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Composing Music For Modern Dance

Updated on February 10, 2014

RKDC Collaborators

Collaboration: Concept to Completion

Over the last ten or so years I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to compose many original scores for the Regina Klenjoski Dance Company (RKDC). I've been commissioned to compose as little as under ten minutes, to full-scale pieces that run over an hour. In this article I'll describe some of the processes involved such as the creative process, collaboration and in general what it's been like working with choreographers and dancers.

As a musician I am used to used to working with other musicians who read and write music so we all speak the same language. When I started getting work composing scores for Modern Dance companies a few years ago, one of the first things I realized is that although dance people are very musical, they don't communicate in the same way. I was fortunate enough to have some background in dance so that helped immensely.

How It Starts

We have a concept meeting when the choreographer and I get together to talk about what the piece is going to be about. Sometime the other persons involved such as the costume designer and set designer may be present as well. This where ideas are thrown around, much coffee is drank, and lots of interesting thoughts are brought to the table as to what should/could/might happen for the piece. Usually from the choreographer's perspective at this point it's not a fully realized concept, but there is a general sense of where she wants to go (or not). Sometimes no movement has even been created yet. These are preliminary steps, sometimes the end result is considerably different than initial concept but you've got to start somewhere.

Collaborators

  • Choreographer,
  • Composer
  • Costume Designer
  • Set Designer
  • Lighting Designer
  • Video Designer

Music

When we are discussing music we use language such as emotional content, dynamics, grooves, colors, and energy levels. Somewhat vague terms I know, but it really helps to start my imagination flowing. I might also be asked listen to music that is reminiscent of what is being asked to be composed. We may also talk about movement qualities. Words such as sharp, soft, angular, floating, sustained are useful in helping me get started on a musical concept. As well as discussing the movement I like to see the rehearsals either live or on video.

I play percussion, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piano/keyboards, mandolin, banjo as well as basic cello, violin and vocals. In my home studio I usually start with percussion, both traditional such as drums, shakers, triangle bongos etc, and "found" items; I've discovered the percussive wonders of things such as pots, fan grills, ice makers, staplers and 5 gallon water bottles to name a few. For the most part I look for organic sounds and rarely use synthesizers unless the score is heading in a techno direction.

As I put together these tracks I might add some instruments and melodic ideas, but I like to send Regina samples of my ideas early rather than spending a lot of time coming up with a finished product only to have it not work for her. Often it won't be known if I'm on the right track until the music is tried with the dancers. The music being liked by her as as a listener doesn't guarantee placement in the dance. The reverse is also true, sometimes the music may not strike a chord but when you see movement set to it suddenly it's whoa! There have even been times when the music was perfect up to a point, but then due to the direction of the dance or other music I've come up with later, it just doesn't work anymore.

As a composer for dance I've learned that many times it's like a film score in that you've got be aware of not overshadowing. The music should be really interesting but never take attention away from the movement.

While I compose for dance I try not to over think or over analyze. Even though I have an extensive musical background, (and call upon it when I need to write that string quartet section) I find that being impulsive and spur of the moment works better to start the creative juices flowing. In modern dance it is better to think outside the box.

A case in point was one day I saw a shop vaccuum hose in the garage and talked into it. What a cool sound so I recorded it. I discovered another cool sound by sticking a microphone inside and scraping the ridges of the hose with a stick. Record! Wait, what if I slowly drop that chain on the top of a turned over bass drum? Record! I didn't stop for a minute to even consider what a dumb idea these ideas may or may not have been, I just went with it. Later I added other things and edited into something we used in a section of a dance.

Editing

As the music is being tried with the choreography it is videoed so that Regina and I can discuss ideas and direction. Now her story for the dance is starting to take shape and we can talk about the arc in both the movement and the music.

(A great thing about Regina is that she likes input and opinions from her collaborators on what she is creating and how it is shaping up and is very open to suggestions and critiques. To me that is a sign of a confident artist who want to create the best possible work.)

As we determine what music works I then start the process of more intense orchestration, adding the various instrumental textures and melodies to create the moods necessary for her choreography.

We'll go back and forth like this several times, watching the rehearsal videos, late night phone conversations, discussing revisions and sharing our thoughts on the progression of the piece.

Final Production

As the choreography is being finalized I then start editing or fine tuning the timings of the various musical sections so they coordinate with the dancers. At this point we are close to the actual length of the work and need to figure out segues, silent spots and start and stop times

All long I have been working on the mix of the overall music and now need to decide the final levels of everything in my composition. If I'm lucky I would be able to take a mix to the theater and try it out ahead of time so that if necessary I can make last minute mix adjusments. Doesn't always happen.

Most of the time the music is pre-recorded in my studio. I don't play violin or cello as well as I would like, so most of the time we hire some pros to come in and replace my parts. For the more complicated piano parts I'll usually get my wife to play as well.

If Regina and I had our way we would do a lot of this with live musicians as was the case with Love Lies Waiting which had a 9 piece orchestra play live with the dance. Pretty awesome but very expensive.

This has been a very rewarding experience over the years. It makes me think outside the box because much of this music is not something I would have done had it not been required for a dance.

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    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Marisa Wright 4 years ago from Sydney

      Fascinating, thanks for sharing this process!

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 4 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      interesting -- thank you!!

    • Guitar Wizard profile image
      Author

      Mark Edward Fitchett 4 years ago from Long Beach

      You are welcome. These are general thoughts and I will add more details as they occur to me.

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