the Russian nations. Drawing on the works of Richard S. Wortman, Julie Kalman, and Roger Bartra, I place these transformations in the context of a larger Russian ambivalence around the shift from a rural and woodland economy to an urban one, the inclusion of Eastern provinces in the rapidly expanding nation, and the emancipation – and inclusion of – internal minorities. I then explain how the music, choreography, and focus of the ballet change as the relevance of these mid-nineteenth century concerns fades.

As I’m struggling with a very tricky paragraph about music and representation right now, it’s helpful to read something like this that is so clear about the connection. 

Moira Shearer, according to Francis Sparshott

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Sometimes I put things on my website just because I know that I’ll never find them again, and because they’re so darn weird, blogging about them is the only way to get it out of my system. 

So here it is, the strangest thing I ever read in a book purporting to be on the philosophy of dance, or about Moira Shearer, come to that.  I discovered, rather too late, that the philosopher Francis Sparshott had written a whole chapter on music and dance in A Measured Pace (1995), one of his two philosophical books on  dance.  I’m skimming through, then all of a sudden, I see this extraordinary passage about Moira Shearer, who, Sparshott relates, had once said that for her, some modern ballets, performed to “squeals, grunts and groans, or no music at all,” seemed to contradict what dancing was. In her view, or it must surely be fair to say, in her experience, choreographers wanted to choreograph out of a response to music—”Something surely makes one want to dance,” she says. 

That sounds pretty normal to me—let’s face it, it’s probably not the money, the lifestyle, or the career prospects, and although it’s not everybody’s reason to dance, an awful lot of dancers will say that it was because of the music, or that they don’t like dancing without it, or that they chose to choreograph a piece because they liked the music. But for Sparshott, who’s already written 200-plus pages on dance by now, this seems “strange.”

“One would have thought,” he says, as if philosophers and their readers are better placed to know the mind of the dancers they are writing about, “choreographers simply wanted to compose dances, and dancers wanted to dance them,” he says on page 218. “She [Shearer] might have said, with equal reason, that something makes musical composers want to compose.” To me, that doesn’t seem so strange either.  I can understand that a composer must primarily be interested in putting sounds together, otherwise they’re doomed, but it seems perfectly reasonable that they might look to the world around them for inspiration. They might have to, if they’ve been commissioned to write something. Also, speaking as a musician, I don’t find anything strange in the idea that there is something that precedes music before you actually make it: it’s particularly acute in performance, where you have to have an idea of the music before you start playing, otherwise what are you going to do? At the most basic level, if you’re playing for a class, and you need to set the tempo, you also first need to set the tempo for yourself. In a sense, there is something that is “making you want to play” in that tempo, even if you are part of that process yourself. 

But here’s the oddest bit of all, that I’m afraid made me wonder if I should pay any attention to this book any more. I’m going to put it in bold so you don’t miss it: “It is not surprising, as one reads this, that Shearer abandoned her dancing career—no doubt her heart was never in it.” (Sparshott, 1995, p. 218). What on earth is a comment like this doing in a book on philosophy? And what are the implications of it? That Shearer had no right, if she were to fit his conceptual claim about what being a dancer was, to have four children, or enjoy anything other than dancing? On that view, Vicky had no option but to throw herself under that train in The Red Shoes. 

Now, as it happens, a comment in  Shearer’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph lends some support to Sparshott’s comment. She is reported to have said that she never really wanted to be a dancer as a child, and later on, that “there was so much more in life than dancing – so much ordinary living to do.”  But that does not seem unreasonable either. It’s not given to most of us to be able to have the extraordinary, multi-faceted career that Shearer had, so to dismiss her other work and life choices as “abandoning her dancing career” seems a pretty mean-minded way to support your conceptual claims. And above all, if you’re a philosopher, why pick an argument with Moira Shearer, rather than other philosophers? 

I’d forgotten when I posted this that I’d long ago posted a link to a wonderful interview with Moira Shearer about The Red Shoes. Delightful to read again. 
 

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. 

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.

“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. 

Judith Espinosa, the fishermen’s wives and the waltz

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As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in Derek Parker’s fascinating book, The First 75 Years of the Academya brief history of the Royal Academy of Dance published on its 75th anniversary in 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health. 

Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:

“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12

The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.” 

 

Ballet pianists on film

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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. 

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

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

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

The design of everyday things: including orchestral reductions

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

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

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

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

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

The extended mind

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

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

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