Sunday, February 27, 2011

If The Shoe Fits Redux: The Sonic Palette

If The Shoe Fits is an evening length dance theater work I scored for choreographer director Rachel Cohen back in in 2005. On March 19th, 2011, If The Shoe Fits will be performed at The Emeline Theatre in Mamaroneck, New York for one matinee performance. Thanks to Meet the Composer's Met Life Creative Connections Program, Racoco Productions is able to to bring me to New York to mix the music live for the performance and participate in a workshop about composing for dance.

In the weeks leading up to the performance, I'll be blogging about the challenges of writing for dance, the nature of my and Rachel's collaborative process, and the progress of If The Shoe Fits redux as the Rachel and her dancers rehearse in New York City.

Opening Scene from If The Shoe Fits (photo by Robert Polkosnik)

My score for If The Shoe Fits consists of sixteen individual pieces of music organized as separate "clips" in Ableton Live and cued by me using a MIDI controller/mixer. Each piece of music accompanies a tableau in If The Shoe Fits which appear in succession like the pages of a storybook. In performance, I have a clear sight line to the stage and take cues from the dancers while they in turn take cues from the music. Basically, I'm DJing my own score, trying to match the flow of the show as it unfolds before the audience.

I recorded the score as the show took shape over the course of several weeks of rehearsals. I didn't write the score, then give it to the dancers. It was a slower, more collaborative process.

I like to imagine a score for dance as a geographical body containing only the sounds indigenous to its particular landscape. I use my imagination to envision such a world in the beginning stages of a project, and then see if I can find the appropriate sounds to populate it.

If The Shoe Fits' palette of sounds came to me as soon as choreographer Rachel Cohen and I began discussing her idea for a work inspired by fairy tales and their impact on the waking world of adulthood. Stories by the authors The Brothers Grimm provided vivid and iconic images for us, including dungeons, kitchenware, and of course shoes (the title If The Shoe Fits, references the story of Cinderella), each of which in turn inspired musical sounds. Some of those sounds can be heard in the music excerpted below which accompanies the show's opening tableau:

Opening Dungeon (excerpt)

As I continued to ponder fairy tales, I took inspiration from so-called "exotica" music of the 50's and 60's which conveys in sound a sometimes cartoon-like reimagining of the temptations and pleasures of far away lands. "Doo Wop" is another musical genre I thought might sit in a world of fairy tales and adults, as the soaring vocals in that music, born on rough city streets, testify that there's SOMETHING else out there beyond the grind of inner city life.

Perhaps the characters that populate the landscape of If The Shoe Fits are dreaming about lands "far far away" and my music could provide some subtext for this?

Right photo: Mickey Mouse Kachina, c. 1950 (Arizona, Hopi)

I made it a goal to create some musical cues that would at first sound satirical, but quickly take on a deeper emotional resonance. The Surrealists embraced awkward collisions of modern and indigenous culture (see the Hopi carved Mickey Mouse figure from The Menil's Surrealist collection), and some of my musical cues speak to that aesthetic. The "Beanstalk" music you hear in the rehearsal video below is an example of what I'm describing:

I want to point out that Rachel made suggestions for the music throughout the rehearsals, sometimes giving me just a word or two that would inspire a particular cue.

With a sonic palette set in my mind, the next step was to chose musicians who could help me realize the landscape I'd imagined. I work very collaboratively with musicians from the worlds of jazz, classical, and rock and roll, the only commonality being that each one has a truly distinctive voice on their respective instrument. The core ensemble heard in my score includes Daniel Kelly (keyboards), Chris Michael (Brazilian and Colombian percussion, drum kit), and Lynn Wright (electric and acoustic guitars, electric bass, vocals). Mezzo soprano Lainie Diamond sings The Fairy Godmother Song and Jose Ariel Ramos sings the second Doo Wop number. Both Lainie and Jose lend their voices to a break in the show's toe tapping closing number.

In addition, the score includes flutes played by Keith Bonner, the voice of Manon True, and yours truly on harmonica, kitchen pots and pans, toy keyboard, and men's and women's shoes.

In the next chapter, I'll talk about Rachel's unique form of movement and theater.

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