I have been collaborating with the Dance department here at the University of Iowa for several years, including providing improvised music for dancers, to performing live music onstage with the dancers. Last year, my colleague Charlotte Adams, choreographed a work that included horn and tuba improvising onstage in a work called “Tuba or Not Tuba”. It was a lot of fun, and challenging in that it was difficult to catch physical clues from dancers while my creative brain was busy improvising. We spent a week in Los Angeles and performed the work several times at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.
This year, Charlotte proposed a new collaboration project for the University’s annual Dance Gala, which is a very popular event on campus and showcases the entire Dance department. Charlotte’s new work, “Catch” is a touching and personal expression of her feelings about the loss of her father, and the transition from child to caregiver. Presented in reverse chronological order, the opening scene is meant to convey represent death, and each scene progresses backwards, until the final scene represents a father comforting a crying infant. Other scenes depict catching (both the parent catching the child, and eventually the child catching the parent, both physically and metaphorically); stumbling, and joyful catching.
When we set out to help create the music for this work, we decided to employ more pre-composed and pre-recorded music, and kept improvisation to tonal and blues oriented styles. My partner on horn, Erin Vang, is a multi-talented musician, writer and consultant. One of her current projects is Kaddish in Two Part Harmony. Kaddish is the Jewish mourners prayer, often said each day for a year following the death of a loved one. When Charlotte was looking for something somber and mournful, it was only natural that Erin suggest the Kaddish. The dance begins in pitch black, with Erin lying on her back and playing the Kaddish. The lights slowly rise to reveal the dancers lying down on stage, positioned how they might be in a cemetery. The scene is rudely interrupted with blast of synthesized horns, and a dancer runs and steals the horn from Erin. The dancers commence running backwards in a circle, swarming and accelerating, as a recording of a musical backdrop I composed plays with clock-like ticking and a blend of disorienting beats and synthesized moods. Above that, Erin and I slowly start short scale-like patterns in opposing directions, based on the mode of the Kaddish.
The dancers converge and then dissipate, to reveal just two dancers playfully swinging their arms. For rehearsals and choreography, Charlotte used a recording of Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels, which is a bluesy, tongue in cheek ramble about a near death experience, and an ominous warning to “keep your business clean”. This music was so perfect, we improvised in the same key and tempo of the original with just tuba and horn.
Continuing with the death theme, we use the traditional spiritual “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” for the next scene. The dancers begin moving and crawling slowly, as we play a very slow version of the song, with very little elaboration. As the dance gets faster and more joyous, our tempos and style of the song adjust. This section ends in a frenzy, and one dancer climbing a human step-ladder and falling off into the arms of another.
For the next and final section, Charlotte nicknamed “Lullaby”, as it was to depict the dancers holding each other in pairs and conveying a soothing and calming mood – much like how Charlotte as a baby would only stop crying when she was placed on her father’s belly. For this, I chose to compose a simple, but touching melody recorded on my studio piano (Charlotte’s father played the piano) accompanied by synthesized strings and the sound of crickets. I called the composition “Daddy’s Home”.
“Catch” ends with Erin and I moving downstage, improvising on the lullaby, and after I lie down on the floor, a dancer rolls onto to my belly while Erin continues to improvise on the melody and the lights fade to black.
If you are interested, we have four more performances planned for this week. All of the pieces in the 2011 Dance Gala are fantastic. I am continually impressed and enlightened by our talented faculty and students. For more information on Dance Gala, click here or here.