Cogito: John Branch

Music to Move By

Most music moves us to move. I discovered this as a child, before I had ever seen dancing: my father played classical records at home, and when the music was on I often found myself in motion across the living-room floor, giving form to how it felt. (Why did my parents send only my sister to ballet school, signing me up to play football at the Y instead? Because this was the late 50s and early 60s, and it was Texas to boot.) So I learned early how music could inspire dance. When I watched dance later on, I also learned that it could lead me back to music.

Seeing V performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group was a good example: It’s a barefoot dance for 14, with costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that look, in pictures, like activewear crossed with sleepwear. You might think from those pictures that the dance delivers only lightness, uplift, and (considering the title) some kind of triumphal joy. It seems that way in performance, too, until the second movement comes along. That’s when the dancers enter from the wings on all fours and cross to the opposite side, following the score’s slow, irregular rhythm.

After seeing V a second time, I simply had to buy a recording of the music—Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat—partly to enjoy it, partly in the hope of recapturing the dance. Sadly, as time passed, details of the other movements slipped away, but I still see the stop-and-start crawling when that second movement arrives. In a way, I can’t hear what Schumann meant by marking it “In modo d’una marcia”; if it’s a march, it suggests a military funeral, but I hear it only as music for spirits laid low, brought to their knees. The dance has determined how I will hear the music. What’s good is that I had never heard the music until I saw V, so I gained two new treasures at once.

Some of the other delights that dance has led me to:

Adès, Concentric Paths (his first violin concerto): Although Adès’s earlier works, sent to me by a friend, intrigued me, I still don’t know how best to appreciate them. His violin concerto is another matter. It’s fascinatingly complex and often fiendishly difficult for the performer but formally much more accessible. Its first New York performance came not in a concert hall but in a May 2010 commissioned dance for New York City Ballet called Outlier, created by Wayne McGregor. The choreography didn’t register strongly on me, but the music, especially Kurt Nikkanen’s masterful playing of the solo violin part, did.

Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings: The opening horn part sets the tone for much that’s beautiful and/or unsettling in this work, which apart from the framing sections is a setting of English poems. The dirge,using a medieval Yorkshire-dialect text, still alarms me when I hear it. But the dance, and its maker (first encountered at Southern Methodist University in 1980), cannot be recalled.

Joanna Newsom, “Sawdust & Diamonds” (from the album Ys): I had heard of the indie musician who accompanies herself on a harp because her albums made splashes among what you could call the pop cognescenti. But I hadn’t actually heard her until a November 2010 performance by Columbia Ballet Collaborative, for which Amanda Lowe choreographed a piece set to this song. Newsom’s compositions and singing are, like Björk’s, oddly childlike; as Sasha Frere-Jones wrote, she seems “immersed in a private world.”

Poulenc, Concert Champêtre: The dance that I saw using this is Paul Taylor’s Dust, one of his fearsome works—it suggests the depredations of a plague. Taylor consistently and successfully works against the music, a spirited piece that pits a harpsichord against an entire orchestra. For that reason, and the passage of time, the dance no longer comes back to me in the music, and I’m free to appreciate the sonorities—I’m a harpsichord fan from way back—for themselves.

Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals: In 2003, when NYCB premiered a Christopher Wheeldon dance set to this music (with narration written and recited by John Lithgow), the orchestra included the glass harmonica called for in the score. I was there; so far, it was the only time that I’ve heard one of those eerie and ethereal instruments played live.

Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps (two-piano reduction): Stravinsky prepared this for rehearsals of Nijinsky’s dance; that background made it a perfect choice for Paul Taylor’s version of Le Sacre, which he subtitled The Rehearsal, for reasons that are apparent when one sees it. More than a novelty, the reduction can stand on its own and has been recorded (at least three versions are on YouTube); it presents the music as if through a filter that reduces complex shapes to rhythmic outlines.

Surely the point is clear: even the blind could’ve gleaned something from these dances and their music.

It surprises me that none of New York’s enterprising music bloggers bother—that I know of—to announce upcoming dance programs that will use live or even recorded versions of new or notable scores. For instance, it wasn’t through them that I learned that Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker would be presenting Ligeti’s 100 Metronomes in her October 2008 visit to BAM. Music writers, where were you?

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2 Responses to “Cogito: John Branch”

  1. Abby Says:

    Reblogged this on a current under sea and commented:
    John Branch on discovering music through dance. Very informative blog post, and I will definitely be checking out more live music/new music/dance combos in the future.


    • John Branch Says:

      Abby: Thanks for the comment and the reblog. There’s much that I didn’t have space to mention, but the idea was clear: dance events both small and large often feature great music whether old or new. I’ve heard pieces from at least as far back as Monteverdi and as recent as that Adès work, which was practically new.


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