singing in the dead of night, take 1

On November 7, we received scores and parts for singing in the dead of night, the 45-minute-long collaboration between Bang on a Can composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, and New York choreographer, Susan Marshall.

Like all of our new works so far this season, this little electronic package came a little while past its due date.

A brief aside about due dates. Composers are often surprised by how far in advance of the world premiere we want score and parts. As an example, let’s take the Bang on a Can commission: the premiere is not until March 2008, while the score and parts were due August 2007. Why do we need so much time? The truth is we need every last millisecond: time to memorize 45 minutes of music; to rehearse the piece as an ensemble (and we are on tour, unable to rehearse, for several months in the Spring); and to work three times with Susan Marshall, developing the choreography from scratch.

The late delivery of the works left us with just three short days to bash through (sight-read) Michael, Julia and David’s interesting and diverse pieces before Susan arrived for a short and intensive workshop period, in our studio, prior to Thanksgiving. Susan had not previously heard any of the music, and had only chatted briefly with each of the composers about specific choreographic ideas. Our lack of musical preparation took its toll on the workshop process, as the necessity of music stands meant we were mostly unable to experiment with movement while playing.

For someone with a long history of working with her own dance company, Susan was remarkably open to new ideas and suggestions from complete strangers and total non-dancers. The workshop progressed much more like a fluid choreographic improvisation than hard-headed, logical process.

In person, Susan makes quite an impression. She is thin with striking, chiseled features; she carries herself with a dancer’s poise and possesses an aristocratic elegance that make her seem a foot taller than she is; she is wired with an electric intensity that gives working sessions a high energy level.

We started the first day working on Julia’s 15-minute piece, as it had the most explicit choreography marked in the score. At certain points the Kap and the Duv, then later the Mac and the Aussie, are directed to make noise on some sandpaper. In preparation for rehearsal, the Duv made a trip to the local hardware store, and came back with this wide selection of different types of sandpaper:

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First, we tried various ways of walking upright on the sandpaper to create both interesting sounds and visual images. Nothing we tried was satisfactory. We also tried a little sandpaper slow dancing; below, the Alb and the Kap attempt to make beautiful music together, rubbing bits of sandpaper on each other’s backs:

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Susan suggested real sand, so it was back to the hardware store for a big bag of playpen fun. Resisting the urge to build sandcastles, we spread handfuls of the stuff onto a big table, then began to experiment. You can see some of our experiments with Susan in the YouTube clip below.


Below, the Kap and the Duv do some dirty work in Julia’s piece:

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Julia Wolfe’s composition is something of a study in contrasts. Repetitive, trance-like pulsing gives way to an extended, static, beautiful string/wind texture. An outburst of fast, polyrhythmic, violent music for the whole ensemble explodes suddenly; the expressive marking is “Funky”, then “Trance-like groove”. These different elements combine and collide until a climactic “Grand and Passionate” confrontation between the piano and the rest of the group ushers in a short, slow, “Lush” section.

In contrast, Michael Gordon’s piece is insistent and unyielding in its constant alternation of the same basic ideas. A funky low cello line, repeated obsessively for the 15 minutes of the piece, provides the backdrop to a variety of different textures that alternate and confront one another: a syncopated rhythm on very high piccolo, clarinet and vibraphone; fast, nervous, irregular scalic patterns; tolling bells. The pivotal dramatic moment comes when four ensemble members all start pounding, glissing and strumming the piano.

Michael’s piece presented the biggest choreographic challenge. All of us switch to play a variety of “alternate” instruments, including bells, piano accordian, guitar and keyboard; we have to make very fast switches from one to another with no rhyme or reason. Musical relationships are built up between players for just a moment, then destroyed. Any movements to highlight these relationships would be fast, furious, and probably distracting for an audience.

Below, Lisa jammin’:

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David Lang’s three fabulous 5-minute pieces are very different from one another. The first is an aural assault: a hectic, chaotic barrage of irregular, loud, accented rhythmic gestures. The second piece is the glorious, funky bastard child of the heavily pounding, rhythmic cheating, lying, stealing. The music for both is full-on, all in, and any movement would just feel tacked-on. As a result, these pieces will remain un-choreographed, acting as musical interludes between more heavily choreographed sections of the whole Bang on a Can work.

The third of David’s pieces, a very slow passacaglia, is marked “thin, distant and creepy”. This is an odd sort of passacaglia, as the long notes of the passacaglia “theme” don’t occur until several minutes into the piece; a static, high flute/vibraphone texture begins. This provides aural wallpaper to accompany other members of the ensemble, who are called upon by the composer “to drop pieces of metal on floor and walk around”. The mood is funereal, and the piece has a ritualistic quality.

We experimented with having all four non-playing members walk aimlessly, dropping small metal objects, like silverware, buckets and nails. This seemed too comic for the character of the music. It became clear to Susan that the piece could deal with aspects of grief and loss in an effective way. The Mac took the role of suffering protagonist: he was loaded with an armful of found objects, and literally struggled to cope with his load, losing hold of these objects, which one-by-one fell to the ground.

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Below, Susan Marshall works with the gang:

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For more photos from our first two days working with Susan Marshall, click here.

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