As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
Tanglewood produced many of the summer’s memorable outings, but with pieces which somehow seem easier for a big Symphony to bring across to a big audience in the summer and in the country; music, like every other living thing in New England, can be highly seasonal and very much of its own place and niche. Many of the programs drew from the theater — ballet music and concert opera especially, or from the church — and extremely fine and satisfying performances of Debussy’s Danses: sacré et profane, l’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Charles Dutoit’s of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, and one of Britten’s church parables Curlew River, to leave out many others, seem stick with me for a long time.
Back in the day, when music in the theatre manifested itself dramatically as dance and singing together — specifically ballet and opera — it did so in a myriad of different forms. Though we now call them opera-ballets (or even just operas), they can be difficult to imagine now that the two art forms are not only separate themselves, but tend to have separate audiences in many cities, sharing only their theatre in common. Conveniently, but unfortunately, the choreography has been lost in all cases and the works are revived as what we now call opera in the main. A dance of course is much more difficult to write down than music — though written music is not itself trivial, in fact, baroque composers had no desire to write down every note, and quite a bit of the creative act we now assign to composers was originally given to musicians and singers, ornamentation in particular, were and are very important and in most cases these improvisations were not thought to be written down since that would defeat their whole purpose of expressive dramatic spontaneity. These baroque operas, even the French ones of Lully and Rameau in which the dancing is particularly important, are first and foremost watched and listened to today as opera, even when some care, attention and time are given to recreating the choreography.
If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all… in his music.
If all sound comes from movement, and all music comes from sound, then all music comes from movement — and so does all dance. Music is defined also by its silences and its spaces — or rather time — left around the notes, but as John Cage so eloquently expressed, silence is not nothing, even if it does not solely belong to the piece of music, neither to the musicians, their instruments nor the composer. There is always “movement” in a general, figurative, sense, in an attentive audience, within their minds, their beating hearts, their souls set vibrating — if one can still hear the trepidation of the spheres over the barbaric post-industrial noise of the world. Dance too, similarly or sympathetically, but perhaps not identically, has stillness (despite the multi-modal thrill of the Waltz) sometimes not even with a pose, as we see in En Atendant and Cesena, where the dancers are often merely left as if a scattered handful of sand or the denizens in their place, and neither does this stillness preclude “movement” in the broader, non-scientific sense (though to be fair to science, even in mathematics, the derivative where it equals zero still exists).
Nature doesn’t really impose physical restrictions on our free will, but rather demonstrates the movements best suited to us; these too are the most beautiful. They are not an imposed law but very much individual. There is an ingenuity to discovering them and in so doing one pushes against them, but the effortful courage of pushing them can be a misplaced nobility, and while there is a certain inherent dramatic tension there, it can become awkward. There is a certain quality in today’s contemporary dance style, though there are many original variations and exceptions, which is hardly naturalistic in the way it pushes the extremes of human ability. The Bangarra Dance Theatre is in a unique position in urban Sydney, close to the Contemporary Dance World (sometimes called a “Mafia,” but let’s try to be positive), but also with close ancestral ties which give them access to the preserved ancient Australian arts which developed in unique ways in their isolation.
They dance with a keen sense of drama with a very fine feeling for the gestures on which a ballet turns. They have a special sense for the overarching form and thrust of the choreographer’s idea for each piece they danced, so the build-up of dramatic tension could be gradual, the feelings brought to each movement fitting and those important gestures could fit in in a restrained, even understated way. The dancers tend to give as much attention to their port à bras, which was very plastic, very tactile, as if pushing against the thickness of the atmosphere around them, as their leg- and foot-work, also with a careful attention to line, especially in the groupings at the cadence of a scene. They are extremely absorbing, giving something much more than the display of a Gala performance, despite the over-excited opening night audience.
That Ted Shawn founded the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 80 years ago speaks to how old the art form is. Of course it is difficult to speak of ‘modern dance’ as an art form or even an art movement, when its main characteristic and initial need to exist, a need going back to Nijinsky’s and Diaghilev’s to create Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913, is a highly individual self-expression through movement, though it seems that from year zero as important as this honest self-expression of the choreographer and dancer(s) are common qualities such as a sense of theatre, for like ballet this is theatrical dance, and a degree of training, a technique, even a theory (however batty). Also as important is a company for the choreographer to work with and a school attached to the company, perhaps because of the difficulty to communicate the new choreography and its ever changing styles to the dancers. But one doesn’t want to be too rigid about it. What does “Self-expression” even mean in a cooperative performing art involving many “selves”?