Color Me Copland

I’ve finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up: write Disklavier pieces for dance. The music is irreproachably acoustic, the performances endlessly perfect and unchanging, the audience superbly friendly and impressionable, you get to watch nice-looking people transfer your rhythmic ideas into three-dimensional space in gestures surprising, comical, and poignant, and then you stumble onstage and bow at the end. What could possibly be better? The gratification-to-work ratio is through the roof. In fact, having seen the Mark Morris Dance Group perform to my music last night, I’m convinced now that dancers, as intermediaries, create a sympathy for the music that it could never inspire by itself. The audience enjoys the dancers, the dance is visibly indebted for its energy to the music, therefore, the music must be something special; or, perhaps, the dancers so underline the ideas in the music that they come across with an immediacy no simple audio presentation could achieve. In any case, I received an outpouring of enthusiasm from total strangers at intermission far beyond anything I’d experienced before, and that I don’t believe could possibly result from a mere music concert.

My music has been choreographed a couple of times before, but never by someone who translates the music phrase by phrase with the thoroughness that Mark Morris does. Taking five pieces from my Nude Rolling Down an Escalator CD and repeating two of them, he fashioned a seven-movement dance called Looky all around the general theme of actors versus spectators. Tango da Chiesa became a group of people taking a tour through a museum as a guard sat idle but vigilant. Folk Dance for Henry Cowell became two rows of statues who surreptitiously changed position for each new group of tourists. Most hilariously, Bud Ran Back Out became a four-minute Western movie, with gun-slinging hero (female), Mae West-style hooker (male), poker game, floor show, drunk, and final gun fight in which everyone died but the principals. And in Texarkana, I saw my oh-so-clever 29-against-13 cross rhythms translated into arm and leg movements with a precision of which I thought only computers were capable. Those five pieces melded into a ballet with beginning, middle, and end, as though Mark was Martha Graham and I was Aaron Freakin’ Copland. Never before has my music been so savored, so analyzed, so complimented.

Dance is the artform I least understand (I probably should harbor more of a grudge than I have against the pretty girl who told me in high school I couldn’t dance and shouldn’t try, for I took her advice), and I’ve never felt I possessed the vocabulary to distinguish Fred Astaire from Merce Cunningham. But I know what goes into my music, and to see dance come out taught me more about it than I’d ever known. What struck me most was how much Mark had to think, as much as any composer, in terms of time proportions. Some moments were drawn out in slow motion, others so hurried that I feared the music wouldn’t be long enough, and I was quite impressed by the variety of tempos, and the counterintuitive imagination of Mark’s pacing. Equally impressive was his associative imagination. I think of Bud Ran Back Out, my Bud Powell homage, as pure New York, but its transformation into a tawdry western was inspired. Mark also played a lovely joke with the Disklavier: the piece opened with 50 seconds of darkness, and the audience chuckled appreciatively when a spotlight faded on to reveal a piano playing by itself. But within 25 seconds, the simultaneity of independent lines in the high treble, middle register, and low bass implied the presence of at least three hands on the keyboard if any at all, and posed a conundrum for the ear.

Whenever I play those Disklavier pieces at a concert, a few people inevitably come up and irritatingly ask, “Wouldn’t you rather have them played by a piano duo?” (As if that were possible. And the answer is “no.”) But with the dancers providing the human element, no one asked any such thing. A good dance audience is amazing: they expect empathy and surprise, and, unlike a classical music audience, they are exhilarated rather than upset by divergences from traditional boundaries. Personally I think classical music audiences should be fed the uniform diet of endless Schubert they crave until they die, thus vindicating my friend Greg Sandow. But dance lovers aren’t afraid of creativity and innovation, and these people, led by Mark’s sensitive orchestration of my rhythms into movement, connected with me in a way no audience ever had before. It was extremely generous of Mark to share his perfect-vintage audience with me, as one would share a $200 bottle of rare single-malt scotch.

There are reviews in the Boston papers here and here. The climax of the concert was not Looky, but Grand Duo, set to a powerful, impressively memorable, emponymous work for violin and piano by Lou Harrison that seems not to be available on recording at the moment. If I thought I could do the dance justice in words, I would try. It was unforgettable.


  1. Bob Jordahl says

    Great article,Kyle. I think I enjoyed writing my two ballets more than anything else I’ve composed.

  2. says

    so, when is this happening in new york?
    i fail to understand dance, too, (oh, and i suck at anything involving large-motor coordination, which is why i can neither dance nor play piano) but when it’s good, it’s a wonderfully visceral experience. i’m still reeling from seeing molissa fenley’s revival of “hemispheres” last year, a collaboration she did with anthony davis. if that ever comes back again, check it out.

  3. says

    Congrats! And thanks for writing this. I am always happy to see people express the satisfaction of making art, and the joy of sharing a communal experience with an audience. Break out the champagne! Or celebratory beverage of your choice — $200 scotch sounds just swell! (Even metaphorically.)

  4. Jon Szanto says

    Kyle – So glad you had this kind of experience! What little I’ve done in life as a composer has been about 65% connected with dance and dance companies, and it is just the best. You need to also work WITH a company on a new piece – the ebb and flow with dancers in development is so, so rewarding. I am so happy for you, that just now as I read your post, I poured a second tumbler of 24-year-old Port Ellen, a rare one indeed. Unfortunately, I’m going to drink both of them, since you can’t join me. But I celebrate your high spirits, and am so very happy for you!!!

  5. says

    Cool thing about Mark Morris is that he actually reads music (a rarity among choreographers). He’ll study a score in depth, and will even have it in hand sometimes while choreographing. While most choreographers will work with the basic structure of a piece, he is analyzing and bringing out the deeper layers of counterpoint, which is why he’s so good at Baroque…and obviously from the audience response, Gann! Sounds like a match made in a heaven that serves the best Scotch.
    Cheers to you Kyle…may you be his next Handel!

  6. vita says

    I used to watch the wheels in Mark Morris’ brain turn while riding home on the Number 1 train uptown. He got on somewhere downtown, but did so every day like clockwork, and rode past my stop, probably up to Columbia U. area. A few times he planted his body beside mine and the first time I didn’t register who it was, just felt aggravated by his extreme strength and disregard of the existence of a fellow passenger, so I moved across-ways and realized, egads, Mark Morris. He did look up briefly, quizzically, puzzled by my transition to across the way. Then stared back at the page he was studying, and he was completely engrossed in it, I promise you. His hands were magnificent, so expressive as he concentrated on his work – so yes, your music was in good hands. Morris was during those rides an artist completely un- self-conscious — and then each time he boarded and sat beside me I promptly relocated and then quietly watched him work. Very exciting. Please tell him I say ‘hello!’ Enjoyed knowing him in that way, though so briefly. And thank you, Kyle, for describing what the collaboration was like for you. Congratulations on having so much fun. Superb.

  7. says

    Lou Harrison, whose work in the early 60’s included accompanying dance classes at a junior college in Aptos CA where he lived, once remarked that he thought most of the great music of the 20th century had been composed for dance — citing Stravinsky along with Copland, Barber, Bernstein, etc. Hope yours becomes part of the 21st century canon.
    KG replies: Well, I wish I had written it for dance – and I wish someone would let me write something for dance.