Thank you, Mr. B (that’s Bernstein, not Balanchine)

10 Feb

Is it just me or does it seem like a lot of the major ballet companies have done or will do Sleeping Beauty this season?  Off the top of my head I can recall the Royal Ballet, Mariinsky (in Washington DC this weekend!), NYCB, Pacific Northwest and at the beginning of this summer ABT will have Alina Cojocaru as a guest.  That’s a lot of Sleeping Beauty…and yet I’ve never seen it.  Obviously, I don’t expect that the artistic directors of the world to have conference calls to discuss what they’re doing each season so that they don’t overlap, which really doesn’t matter anyway because I highly doubt anyone can afford to globe trot to all of these Sleeping Beauty productions.  It just seems like an odd coincidence considering the fact that the classics are generally done on two/three year cycles.  Anyway, just the thought of it all seems exhausting to me, but alas, I hate flying.  Although chances are if you could potentially afford such transnational adventures, you probably wouldn’t be flying economy class so perhaps the experience is more enjoyable under those circumstances.  The only time I’ve ever flown first class was on a half an hour flight from Detroit to Columbus which they put me on because I missed my original flight after being delayed in customs because I was caught with foreign tangerines in my bag.  Oops.

Anyway, I would like to devote today’s post to a book I came across at the library, entitled Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings edited by Josiah Fisk with Jeff Nichols as consulting editor.  It’s an amalgamation (I love that word) of various writings by composers themselves on other composers, on music, art movements, personal philosophies, you name it.  I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good stand alone resource, but it gives a lot of good tidbits, some just a paragraph or too, some more lengthy essays.  It also lists the source interviews, letters and writings that each passage comes from so if there’s more you need to know about the context in which the passage was written this book can show you the way.  Basically, it’s a nifty astrolabe that can guide you through an overview of composers and their thoughts.  Although I do have to say that the book is a little difficult to navigate.  For example, a composer like Tchaikovsky has a chapter of his own writings, but the index also provides page numbers for when other composers mention him by name so he’s all over the book.  It’s still pretty murky though because specific pieces aren’t always mentioned so there’s a lot of skimming with this one.

Obviously, the relationship between music and dance is hard to ignore.  In fact, I treasure and live by it (Merce Cunningham would argue otherwise and ironically I’ll be seeing the Legacy Tour inaugural show in just a couple of days.  Woot woot!).  It’s not often we get to hear the composer’s perspectives on music and ballets that are performed to their music.  In Stravinsky’s chapter, there are some of his thoughts on The Rite of Spring, how he loved the music, how he felt Nijinsky didn’t understand music and was not a good choreographer and of course the infamous premiere night in which people stormed out (among them, Camille Saint-Saëns apparently), holding Nijinsky by the coattails as Nijinsky shouted counts to his dancers over the jeers of the crowd with Diaghilev flicking the lights on and off in an effort to silence them.  And there’s also random facts like how Stravinsky and Balanchine actually watched Disney’s Fantasia together during Christmas, 1939 (Bet you didn’t know that!).  But most of all (since I find much of Stravinsky’s music jarring and somewhat unpleasant) he did share some poignant views on music and composers.  I’ve selected a couple of my favorites:

The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.

Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic.  Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl.  He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.

Rachmaninoff hilarity aside, fast forward to the chapter on writings by Dmitri Shostakovich, who was a student of Alexander Glazunov (who is known to balletomanes as the composer of Raymonda).  Shostakovich said of Stravinsky and Glazunov:

Glazunov was the first to convince that a composer must make the performers submit to his will and not the other way around.  If the composer doesn’t need a triple or quadruple complement of brass instruments for his artistic vision, that’s one thing.  But if he starts thinking about practical matters, economic considerations, that’s bad.  The composer must orchestrate in the way he conceived his work and not simplify his work to please the performers, Glazunov used to say.  And for instance, I still feel that Stravinsky was mistaken in doing new orchestral editions of Firebird and Petrushka, because these reflected financial, economic and practical considerations.

Glazunov insisted that composing ballets was beneficial because it developed your technique.  Later I learned he was right about that, as well.

I find this all quite fascinating.  Needless to say I became intrigued with any Shostakovich ballets (he wrote three, none of which were successes in his time and have only recently been reconstructed by the Bolshoi and Kirov/Mariinsky.  Judith Mackerell’s article on Shostakovich ballets is a recommended read.  Link here).  I’m also drawn to how comparable it is in dance; tracing the lineage of influences through choreographers and their commentaries on each other, although I wish it were all collected in a single book for our perusal.  It would be interesting to know what MacMillan thought of Balanchine or Ashton of Petipa or whatever combination and see that intertwined into one source, like Composers on Music.  You would think for every composer there must be an equal amount of choreographers out there.  But perhaps it’s important to not make any generalizations about the arts.  Another passage I found particularly interesting, which addressed why music is different from all other arts (hey, everyone has their biases!) was by Leonard Bernstein (hold onto your hats, this is a doozy!):

We are constantly hearing negative phrases: anti-art, anti-play, anti-novel, anti-hero, non-picture, non-poem.  We hear that art has become, perforce, art commentary; we fear that techniques have swallowed up what used to be known as content.  All this is reputed to be lamentable, a poor show, a sad state.  And yet look at how many works of art, conceived in something like these terms, prosper, attract a large following, and even succeed in moving us deeply.  There must be something good in all this negativism.

And there is.  For what these works are doing is simply moving constantly towards more poetic fields of relevance.  Let us be more specific: Waiting for Godot is a mightily moving and compassionate non-play.  La Dolce Vita, which deals with emptiness and tawdriness, is a curiously invigorating film, even an inspiring one.  Nabokov’s non-novel Pale Fire is a thrilling masterpiece, and its hero, Charles Kinbote, is a pure non-hero.  Balanchine’s most abstract and esoteric ballets are his prize smash hits.  De Kooning’s pictures can be wonderfully decorative, suggestive, stimulating and very expensive.  This could become a very long list indeed; but there is one thing it could not include     a piece of serious anti-music.  Music cannot prosper as a non-art, because it is basically and radically an abstract art, whereas all the other arts basically deal with real images     words, shapes, stories, the human body.  And when a great artist takes a real image and abstracts it, or joins it to another real image that seems irrelevant, or combines them in an illogical way, he is poeticizing.  In this sense Joyce is more poetical than Zola, Balanchine more than Petipa, Nabokov more than Tolstoy, Fellini more than Griffith.  But John Cage is not more poetical than Mahler, nor Boulez more so than Debussy.

Why must music be excluded from this very prosperous tendency in the arts?  Because it is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living.  The only “reality” these tones can have is form     that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect.  And by form I mean the shape of a two-note motive as well as of a phrase, or of the whole second act of Tristan.  One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form; up-and-down, long-and-short, loud-and-soft.

And so the inescapable conclusion.  All forms that we have ever known     plain chant, motet, fugue or sonata     have always been conceived in tonality, that is, in the sense of a tonal magnetic center, with subsidiary tonal relationships.  This sense, I believe, is built into the human organism; we cannot hear two isolated tones, even devoid of any context, without immediately imputing a tonal meaning to them.  We may differ from one another in the tonal meaning we infer, but we infer it nonetheless. […] [T]he moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.

Now that’s food for thought.  He may have been discussing the nature of music, but I think Bernstein also may have touched on what inspires expressivity in dance, what inspires us to dance in the first place and why each choreographer’s language is unique.  Although I didn’t fully grasp the nature of what he was saying, I do feel like this is a pretty sound explanation for why music is so crucial in how I personally relate to dance.  Good to know.

So…if you’re one of those dancers that is looking for that “artistry” button, sink your teeth into this book and see what happens.  Improving your understanding of music could inspire creative interpretations in your dancing.

Or maybe, send your orchestra pit/musicians a Valentine’s card.  The muses might reward you.

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