Tuesday I got a call from Susan Matheke to see if I could fill in as an improvising pianist for a dance workshop she is doing at the Educational Center for the Arts. Susan is a wonderful dancer and choreographer, and the head of the Dance Department at ECA. Her husband Willie Feuer is also on the ECA faculty, and the two of them were members of the legendary Viola Farber Company, back in the day.
Working with dancers is a special joy. Every time I do it I wish it did it more. To see Susan work with so many talented students and adults in such a high-energy situation was inspiring. Two things stood out. First, her students have such a high degree of concentration that they can learn rather complex routines almost instantly. Susan demonstrates once, and eighteen people just do it! A little has to be fixed, but surprisingly little. The other thing was how easily Susan could get some interesting but rather etude-like and somewhat routine sequences to turn into art with the simplest instruction—a tribute to her imagination as a teacher and the ingenuity of her students alike.
There were two examples of this. First, she gave the instruction to cross the open dance space doing one of the routines, but on the return do the same routine but interrupt it—either with “silence,” or with a sudden stop, or with some unspecified surprise. The musicians (Ian Ganassi and myself) had a similar instruction. We made straightforward eight-beat phrases for the first cross, and really opened it up for the second one. Instant choreography, instant music, very satisfying—just for us, though. Not for the public.
The last part of the workshop Susan handed out a sheet of paper. Ian didn’t do this, but I did, along with the dancers. The paper had instructions at the top, and three incomplete sentences, with space to write:
Please finish these beginning phrases with a simple sentence or two. Then create a small phrase of movement for each phrase. To get started on your phrases you may want to find one word or idea in your sentences that seems to stand out.
I am from…
I am now…
I will be…
I will make no attempt to describe what the dancers did as a result of this exercise, because I saw too little of what it was to say anything meaningful. As a musician and as a composer, however, I have something to report. In such a situation there is no time to think, and first impressions are essential. So I wrote the first things that came into my head, which were place names (a combination of autobiography and wishful thinking):
I am from the South—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee
I am now from New England—Middletown CT Maine
I will be from South Carolina from France from London from Illinois
I have reproduced the punctuation as I wrote it, no editing, but I have not attempted to reproduce the space on the paper. I used the piece of paper as source material for a series of pitches, register free, all over the keyboard. I made no use of letters other than those of the musical alphabet, but I did allow that H was B natural and S was E flat. (For more about my use of letters as pitches see my earlier blog about the Friendly Fugues.) I also eliminated Susan’s original instructions, using only the words in my own hand. The resulting series:
B E Eb B A A B A A G E G A Eb Eb Eb Eb E E Eb Eb E E
F E E A D D D E C A E
F Eb B C A A F F A C E F D F Eb
I found this series of pitches a provocative combination of redundancy and self-imposed limits. The distribution of these pitches is also beautiful, suggesting but never confirming certain tonal centers (though the F major seventh chord does occur). Specifically, the numbers of the pitches are (in the order of appearance):
So in addition to a little pocket money, from this unexpected gig I got a new piano piece! The working title is “Where I am.” (I hope I can come up with something better than that, but for now “Where I am” will do just fine.) There were four groups of dancers, so I played the series four times, with different register games going on each time through. All of this will be written down sometime soon, before I forget it. Perhaps Susan will dance to this music sometime, or she and Willie can make a duet out of it.
Susan and Willie, by the way, have become first-rate tango dancers, as well as heirs to the Viola Farber legacy.