MR Festival 2008: Dance for Music: Five Leading Run-on Questions About Music for Dance

by Chris Peck
MR Festival Spring 2008: Somewhere Out There

I've been attending contemporary dance performances and collaborating with choreographers as a composer for nearly ten years now, and I have many questions about music for dance. One big one that usually isn't spoken aloud until the second or third beer after the show is this: Why is the general quality of music at dance performances so disappointing? I've become interested recently in figuring out a more articulate, specific way to ask this question. I don't mean this question as an attack on the many excellent musicians and composers who have dedicated themselves to working with dance, nor do I mean it as an attack on choreographers who are deeply connected to music as an aspect of their art. I do, however, intend this question, along with the others below, to start a conversation, and to challenge our community to imagine how we could do better. I hope these questions will spawn many more, and will help focus our efforts to create situations and institutions to support the future of collaboration.

I should also point out that one of my own favorite answers to that first big question is: "What do you mean? Some of the best music I've ever heard was at dance concerts!" These are open questions for ongoing discussion, elaboration, and distillation. Though of course they represent my particular biases and interests, I hope they'll be more provocative than divisive.

Please post your responses and follow-up questions using the comment link below, and join us for a potluck dinner to continue this discussion in person on Tuesday, June 6, part of the MR Spring Festival.

1. Why is so much of the music at dance performances bad (and do you agree?) Bad how (recorded music that should be live, good music that's edited haphazardly, music that would not be performed or listened to on its own, music that seems like an unconsidered afterthought to a choreographic process, etc.)? Shouldn't the music at dance concerts be just as good as the music at music concerts?

2. Why don't more good composers work with dance (many do, but why not more)? Is it money? Is it different in Europe? Is it different on Broadway? In Film? Why don't dance reviewers mention music much? Why is it so unusual for composers and choreographers to get equal billing? Why is it so unusual for music to be credited properly in printed programs (ie. << Sarcasm Warning >> "Music by Stravinsky" Really? Stravinsky wrote music for you? And he's performing solo? Incredible!)? Are the ethics/legality of recorded music use in the dance world what they should be? How do dance presenters see the role of music? Would it be different if composers commissioned choreographers more often? Can we think of any good historical (or contemporary) examples of this happening?

3. How did dance come to separate itself from music as a discipline? How has this separation been maintained? How did dance distance itself from music interpretation to stand "on its own two legs." Is it still distancing itself, and from what? What is the origin of the familiar college dance composition formula? How did dance composition come to be taught in the way that it is? Could composers be more involved in teaching dance composition? Would that help (Louis Horst)? How many university dance departments have music faculty beyond those required for technique class accompaniment?

4. Is music for dance a field? A discipline? Does it require special training? For musicians? Composers? Dancers? Choreographers? Is music for dance different than music for its own sake? What makes music for dance music for dance? Where do choreographers (dancers) go to find composers (musicians)? And why? Is dance technique class accompaniment part of the problem or the solution? What do choreographers learn about music in the course of their dance training? What should they learn?

5. Why is it acceptable to use recorded music with live dance? Is it acceptable to use recorded dance with live music (is it possible to record dance)? Why is it acceptable to use pre-existing music for a new dance? Is it acceptable to use a pre-existing dance for new music? Why does dance need music? Doesn't dance make enough sound on it's own (contact between bodies and surfaces, breathe, etc)? What is the default dance accompaniment for a contemporary music concert (does this question even make sense)? Why is the default soundtrack for contemporary dance not silence?

Submitted by cpeck on Thu, 05/22/2008 - 1:15pm. MR Festival | music and dance | Spring Festival 08 | Chris Peck | 2008

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Intention & Strategic Coupling: Some run-on responses

Submitted by Sarah H Paulson on Tue, 06/10/2008 - 1:37am.

There is bad art. There is bad dance. There is bad video. There is bad music. [There are bad people.] There are bad scenarios. There are bad collaborations, and there are bad decisions made within the collision of media that can or cannot (or should or should not) co-exist. [There are good ones of all of these, by the way.] If there is a dance with bad music, the dance (as a choreographic work) is not “good” (as a choreographic work). There can be a bad artwork with good technique. There can be a bad dance with good dancing. Whether an artistic work is marked “successful” is often a subjective determination, and though one might view a dance with bad use of sound as “successful," another might label it as flat out “bad.” In the end, I think it means the choreographic work is not “good.” Though it is important to consider where these opinion-givers are coming from, in order to avoid the possibility of “bad," we need to make a move toward looking at the whole package.

Ultimately, I am a fan of STRATEGIC COUPLING. At the same time, I am not a fan of REQUIRED COUPLING, as this scenario often breeds the product of BAD coupling. [We’ve seen this before.]

Since sound exists whether we want it to or not, the use of music should enhance a dance, assuming that the initial intention is the creation of some form of “dance.” Strategic coupling (in the realms of music and dance) yields a new dance that could not exist in the same way without all components. The dance is dependent upon the sound and vice-versa. (Of course, dependence can equal independent parts if the intention is present.)

music + dance ≠ complete work Obviously.

Why don’t more good composers work with dance? Maybe they don’t need dance. Collaboration cannot be forced (unless the intention is present). If you don’t need it or don’t have the desire to look around to see what you might be missing, don’t do it. Nothing may be missing. Let other people miss it for you. The desire should be natural.

“It’s not you. It’s me.” We’re all allowed to feel this way as representatives of our respective media.

If there is so much [good] dance with bad use of music, then music is too often used as a crutch. How can we take advantage of musicians in this way? How can we sell ourselves short in this way? Dance-makers relay movement, and daily movement always comes with a soundtrack. Sometimes it sucks; sometimes it rocks. Sometimes it matches right up; sometimes it is too loud on someone’s iPod. We have a mixed bag in our daily soundtrack. Dance reflects this. Does that give dance permission to use sound in a poor manner? No. Everyone has already experienced the bad soundtrack in restaurants, elevators, on the street, in stores, etc. etc. In many of these situations, the focus is on the movement and intention rather than on the music. In these situations, the music may be used to repair the awkwardness and messy seams of daily life. We don’t ride elevators for the music; we don’t shop for clothes in order to hear the soundtrack of outfit sifting. We don’t need to recreate this situation in our creative fields just because we’re used to it. I think we can do better than that.

In making a work, a moment is framed, whether it is concocted, autobiographical, etc. Dance as a framing device has a soundtrack. This provides the opportunity for the dance-maker to create (or commission or collaborate on) a soundtrack for an excerpted moment of movement. It’s like a map: Certain areas are magnified in a different location in order to provide clarity. Music should provide clarity (even if clarity = chaos). A dance to a junky copy of a song (that probably already has a music video) does not usually exhibit clarity as a complete creative work. Of course, it all boils down to intention.

In order for the collaboration between dance-makers and musicians to be complete, language (body/written/conceptual, etc) must change due to the compartmentalization of creative disciplines that is already in place. Outside of the educational institution, the audience could be coming from a variety of different places. Personally, I’d prefer not to preach to the converted. I wouldn’t want to make a sculpture that is intended to be presented in the round while hoping that nobody looks at that one corner I couldn’t finish in time. I wouldn’t want to spend three months on a choreographic work only to slap a song on top because I was too lazy to determine all aspects of my intention. Ideally, audience members come from all different disciplines. Whether or not this actually happens and how to make it happen more can be saved for a different discussion, but that also boils down to language. Though the focus for the dance-maker is on the dance, that dance could (and should be) judged from all perspectives. There is no need to please all of these perspectives, but a better relationship between dance and music comes from an awareness of audience and the overlap of disciplines. Intention is important, even if the intended outcome doesn’t translate in the intended manner.

The language of the institution is in place, and right now, we need to deal with it by recognizing that a whole lot may be left out of education in the creative disciplines. I have recently entered this community from the visual arts. The language I have been involved with has encouraged me to describe myself as a performance artist. Had I attended an institution with a dance program, perhaps I would identify myself as a dancer/dance-maker/choreographer. I could be making the same work. I’d rather not take a label at all, but again, language is in place, and we have to deal with it. This doesn’t give me an excuse to use other disciplines poorly or lose sight of the fact that I am in a field that aims to provide multi-media/disciplinary work to an audience that is familiar with the language of compartmentalization.

The fact is that both musicians and dancers also experience the opposite medium in daily life. There’s no excuse. Though visual images/references are often associated with memory (the archive of autobiographical experience), most people would say they have more experience with music than dance. This is the language barrier—-Since we have a language that is limited, we pass this on to our respective media. Everyone else picks up on this and is forced to adapt to the situation. We’re digging ourselves into a hole by supporting the isolation of dance as an independent medium. I get the feeling, however, that from this hole, some of us are calling out and asking other disciplines to jump in. We’re wondering why they’re not checking it out down there. Maybe we need to crawl up a bit and encourage a give-and-take relationship to happen. In other words, if crappy music is used or music is used in a crappy manner, it will be excluded from the dialogue. People that want to write about dance will have to leave out the music aspect because they won’t be exposed to it on a “professional” level. Artists are educating the critics even while the critics are critiquing. We can’t educate if we can’t figure things out for ourselves. It’s a great defense mechanism that’s in place. We might be at fault here, and maybe asking for help is the best way to go. [I’m presenting a harsh view based on this "Dance for Music" topic. It is indeed true that many choreographers are using sound/music/silence in a great and intelligent way, and I don’t mean to minimize such instances. We’re also all educating one another in presentation, and there’s no substitute for experimentation and exhibition experience.]

I think it’s important to think about the obligation of the dancer to the public and to music (as a discipline/medium/creative industry). Dance is a public medium. It depends on the public (usually). You can’t make a billion dances and store them in your closet in the same way you can with drawings. Dance owes it to music to be respectful of a parallel medium. This doesn’t mean everyone’s (audience, institutions, musicians, etc.) feelings need to be nurtured in the finished work, but as a creative director, it needs to be understood that the presentation of work is generally a collaborative one, if only between the dance-maker and audience.

So how are dance-makers expected to connect with musicians/composers? I don’t think there’s a definite answer to this, but if this connection is something one wants, I don’t imagine that this should be too difficult. The desire is completely situational, and again, I certainly don’t support this collaboration unless it’s a desired direction/experiment/practice. Required coupling can only work if one wants to be forced, in which case “no” can mean “yes” within the work.

I can offer my experience (as a performance artist) with music/sound (because I was encouraged to do so): I’ve been making performance works with my collaborator, Holly Faurot since 2002. Prior to this collaboration, we made work independently but often performed in one another’s works. When we decided to begin our collaboration with a 2-hour piece in our Brooklyn loft, we realized that we had little knowledge of music/sound, but we wanted it to be live and composed specifically for the piece. We actually put an ad on describing what we thought we wanted in terms of sound. Quite a range of musicians/composers replied and delivered samples of their work. In the end, we were fortunate enough to be contacted by Joel Mellin (, and we began a dialogue that still continues today. He has been composing music for our performance works ever since our shot-in-the-dark post. Together, we’ve naturally entered this dance dialogue and have begun a language that often becomes blurry when a conversation emerges regarding what we do and what medium it might fall under.

This collaboration has really worked for us, and I feel lucky for it. For the most part, Holly and I have created durational pieces that last anywhere from one to three hours. I view Joel’s sound as an “opener” where audience members can ease into the piece and sit in it. Viewers can let the sound fill the space around them in the same way that the movement surrounds them. With each performance, we gain a better understanding of how the finished work can fold in on itself in terms of music and movement. Since we’ve never performed a work twice, we’re forced to maintain and add to this language at a pretty rapid pace.

Within the overlapping of disciplines is the need to develop a language that doesn’t already exist. Ultimately, if you create multi-disciplinary/multi-sensory/multi-anything work, you don’t want a language to already exist for it. In strategic coupling, I’m not suggesting that dance needs to be performed to new, live, or any particular type of music. There is a non-consensual coupling when a choreographer uses a pre-existing song/music composition. I support it (in only some instances), but I don’t do it (or haven’t done it). It’s an easier crime for the body-oriented to take advantage of the audio-oriented. Composers might have more trouble “stealing” a dance. This seems to be a pretty unfair position that musicians have been cornered into.

I cannot really comment on the moral issues associated with “stealing” music, as there are various degrees to which this matters. I can say, however, that if I put my body out there in a performance environment, whether it is in a gallery, public space, stage, etc., I expect that my image can be taken. That’s the risk I’m taking, and though someone stealing, altering, or re-presenting my image in a different way might make me unhappy, it’s the nature of the body in the public forum of the world. But I’m allowed to say this about my own work, while maintaining a general adverse reaction to the idea of stealing music. [It should be noted that during business hours I work for an art gallery where I handle reproduction rights and copyright issues/permission for a selection of artists. I have strong views about the stealing of visual art images. These views are quite similar to my feelings about the use of music.]

In the end, intention is important. Strategic coupling might make better complete works. Sound is not always necessary. New languages need to be developed when dance and music are grouped together. Dancers don’t always need music. Musicians don’t need dance. Use it if it’s necessary. Dance already has sound, and music already has movement. Enhance it if there’s a need/desire/curiosity. Consider the audience. Consider that the audience might have different knowledge or a different history. At the same time, don’t just add music for the audience—-The audience can be challenged, too. Laziness is not an excuse. Dance is a public medium, as is music. Responsibility is important. On the other hand, if you don’t care, don’t care with great intention.


Sarah H. Paulson [email protected] /

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in response to #1

Submitted by yrg on Sat, 05/31/2008 - 6:51am.

- Percentage-wise, I suspect there’s as much ‘bad’ music for dance as there is ‘bad’ music in total.

- Percentage-wise, I suspect there’s as much ‘bad’ music for dance as is there is ‘bad’ dance (and they can often help each other in that direction).

- The construct of average contemporary dance productions indicates that music, lights, video, set are made to support/enhance/… the dance. In this construct, many composers are at a disadvantage due to limited experience or only occasional exposure. If a composer predominantly makes music outside the structure of dance, film or theater (where it is usually required to take on a supporting role), then they will tend to build their compositional skills differently than what is required for those structures. The possibility that they are able to easily adopt the required skills for making music for dance is greatly reduced since they’re only doing it occasionally – the choreographer and dancers are doing it all the time.

- Sometimes composers are recycling material and adapting it to dance - this can be quite hazardous. In 3 or 4 viewings/listenings, it’s possible to convince oneself that two things are working together – particularly if you have much more connection with one than the other. (this can happen with new material also)

- At dance concerts, dance is the focus from most perspectives – audience, institutional and media. In that environment it’s not unusual for composers to give a different kind of effort, since the return is different.

- Choreographers have individual relationships to music. In listening, like anyone, they tend towards things that attract them and they might not even hear other things that are present. Meanwhile the composer may be focused on the very thing that the choreographer is not connecting with. It’s possible for this type of thing to go on without either being aware of it and the result can be ‘bad’ or ‘good’ depending on the actual degree of luck and trust in that collaboration.

- In certain situations, a choreographer will say to a composer, “can you make something like____?” Fill in the blank with whatever it is the choreographer has been listening to, or even using with the dancers in early creative sessions. This scenario rarely works unless they have chosen a composer capable of and willing to generate knockoffs. Also, there can be a large gap between what a choreographer imagines would be ‘right’ for a dance and what actually might be.

- Nearly all of the music that I’ve made in the past 20+ years has been made for dance and, for most of that time, I’ve been sure that most of it could/should not be performed or listened to on its own. Recently, I began to explore the possibility that this assumption is faulty.

- Guy Yarden

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a few thoughts in response to some of the questions in #5:

Submitted by yrg on Fri, 05/30/2008 - 4:38am.

The standard contemporary dance format gives little consideration to musicians’ physical participation or presence in the context of an overall performance. Most musicians are not equipped for it anyway and it would require intensive work and experimentation to integrate their physical presence more effectively. In this type of work I’ve always preferred the unseen musician whether they are live or recorded (that makes less of a difference to me). Dancers are more reliable and accustomed to listening to music than musicians are to watching dance. It’s often as though musicians are in “real (audience) time” in their physicality, while their music is in a timeframe that is closer/with the dance. Meanwhile, the dancers are often in a “performance” [acting] timeframe. Partially, this depends on the degree to which the dance is choreographed or improvised and when it is developed in relation to music making. Rarely in contemporary dance or music do we find these constructs being addressed, let alone advanced – one wonders if it’s actually impossible to make a break from this relationship: a performance telling a story (or not) with the accompanying musicians placed in an area adjacent to the performers – perhaps watching the dancers occasionally, or the audience, or the floor. Two distinct, simultaneous occurrences of performance trying to co-exist - though they are only made to go together, somewhat. Traditional court or folk formats were built on this relationship and the accompanying artifice - therefore it works. But, in much contemporary dance performance – it seems to be a tacitly accepted carryover from older formats.

Dance doesn’t need music. Once again, the habitual use is a holdover going back to the beginnings of keeping a beat and dancing in the ancient times… and it was probably more relevant then. Alternate answer: dance is music.

The default accompaniment for a contemporary music concert in more staid settings is the result of a disregard for the likelihood that it may be boring to watch. Musicians physicality is quite subconscious and is a result of their musical output. If they are actively trying to be physically expressive or relying on their default “non-performed” physicality, it often looks either contrived or unrelated to the actual music – if one is listening. With rare exceptions, musicians put in 99.9% of their music making into listening and playing to get the sound they desire. Beyond that, any attention given to their physicality in performance is likely given short shrift. In a music performance context, since most audience are not accustomed to deep listening without watching, they experience a far different performance than even they are aware of. The sum of their experience is often a musical and physical activity that are quite dissociated from one another insofar as they are contributing to a piece of art.

The default soundtrack for contemporary dance is the sound in which it is created –- whether it be silence, room tone, ambient sound, body sound, the choreographer and dancers talking/breathing, or the use of off-the-shelf music with a specifically chosen energy/pulse that in some way helps the choreographer and dancers in their making. In almost all of my work, the dance is made bit ahead of the music, so the dance takes on the characteristics of the context in which it was made. With certain exceptions, I’ll often take those characteristics into account in my music making.

- Guy Yarden

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music for dance, dance for music

Submitted by halfnormal on Sun, 05/25/2008 - 5:56pm.

music for dance is often employed as a utilitarian element, ie i have to get from here to there in this amount of time. so the music isn't chosen qualitatively but rather if it provides the right grid for an existing movement structure.

or sometimes music is throw into a movement situation in order to prevent the audience from getting bored. so instead of harnessing the energy/tension in a performance they lay a strong musical structure and emotion over what could be fine as it is. i like silent performance works, but i could see that some people don't have the patience or the constitution to withstand it.

maybe there just isn't enough sensitivity in terms of the role of music... maybe music is grasped and thrown onto a bad dance to make it better. or vice versa - a great dance that someone decides needs some music to make it digestible and they choose something that is available, affordable, convenient, when they should let it be silent/stage sounds only.

ultimately we just have to hope that the combination of the movement and the sound creates a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. so if you are focusing too much on the music or the dance, maybe the other part is lacking something.

********************* bob bellerue, experimental musician and composer for dance / performance art


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Chris Peck, MR Festival Spring 2008, music and dance


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