Tag Archives: recorded music

Ballet pianists and sacred cows: a correction

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What a difference a sub-clause makes

In an article in Dance Gazette (“Don’t shoot the pianist“, Dance Gazette (2) 2016, p. 44) I was quoted as saying that live music for ballet training is a lot about tradition—the pianist is almost like the sacred cow (in answer to the question, do I think live music for ballet training is a dying profession?). When it first came out, I was rather perturbed that because the rest of what I said immediately afterwards wasn’t quoted, it looked as if I was saying that pianist were “just” sacred cows, i.e. that if we were only to be rational, we’d realise that they weren’t necessary. I wrote what I now see is a very muddled corrective, and some time later, I don’t react the same way at all. 

It was muddled, because I’d failed to see the flaw in my thinking, which William James would have called “medical materialism” (of which more below). I was all excited at the time by an idea I’d read in Catherine Bell’s  book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), in which she cites the work of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) in regard to cow worship among Hindus in India:

Harris pointed out that the cow was an indispensable resource for Hindu farming families with small plots of land, not only enabling them to plow and plant but also supplying them with milk for food and dung for fuel. If in times of severe crisis, such as an extended drought, people were to butcher and eat their cows, they would lose the one resource they needed to get back on their feet later. Hindu cow worship, the religious obligation to show the greatest respect to cows, ensures that people do not eat their cows in times of crisis —at least not short of total desperation. Hence, the ritual attitude toward the cow guarantees the maintenance of a basic level of economic resources and does so more effectively than any economic argument would. (Bell, 1997, p. 30)

When I said “sacred cow” in the interview, I meant that there might be a very good reason why the pianist was regarded as sacred, as a form of ritual.

Medical materialism, pianists, and cows

But since then, I’ve read Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, and was delighted on p. 36 (and 40 ffl.) by the term “medical materialism.” Coined by William James. It refers to a kind of “nothing-but-ism,” a tendency to reduce the spiritual dimensions of experience to something rational and material. In other words, medical-materialist thinkers try to explain other people’s ritual actions as being based not on what they say it is (a ritual) but something else. Unwittingly, when I got all excited about the sacred cow text above, it blinded me to the possibility that perhaps teachers and dancers do like having pianists for ritual reasons. Why not? Why does there have to be a reason? Why can’t ritual be the reason? 

Mary Douglas points out that the opposite of medical materialism is also problematic: i.e. one should think twice before assuming that when “we” wash our hands, it’s for only for hygienic reasons, and when “they” do it, it’s only a ritual. Likewise, a ritual may also serve as cleansing, and cleansing may also be a kind of ritual, whoever is doing it. 

Live and recorded music: problems of framing

My thinking at the time was very muddled, because my conclusion came out in favour of regarding pianists as ritual, but I’d cited something that did not support that view at all. Mary Douglas, William James and medical materialism would have given me the frame I needed to make my case. It’s often the case that people in schools and companies have to justify their expenditure on music to accountants who are looking for “efficiencies.”  You can’t. To frame the argument as “live versus recorded music” misses the point: it treats music as nothing more than a sonic object that emanates either from a clattering cabinet of keys and strings, or a box of electronics.

As soon as you start trying to apply “rational” arguments to the question, you risk losing them.  Live music is better than recorded? What about terrible pianists? You hear teachers all the time saying “better a good CD than a bad pianist. What about the thrill of dancing to an orchestra on CD, rather than an out-of-tune upright piano? Does having live music speed up the process of training a ballet dancer? No.

The worst part of the argument about live versus recorded music is that if you view musicians as an alternative way of achieving the same thing that you get from your iPod, then there’s almost no argument (except that it’s harder work for the teacher, of course, but that’s another story). An iPod wins on almost every point, starting with the financial. But music is wrapped up in everyday life in ways that are much more complex and relational than this, and in a ballet class, with good teachers, the music is neither in the pianist or in the teacher, it’s something woven between them (if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ingold, you might recognise some of his ideas there).  

An enlightened school or company principal would stand their ground and say that we’re going to have piano for class, at least some of the time, for the sake of doing the ritual the right way. If you can be alert to the ritual aspects of having a pianist to class, then you’re less likely to employ pianists just for the sake of it, because you believe in some unspecified good that they must bring to the process of teaching. Oddly enough, that is more of a belief in magic than having a pianist because it makes the ritual of class nicer. 

Hiring pianists because you think they’ll just bring magic to the class just by virtue of being there and playing a piano, reminds me of the story my Russian teacher (an ex-army Major) told me about WW2:   Russian peasants, never having encountered plumbing before, ripped out the water taps from the walls of the houses they raided, thinking that if they took them home they could get running water in their own villages. 

Representing ballet class with piano 

Recently (I’m updating this paragraph now in Sept 2019) I’ve been struggling with a really tricky article about music and representation, and in the process, I have become much more alert to the role that representations of ballet class (in film, television, and novels, for example) have to play in our construction of what ballet class is. In the past, I’d thought there was something rather quaint, bizarre, and regressive about the fact that when ballet classes are represented in this way, they often feature pianos and pianists, even though this is quite rare in real life—or only normal for vocational schools and (some) companies. But now I realize that these representations are what give us our sense of what ballet classes are, just as children’s picture books give us an idea of what apples and trains look like. Is there something fundamentally wrong with believing that a ballet class, essentially, should have a pianist? Should we be more realistic, should we aim to represent ballet classes “as they really are,” and thus change the expectations? It’s a genuine question, I’m really in two minds: on the one hand, it’s wrong to denigrate wholesale the excellent work done by  teachers who use recordings, or to elevate the sometimes very bad work done by teachers who have pianists (and by their pianists, too), simply by virtue of them having live music.  On the other, why not hold up a particular form of the practice as exemplifying not simply “what it is” but what you would like it to be? 

See also

Two posts on the joys of live music: 

Liveness, Hawaiian arm exercises, and a bit of sensory history

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Scrolling through The Art of Dancing (1919)  on Forgotten Books, I came across a quaint-sounding exercise, Basic Hawaiian Arm and Italian Body Exercises Combined To Promote Arm and Body Grace. If it hadn’t had such an exotic title, I wouldn’t have stayed on the page long enough to notice the fact that under the title was the indication

Music: Wailana Waltz…………..Victor Record No. 17767-B

From "The Art of Dancing" 1919, on Forgotten Books

From “The Art of Dancing” 1919, on Forgotten Books

Possibly, just possibly, I thought, someone out there has uploaded a digital version of this record. Within seconds, I found it:

There are a million reasons to be excited by the internet, but this kind of thing is top of my list. You can have a pretty good go at re-living the sensory experience of a dance class of nearly a century ago. Just put on the Wailana Waltz and follow the instructions. Maybe close the curtains first.