Dancing to the Music between Balanchine and Cunningham

Allen Fogelsanger

This essay was originally published in the Cornell Dance Program Newsletter in 2000 without footnotes.

Any consideration of the late twentieth-century relationship between American modern dance and music must start with Balanchine, whose works exemplify a traditional view of dance being tightly knit and closely joined with music.1 In analyses2 of the relationship between dance and music in a ballet such as Agon, words like interlocking, interpenetration, and interplay frequently appear and hint that the ideal to which Agon aspires is that of Gesamtkunstwerk, or the combined and integrated work of art. It is no surprise that Balanchine has perhaps come closest to creating such unitary dance works of art, given that, as pointed out by critic Roger Copeland, one could argue that for Balanchine the medium of dance is by definition 'bodies moving in response to musical stimuli.'3

But there are numerous dances in which integration of music and choreography is not a goal, works in which dance's traditional relationship with music does not obtain. Merce Cunningham and John Cage provide obvious examples. In their work, dance and music are independent entities existing simultaneously.4 In achieving such independence, they remove musicality from the music, while revealing it in the dance, for there is a sense of continuity and phrasing in Cunningham's dance that is absent in Cage's music. According to Dance Magazine editor Nancy Dalva, the music of a Cunningham dance can be seen but not heard, except in the footfalls of the dancers and their breathing. The dance's music is its rhythm.5

Cunningham's music can be seen because Cage's music is essentially still, like a painting--a soundscape. His conception of music as sounds6 is inherently static and discontinuous, while Cunningham's conception of dance as movement7 is inherently dynamic and continuous: unlike a musical line, the movement line always exists, seamlessly joining a succession of movements through the inescapable connective tissue of the dancer's body.

Soundscapes and silence offer little or no temporal structuring, so that when they accompany movement, the choreographer cannot depend on them to contribute much of a framework on which to hang the dance. Music becomes only a backdrop, a décor, scenery helping to create a space within which the dance occurs and holds our attention. Because sound appears not to organize time at any hierarchical level, that task falls entirely on the dance. We turn to music for a model of how dance fulfills this task.

When we listen to traditional music, we are not just listening to sounds; we are evaluating how they are related and building a model in our minds of what the music is.8 One important factor that affects our evaluation is the structure of information in the music, which is created by constraints, correlations, and redundancies.9 When we recognize a connection, a stylistic marker like a cadence, or an extra-musical reference, we add this information to our mental model and adjust it to reflect our new understanding. Furthermore, we extrapolate, seeing implications in our model and forming expectations about upcoming music. Music that creates expectations or goals--where one event implies a succeeding event--is called linear10 or teleological.11 One example of linearity is the way in which the leading tone implies the tonic in tonal music. Another example is how in the second time through a repeated section of music there is an implication that the section will likely be repeated to its conclusion. In both examples, composers may fulfill or frustrate expectations.

Music where linearity has broken down is called vertical by music theorist Jonathan Kramer.12 In vertical music listeners abandon their constant evaluation of relationships and can only listen to the sensuousness of sound. Linearity may break down because we are unable to hear many relationships between musical events, as in Cage's music; or it may break down because the relationships are so predictable that we take them for granted, as can happen in the music of Philip Glass. In the first case, we have minimal redundancy, randomness, aleatoric music; in the second case, we have maximal redundancy, predictability, minimalist music. A dance example of the former is Yvonne Rainer's Trio A; of the latter, any of Laura Dean's spinning works. Most music and dance have both linear and vertical qualities.13

Linearity tends to supercede verticality. This is, for instance, what happens in combinations of text and music. As Leonard Meyer observes, texts with a narrative message tend to be coupled with highly redundant music so that the story can be easily followed ... conversely, when music is of prime importance, verbal information tends to be redundant.14 Usually, when choreographers use vertical music, the music's potential to be appreciated through vertical listening habits is unfulfilled because the dance requires linear attention. The dance may engage the audience with little competition from the music, which allows for choreographic complexity and subtlety unhindered by musical structure, as often occurs in a Cunningham work. Even when a Cunningham sound score is distracting or annoying,15 it tends to compete with the dance through its sensual aspects such as volume or timbre, not by presenting rhythmic, phrasing, or organizational alternatives.

This framework can also be applied, for example, to some of the work of choreographers16 such as Pina Bausch and Twyla Tharp. Pina Bausch's Cafe Müller is accompanied by a Purcell aria that proceeds at such an adagio pace that one's attention cannot but be held by the dancers. The movement, consisting of people wandering around a stage full of chairs, sometimes running into many of the chairs at once, has very little rhythmic relationship to the music. The music has so little forward motion that it takes on the quality of vertical music--it is changing so slowly that if we were listening to it we would lose ourselves in the sound of the singer. But we're watching movement, we see its rhythms, and the music has only our peripheral attention. That is enough for it to profoundly affect our experience of the Tanztheater.

In Bausch's recent works, such as Das Fensterputzer, the sound score of popular songs (which tend to be highly repetitive and thus have a strong vertical component) is treated as background--the dancers rarely dance to the music, but the music creates an emotional setting and does not compete with the dance for attention. In Twyla Tharp's dances to Philip Glass and to pop songs, the music simply provides a pulse and large-scale sectioning for her complex teleological choreography. In all these cases the music is dominated by vertical qualities which are overwhelmed by the linear dance.

A more complex situation is presented by Trisha Brown's Twelve Ton Rose. Brown choreographed Twelve Ton Rose in 1996 to music of Webern: Five Movements for string quartet, Opus 5; Four Pieces for violin and piano, Opus 7; and String Quartet, Opus 28. At this late date, these works continue to be problematical for some listeners because of their dissonance and atonality, but such harshness is part of their appeal as brief enigmatic jewels of sound suspended in time.17 Of the three works chosen by Brown, only Opus 28 is based on a twelve-tone row, but composer Elliott Carter's remark about Webern's music in general applies: In many cases the row seems to be a kind of secret formula barely audible in the music.18 It requires close attention to hear and appreciate the organization of Webern's music, but if that attention is elsewhere we are left only with vague impressions; and largely because the music is atonal, it has a very weak sense of linearity, of goal-directed motion.19 As a result the music in Twelve Ton Rose is experienced as having more verticality than linearity, but elements of both are present.

Brown's choreography offers an enigmatic fleetingness not unlike that of the music. As described by Deborah Jowitt, Brown matches Webern's minimalism--the bursts of sound embedded in silence--with her own form of austerity. Rarely are more than a few dancers onstage at the same time. Sometimes they hover at the edges or step into view, accomplish something, and disappear. They walk, regroup, wait. In a line they rush across the stage, absorbing or disgorging individuals.20 Writer Edith Boxberger attributes to Brown the comment that this music sounds like the way I think when I'm creating movement. ... It's unexpected, it has a dissonance that wavers, is unpredictable.21

While the movement and music are similar, they are not integrated, unsurprisingly given Brown's history of not choreographing to music. The dance22 is divided into movement sections which are only occasionally coextensive with music sections, and movement dynamics are often, if not usually, clearly contrasting with or unrelated to musical dynamics.

The choreography set to the five movements of Opus 5 seems most varied in its relationship to the music. The first movement of Opus 5 tends to be intense while Brown's choreography tends toward being quiet. The second musical movement is quiet while the dancing is dynamic. And Brown choreographs right through the silence between these movements, in fact emphasizing the silence by contrasting it with a maximal number of dancers on stage. On the other hand, the third movement, which corresponds precisely to a man's solo, is the only music section with a catchy beat and marks the first if not the only time the dance matches the music in energy. By the fifth movement Brown returns to contrariety with an active sextet in opposition to subdued sounds. The rhythm of the dance is beautifully apparent because the music is so still, much like in a Cunningham work.

While in Opus 5 the macro-structural relationship between music and dance is variable, in the other opuses it sticks with relatively extreme positions: there is no apparent correspondence in Opus 7, and there seems to be a clear and positive correspondence in Opus 28. Opus 7 accompanies a duet for two men that appears not to recognize its four movements, in particular the violent beginning of the last movement. But the final three dance sections of Twelve Ton Rose line up clearly with the three movements of Opus 28, which seem to be in a much more supportive relationship with Brown's choreography, possibly because dynamics are not extreme here.

In terms of micro-structure--that is pulse, rhythm, and phrasing (the second-to-second elements to which most people are referring when they talk about dancing to music)--the music and dance generally are unrelated. True, there are occasional coincidences, but are these planned or unplanned? In my head or the choreographer's? Regardless, they stand out, and along with other choreographic devices (for which there is no space here to describe), show Brown's sly wit. But there is at least one section, the first movement of Opus 28, where a quartet of dancers is invisibly entwined with the music. Deborah Jowitt, interviewing Brown, reports that the dancers, sharing the same steps but each keyed to a different instrument, move only when their instrument falls silent. Brown says they move in the negative spaces of the music.23

That sums up Brown's collaboration with Webern: she mostly choreographs in the negative spaces of the music. The music supplies an emotional space and a duration. The dancers generally do not dance to the music, just as in Cunningham. Both dance and music have only a weak linearity, but the dance takes a subtle but solid precedence. Unlike Cunningham, Brown often recognizes the music by playing around its edges, by occasionally and wittily acknowledging specific rhythmic events, and by sometimes dancing dynamically with the music (the traditional paradigm) and sometimes contrasting with it, thus allowing our attention to vary in its captivation by movement or music. Balanchine and Cunningham have marked out the edges of the continuum of choreomusical relationships, but Trisha Brown is leading the exploration of the space in between.

1See, for instance, Paul Hodgins, Relationships between Score and Choreography in Twentieth-Century Dance: Music, Movement and Metaphor (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992).
2Stephanie Jordan, Agon: A Musical/Choreographic Analysis, Dance Research Journal 25/2 (Fall 1993): 11; and Marcia B. Siegel, The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1979) 228-229. See also Irene Alm, Stravinsky, Balanchine, and Agon: An Analysis Based on the Collaborative Process, The Journal of Musicology 7/2 (Spring 1989): 254-69.
3Roger Copeland, Backlash Against Balanchine, Choreography and Dance 3/3 (1993): 6.
4[M]ovement and sound [exist] independently of one another; choreography and music [are] both performed in the same space and time, but without affecting (or even acknowledging) one another. Roger Copeland, Merce Cunningham and the Politics of Perception (1979), What Is Dance: Readings in Theory and Criticism, ed. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 310.
5Furthermore, for Cunningham, working to music must be like turning on the radio when the record player is already on. It interferes with music he already hears. Nancy Dalva, The Way of Merce (1992), Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1992) 181-182.
6Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991) 362. Also John Cage, Experimental Music (1957), Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, Connecticut: The Wesleyan University Press, 1961) 10.
7Merce Cunningham, Event for Television, WNET/Dance in America (1977).
8See, for instance, Leonard B. Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture, with a new postlude (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, 1967).
9For example, see James R. Pomerantz and Gregory R. Lockhead, Perception of Structure: An Overview, chapter 1 in The Perception of Structure: Essays in Honor of Wendell R. Garner, ed. Gregory R. Lockhead and James R. Pomerantz (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1991).
10See Jonathan D. Kramer, The Time of Music: New Meanings, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies (New York: Schirmer Books, 1988).
11Meyer 71-72.
12Kramer, chapter 12.
13Kramer 389 regarding music. I contend the same applies to dance.
14Leonard B. Meyer, A Universe of Universals, ch. 8 in The Spheres of Music: A Gathering of Essays (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 293. Reprinted from The Journal of Musicology 16/1 (Winter 1998): 3-25. Meyer also criticizes the assumption that the 'natural' function of music is to parallel and 'reflect' the narrative meaning of the text; the analagous assumption regarding music and dance is of course inherently criticized in Cunningham's and Cage's work.
15Roger Copeland, Against Instinct: The Denatured Dances of Merce Cunningham, unpublished manuscript.
16For an especially comprehensive survey of the ways that choreographers have used music, see Sally Banes, Dancing [with/to/before/on/in/over/after/against/away from/without] the Music: Vicissitudes of Collaboration in American Postmodern Choreography (1992), Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 310-326.
17The individual movements of these pieces, each a tiny jewel unlike anything heard before, are intimate expressions of pure lyricism, fleeting musical visions that communicate as much by suggestion as by statement, by silence as by sound. ...[I]ntervals are ... presented as isolated units.... Only rarely do more than a few notes occur in a continuous group; the overall texture is broken up into a series of separate gestures, giving rise to a quality that has been described as 'pointilistic.' Morgan 81. He is writing about Opp. 5 and 7 but this applies equally to Op. 28.
18Elliott Carter, To Be a Composer in America (1953/94), Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995, ed. Jonathan W. Bernard (Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 207.
19Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas 243. Kramer pp. 32-40 discusses the continuum of weakening types of linearity in atonal music.
20Deborah Jowitt, Without a Net, The Village Voice, 22 October 1996.
21Trisha Brown interviewed by Edith Boxberger, The Body Is Not Only Objectivity, Ballett International, February 1997, 25.
22Trisha Brown Company, Twelve Ton Rose, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Opera House, Brooklyn, New York, October 3, 1996. Archival videorecording is at the New York Public Library Dance Collection, part of Trisha Brown at 25: Post Modern and Beyond, Program B, videotaped by Character Generators Inc.
23Deborah Jowitt, Stepping Out with Anton Webern, Dance Magazine 70/10 (October 1996) 58-62.

This essay is slightly different from that which appeared at this location before September 28, 2005. While working on another paper I discovered that what I had posted previously was not quite the last draft. This version is word for word what was published in the newsletter, except I've added the footnotes which had been present in the early drafts.

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