first workshop – etudes for dancer and musicians, part 1

Before starting, I should mention that the videos posted below are for pedagogical purposes only.


In the recent weeks, I’ve been developing a series of improvised etudes scored for dancer and musicians. The objectives of these etudes are to create provocative situations for interdisciplinary improvisation, and to research how different relationships between movement and sound can be manifested. These relationships are communicated through text and some simple diagrams, and they’re meant to be short (< 5 mins) and memorized in order to enable direct focus between the musicians and the dancer, thereby eliminating any sort of physical barrier between the performers.

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In each etude, I indicate how the musicians and dancer should interpret each other. The instructions provided in these etudes are not meant to be followed in an exact or literal sense, but rather interpreted in a fallible way by which to produce compelling situations. They’re meant to direct the psychological aspect of the improvisers. As a performance practice, the musicians and dancer should aim to function as one ensemble, neither holding higher importance, all equally responsible for both the visual and audible aspects of the performance space.

Regarding sonic and movement material, it’s important to state that these etudes were written for performers who are active practitioners of free improvisation. I can’t possibly begin to define what free improvisation means here, but for starters, reference the writings of George Lewis and Derek Bailey. English musician Tim Hodgkinson put it nicely when he wrote, improvisation “invite[s] your ear to start from scratch at every moment, to consider the possible relationships between one sound and another as being continuously modified and rotated about varied axes of connection.”

This being said, as a composer and improviser, I have my own musical language and aesthetic concerns regarding movement and sound. But rather than give the performers musical or choreographic material, I provided metaphorical examples from other mediums for inspiration, specifically paintings and sculptures by artists Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and early Piet Mondrian which demonstrate an aesthetic of uncanny and grotesque beauty. Granted, who’s to say how this visual art translates into music, but to me, it communicates a message of distortion, harshness, swooping curves and jagged lines, violence and bleakness. Maybe the thick Parisian clouds are getting to me. Perhaps I need more vitamin D…

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Anyways, all this being said, these etudes are experimental. They serve as a tool for myself to research the interactions between movement and sound, between dancers and musicians, between different disciplines of improvisation. They may generate music- or movement-based material for future works, and they teach me how performers respond to various approaches to communication.

This past week, I organized a short session to test out a few of these etudes, inviting three local improvising musicians (a violinist, bandoneonist, and baritone saxophonist) and a dancer into the studio. These musicians have never played together before, nor with the dancer. Thus, it should be noted that none of these artists were familiar with the aesthetic practices of their colleagues. As I learned during this session, even though the instructions for each etude are brief, they absolutely require face-to-face rapport with the ensemble. We played through most of the etudes twice, discussing in detail how each type of interpretation and reaction could manifest, what works and what doesn’t, and how to make a more compelling situation. Of the many runs we had, I’ve selected 5 to show here. Over the next few entries, I will present these etudes and briefly analyse their implementations, as well as present pitfalls, areas of improvement, and future investigation.

1. Nucleus and extremities

The premise of this etude is that the ensemble begins with a “baseline behavior”, or in other words, a theme. Each member of the ensemble is responsible for their own contribution to this behavior, and at the same time making it collectively cohesive. Once this is created, each performer is asked to independently and periodically stray away from this behavior, to pivot or transition into an episode (new material contrasting from the baseline behavior). Once the performers accomplishes this drift, they are to re-incorporate themselves into the baseline behavior. Of course, in the time that the performer spent with the new material, this baseline behavior will have shifted away from its original identity, and the performer will find themselves adjusting to a slightly-changed performance environment. You never step into the same river twice.

As you can see, the bandoneonist starts with fast flourishes and long notes in the mid-high register, the violinist plays slow small-interval glissandi on the G string, the saxophonist plays fast repeated descending runs, and the dancer slowly paces in a small circle. This is the baseline behavior that they performers spontaneously created. As the performers leave and return to this behavior, we hear scattered episodes, micro-variations, and fleeting memories of previous material. The behavior is being continuously developed and reshaped by the impact that each drift has on the actions of the group.

At 0:11, the first episode is taken by the dancer, lowering her vertical frame and dipping towards the floor, provoking the saxophonist to drop into her own low register. The initial behavior is held by the bandoneonist and violinist, and the global material is relatively unchanged, except that the dancer’s circular path is more downward, perhaps residue of her first episode.

Around 0:29, the entire group erupts spontaneously into an episode, and by the time the baseline behavior is rediscovered (0:39), it’s in an entirely new state, a twisted memory of what came before. Versions of the developed baseline behavior appear again at 0:49.

I think this etude works for a few of reasons. The obvious one being that it has the perception of a twisted adaptation of a classic theme-and-variations form. We have a theme and episodes. The emergence of the episodes are spontaneous (of course, the performers unconsciously react to each other), and they contribute to the continuous reconfiguration of the theme. Thus, the audience member can easily trace a line linking various moments in the performance, while constantly being distracted by unexpected twists and turns of familiar material.

2. Push/Pull v2

The instructions for this etude are simple, though frustratingly ambiguous: groups push and pull on each other, and react to the forces being exerted upon them. The groups, in this case, are the musicians and the dancer. Though each performer interprets and executes the instructions independently, the musicians are not meant to react explicitly to each other, only to the dancer.

A “push” or “pull” in this case isn’t exclusively linked to a gesture’s aggressive or passive characteristics, but more the intent behind it. What makes a gesture provocative? How is a push different from a pull? Does one repel and the other attract? Is one luring and the other repulsive? And how does one react to these forces?

An analysis of etude this elusive simply because there’s no clear event marking a pull or a push. Unlike “Nucleus and extremities”, where the improvisation grows out of a baseline behavior, there is no attempt in “Push/Pull v2” to preserve the unity of material. This being said, this etude functions mainly as a psychological kernel for the performers, not to sculpt the material itself.

The opening behavior of the musicians stays relatively constant, while the dancer’s material is a bit more exploratory. This could be interpreted as the musicians adopting a more passive (pulling?) behavior, giving freedom to the dancer to take the foreground (push?). At 0:26, the music changes as the saxophonist holds a note, which the bandoneonist then mimics. The violinist changes his playing from col legno battuto jeté articulations (playing with the wooden side of the bow, throwing it against the string, and letting it bounce) to col legno tratto (bowing normally using the wooden side of the bow). The dancer during this time approaches a vertical pike position, moving at a much slower pace than before. As the dancer picks up momentum, the musical texture becomes more saturated. The saxophonist dips into the lower buzzy register, the bandoneon holds dissonant clusters, and the violinist plays sustained scratch tones (using high amounts of bow pressure to achieve a distorted sound quality). This behavior changes around 1:07 when the saxophonist transitions to into a higher register, the violinist holds a mid-register scratch tone, and the dancer’s movement slow down, focusing only on her right hand.

When evaluating the success of this etude, there are a few different approaches. First, does it work as a performance? Also, are the performers honoring their instructions, and does the performance reflect those instructions? To address the first question (which I will explain further in detail in a later entry), I think this etude works, but not without its flaws. Personally, I could endlessly tweak notes, rhythms, movements, and timing. I could write it all down, and give it to the ensemble to memorize and perform. This would take me weeks, and it would take them weeks to learn/memorize. Yet, in the performance here, there is a sense of cohesiveness and spontaneity within the ensemble that I would not want to sacrifice (which I think would be the case if the musicians were preoccupied counting complex rhythmic patterns). If I had more time to work with these musicians, we could “save” an improvisation and sculpt it. Perhaps keep the loose 3-part form, begin to explicitly shape the harmonic trajectory, fine tune the choreography a bit…

For the second and third question, I can only guess the intentions of the performers. Some of the etudes we tried were simply too demanding psychologically or confusing to be executed in real time (will expand on this in a later entry). I can never be too sure how a vague instruction will be interpreted through an artistic action (hence, the need to do this research). I can only rely on what performers tell me.

Regarding whether or not the performance reflects these instructions, I’m a bit undecided. “Nucleus and extremities” is set up in a way that intends a loose structure, while “Push/Pull” is not. I’m not interested in these etudes being completely demonstrative or didactic. It’s important to me that the audience perceives relationships between the movement and sound, though without being spoon-fed. But rather than “doing math” during the performance, or actively trying to reverse-engineer the etude, I would simply want an audience simply to take in the experience as captivating. The idea of encoding a concept into a music/dance performance and having the audience accurately decode it seems a bit boring. Rather, I believe it’s more interesting to use these ambiguous instructions as catalysts for discovery – to arrive at something collaboratively through varied interpretations of a prompt. If the performers are engaged collectively, I’m confident that patterns will emerge (a great word for this is apophenia). These patterns may not necessarily be the instructions specified in the score, but perhaps it’s more interesting if the viewer finds their own interpretation of the performance.

Special thanks to Alice Boivin, dance; Tristan Macé, bandoneon; Morgane Carnet, baritone saxophone; and Adrian Delmer, violin. Also, thanks to Ircam for providing the studio space.

In the next entry, I will present and analyze two more etudes.

In the third and final entry (of this short series) I’ll try to explain what it all means, future motivations and artistic goals, and to proceed from here.


on choreomusicology and performative attention

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how musicians and dancers share performance spaces, and the environment that they create together. This obsession lead me to stumbled upon a new word during a google binge: choreomusicology. Researchers Stephanie Jordan, Inger Damsholt, and Paul Mason define choreomusicology as the study of the relationship between music and dance within any performance genre, and they offer a much-needed critical evaluation of an otherwise elusive relationship. Several papers have been published on this topic (find them here), so I’ll try to summarize their research without going too much into detail. Afterwards, I’ll present my own opinions and propose further directions of research.


In Mason’s 2011 paper, “Music, dance and the total art work: choreomusicology in theory and practice”, he briefly discusses the history of choreomusicological as both a subject of research and and as a practice. Centering on mostly Euro-centric performance practices, he reviews the research of dance anthropologists, art historians, evolutionary theorists, and music and theatre critics. He also includes an overview of the Gesamtkunstwerk movement (starting with Kandinsky, Lopukhov, Balanchine/Stravinsky), and twentieth century performance practices (Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Louis Horst, and Henry Cowell).

Mason summarizes twentieth century theoretical formalization in choreomusicology through the work of McCombe (1994), Smith (1981), and Hodgins (1992). Smith proposes four non-exclusive types of dance/music interactions along continuum. I’ve copied these categories below:smith-chart copy.jpgIn Hodgin’s book Relationships between score and choreography in twentieth century dance, he categorizes choreographic relationships into two labels: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic relationships emerge from structures and elements embedded in the music and movement (rhythm, loudness, texture, phrase, mimetic movement), while extrinsic ones arise from contextual cues and cultural associations (archetypal, emotional, narrativic).hodgins-chart copy.jpgThough choreomusicological research offers numerous proposals to formalize music/dance relationships, it currently ignores the question of embodied musical performance, that is, not only questioning the relationship between the performance material, but also the psychological aspects of the performers themselves given the inherent differences in their respective art forms. When speaking about the integration of music and dance, it is necessary to address the differences of media: live music (played by musicians) occupies both sonic and visual media, whereas dance only occupies the visual medium. In other words, traditional Western classical music performance practice has not addressed an important fundamental aspect of dance: the notion of performers as physical bodies.

Until recently, classical musician’s appearances were highly regulated in effort not to distract from the sonic medium. Put on formalwear, enter the stage, take a bow, put your music on the stand, play, finish, accept the applause, bow again, and exit the stage. Usually, this is still standard practice. In more contemporary situations, some performers have diversified their wardrobes, stylized their stage movements, and have been performing pieces requiring non-strictly-musical movement. However, by and large, the musicians are still interacting with sheet music in a non-stylized way. Therefore, their communication with the audience is always mediated through their reaction with sheet music. Even the language employed in literature supports this mediation. Hodgin titled his book Relationships between score and choreography in twentieth century dance, and not …between sound and choreography…. The word ‘score’ implies representation and abstraction. During performance, the audience sees a performer interact with a representation of the performance, and the score is the mediator between the performer, the material, and the audience.

On the other hand, dancers, for the most part, do not read during a performance. They might study and memorize notated choreography or video documentation, but during the performance, there is nothing physically separating them from the audience, and the material appears to be embodied. Therefore, there is visually no mediation between the dancer, the material, and the audience. The dancer becomes the material.

Originally, I was going to label this a “difference in cerebral performance state”. Thankfully, long-time friend/colleague suggested the term “performative attention”, which sounds infinitely less terrible. Thus, I propose that score-reading musicians display mediated performative attention while dancers display unmediated performative attention. That is, the musician’s musical focus appears to be mediated through the score, while a dancer’s focus on the choreography seems totally embodied.

When composers and choreographers produce interdisciplinary performances that incorporate dancers and musicians, they must acknowledge that the juxtaposition of dancers and musicians makes the differences in their respective performative attention evident. Of course, one’s approach to this question depends on the nature of the performance itself. If the musicians are hidden from public view (such as a pit orchestra), this is non-issue. However, if the performers share a stage, this problem becomes intertwined with the intended style of integration of the music and dance.

For instance, if the performers share the stage and are visible to the public, a ‘rest’ in music is not the same as a ‘pause’ in dance. A rest lets the musician exit the audible medium, though they are still present in the visual medium (unless, of course, they leave the stage). Most musicians do not stylize their rests. They might exhale in relief after finishing a difficult passage, rest their arms, readjust their instrument, etc. These actions briefly break the consistency of focus in the visual medium. That is to say, it breaks the fourth wall, and the audience becomes aware of the shift of performative attention.

On the other hand, when a dancer pauses on stage, or approaches a pose of relative relaxation, they do not exit their medium. Their bodies are still present in the performance space, and their pauses are stylized. It is virtually impossible for a dancer to exit their medium on stage without performative attention, that is, unless this shift of attention is choreographed into the piece.

This being said, the manner of addressing performative attention changes depending on the intended relationship between the music and the dance, and how the collaborators intend to direct the focus of the performers. If the dance simply accompanies prewritten music, and the music does not address the musician’s bodies as performative entities, then I propose that no change is needed. However, if the collaborators intend to create an interactive feedback loop between the musician(s) and dancer(s) (as is desired in my own work), and a they want the performers to exist in a non-hierarchical system (one medium doesn’t exist to solely serve the other, or vice versa), then the performers must have equivalent or stylized performative attention. My preference is that they share unmediated performative attention. Any communicative abstraction of the performance (that being the score and/or written choreography) should totally embodied/memorized, there should be no sheet music on the stage (unless used as a prop). There should be no apparent mediation between the performers and each other, nor between the performers and the audience. Thus, neither performer is allowed to escape their medium in an unstylized way. I personally believe that this creates the most cohesive and visceral performance space.

Creating this environment poses many challenges which I have addressed in earlier entries. How does one create visual representations of dynamic interdisciplinary interactions within a complex form that can be memorized? How does this change the nature of the audible and visual material? How does this change the process of composition and rehearsal? Is this at all feasible?

The closest I’ve come to this ideal was realizing my recent project ironic erratic erotic, which I’ve written about in detail here and here. To summarize, my goal with this project was to create an environment where the performers share unmediated performative attention within a sequence of dynamic interdisciplinary interactions. They are engaged with the other performers, and not a score.

To be frank, I’m not sure if this ideal performance practice is possible. It requires research into new solutions in flexible music and dance notation, an intense collaborative practice, and finding a balance of material that is structured, flexible, complex, simple, and ultimately compelling.

reflections, or, narcissistic procrastination

I sometimes evaluate my own work as an artifact of my past self. Composers sometimes joke that listening to old recordings of earlier pieces conjure up feelings similar to when we read adolescent diary entries. These artifacts are a marker of what we cared about, our environments, the problems we were confronting, the people we were working with, and what we wanted to say. At pivotal moments in my life, I usually pause to reflect on these markers, how my ideas about music and performance have changed, what I’ve learned while working through these projects, and how to move forward.

On the eve of my PhD qualifying exams (yes, they’re tomorrow), I can’t help but explore ways to contextualize my past and present work with regards to the many trajectories of 20th and 21st century musical performance.

Three years ago, I left Montreal to begin my doctoral studies at UC Berkeley. The last piece I wrote before I left was the Bath Clown Duo for Jeff Stonehouse and Gabrielle Gingras; two friends from Ensemble Paramirabo.

Looking back on it, one can hear (putting aside questionable recording/mixing techniques) piano writing suggestive of Beat Furrer, gradually-unfolding repetitive structures of Philippe Leroux, and percussive flute playing reminiscent of beat-boxing; everything well within the confines of your traditional concert experience.

The work that followed this was (counter)Projections, my first venture into multidisciplinary performance – particularly, working with a musician, a dancer, and composed visual elements: a silhouette screen, live video projection, blocking, and light cues.

I’ve written extensively about this project in a previous entry. Being my first work that included a dancer, the sound-movement relationships here are very clear, perhaps to the point of redundancy. The work’s didactic opening establishes this interaction, opening up the possibility for sophisticated elaboration and subversion.

Recently, while discussing the piece with a close friend, I became aware of its structural strength. The combined use of staging, silhouetted performers, didactic structural signposts, and clear points of recapitulation (in both audio and visual domains) yield a discernible trajectory of the sound-movement narrative.

In a lesson with one of my teachers, they encouraged me to “obfuscate the relationship between the sound and the movement so much that the perceiver can no longer find it. Instead, they perceive a performance” (I’m paraphrasing). This piece of advice harks back to one of the tenants of modernism: avoid any clear elements that allow a perceiver to firmly anchor their frame of reference – any pattern that carries on a bit too long has the potential to become boring. Though I deeply admire this composer’s music and their capacities as a teacher and mentor, this advice comes with a grain of salt. I did want to break away from obvious movement-sound relationships, though I still wanted to create a loose but present thread to guide an audience through the performance. I guess it really depends on the nature of the audience, and what “perceiving a performance” means. Grisey knew that constant unpredictability becomes predictable, and the works of both Reich and Boulez are “perceived as performances”. I guess I’m still scratching my head on this one.

Berlin, three years later…

In ironic erratic erotic, the support/subvert dichotomy was present in the methodology used to create the materials (described here), but they are obscured in the actual performance. Thus, this piece could come across as lacking the strong narrative arch found in (c)P. We don’t have as clear of a sense of what the piece is ‘about’, but rather the audience is left to solve this puzzle themselves, to find their own meaning in the complex interactions between the performers. The structure of the piece still makes use of traditional elements (repetition/recapitulation of cycles), but the moment-to-moment action hosts a more complex sense of spontaneity and mystery.

Perhaps a middle ground is needed – relationships that are simple enough to subvert in a creative, clever, and meaningful way, though complex enough to sustain a sense of intrigue – dramaturgy that compels and propels without pandering – didacticism without annoyance. If a work is meant to be completely self-referential (which is impossible…), it must have some degree of self-didacticism. If we’re lucky enough to draw an open-minded audience, we should at least give the audience an initial frame of listening. I’ll admit the silly titles of my pieces fail to do this (I guess I’m trying to avoid didactic titles), though I’m less afraid to overtly work this in to the fabric of the music itself.

Contextualizing this work into the rhetoric(s) of 20th/21st century music requires a bit of compartmentalization. With regards to its technical aspects and its problematization of sound and physical gesture through acoustic/live-electronic mediums (i.e. motion-sensors), one could draw links to the work of Laetita Sunomi and Thierry de Mey. If I look at the process in which the piece was created, one could see values present in the work of John Zorn. If I look at the acoustic and electronic sonic materials themselves, the balances between noise- and pitch-based sounds, there are influences of musique concrète instrumentale, Pierre Schaeffer, and the glitch/granulation textures common to users of Max/MSP. If you look at the relationships between the performers and their stage presence/sense of focus, one senses the performers-as-fallible-bodies notion of the “New Discipline”, etc, etc…

Clearly, this work doesn’t align itself cleanly into any one specific –ism, nor should it; the choices inform the genre, not the other way around. Though I wish performances of my work were more proliferated (don’t we all?), and I understand that the forces required to produce these performances are not exactly portable nor easily marketable. Of course, this leads into a long (and depressing) discussion of this music’s place in the economy and the academy, but I won’t get into that now. At this moment, I’m able to see a few loose ends that my work exposes, and different directions it can take, and suggestions for future experiments. And this brings me a little comfort.

ironic erratic erotic: work in progress

In this entry, I’m going to dive further into my process for composing ironic erratic erotic. This project is in collaboration with 3 Berlin-based performers: dancer Yuri Shimaoka, bassist Adam Goodwin, and tubist Jack Adler-McKean. In an earlier entry, I wrote a bit about this project, what I’m trying to accomplish, and my methods for doing it. As you might remember, I sent 20 audio samples of myself improvising on viola to Yuri. She sent 20 video samples of herself interpreting these samples to Jack and Adam, who then recorded themselves improvising to her movements. They recorded two takes for every one of Yuri’s clips: the first amplified her body, and the second subverted it. These verbs (amplify, subvert) were meant to be interpreted loosely. My aim in using these verbs was to create an atmosphere of provocative behavior in which the musicians can create their own dynamic textures.

Let’s walk through this with an example:

Here’s viola sample #11:

It’s basically longish sustained soft notes in the high register. There’s not really a pulse, and the rhythm is irregular. Short notes are scattered among with longer ones, and my left hand is constantly sliding slowly up and down the fingerboard.

This was Yuri’s response (mute the audio before listening):

It’s a simple behavior that focuses on the right side of her body. Her right arm mainly stays extended out sideways at around 90 degrees, and her left hand move along the right arm. The timing of her small-scale and larger-scale gestures seems similar to my treatment of long and short notes, and I think the attitude of her movement mimics the non-aggressive character of my improvisation.

Here is Jack and Adam’s first interpretation. Keep in mind, they never heard my initial improvisation:

Here’s their description of the music: sustained chord, if closer to body = closer to unison, if away from body = larger range. They chose to modulate the interval of the chord depending on Yuri’s right hand movement. The irregular legato character of my initial improvisation seemed to transfer through Yuri’s movement to the musicians’ playing.

Here’s the second:

Their description for this was: same sustained chords with extremely large intervals. I think that rather than subverting the character of Yuri’s movement (i.e. play something more pointillistic or detached), they chose to place the previous sound in the extreme registers of their instruments. Adam pushes the bow through his lowest string on the bass while Jack takes the tuba into its highest range. Yuri’s movements convey a sense of closeness. One arm follows the length of the other, and they are almost always together. The musicians subvert this closeness through the use of these extreme registers the music communicates an incredible daunting spaciousness.

This was one in 20 groupings of video and audio samples that will make up part of this work, and they cover a wide range of audible and spatial behaviors and interactions. The trick was then discovering the relationships between them and exploring them in ways that create a convincing architecture for the work’s structure. I’ve copied a draft of the score below:

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The boxed numbers indicate approximate duration in seconds. The dancer’s behaviors are referenced under the durations, followed by the musicians’ behaviors, then the motion-sensitive live electronics (haven’t started those yet…), and finally the pre-made soundfiles (haven’t started on those yet either…). Again — it’s a work in progress. It was important to make the musicians’ parts first so they have as much time with the score as possible. The beauty (and curse) with electronics is that you can continue to edit them up until showtime. Hopefully though, it doesn’t come to this…

The first system establishes a loop where the dancer repeats behaviors 5, 11, and 16. The musicians perform the same loop, but offset by one time-duration. Thus, the combinations are [5-16], [11-5], [16-11]. The goal in these loops is to communicate to the audience how the performance should be framed and experienced. Yuri’s movements have analog relationships to the upcoming music, yet the sound that will accompany her in the present moment doesn’t quite seem to fit until we reach the end of the first system when both dancer and musicians play behavior 7. While Yuri’s analog relationship with the music is projected into the future, her digital relationship to the sound (through the use of motion sensors) affects the present.

The second system revisits the previous loop, but entrances are scattered. Then we encounter a short loop with behaviors 12 and 7, and then a long interpolation. Here, the performers start at behavior 12 and interpolate to behavior 14 in 30 seconds. The dancer continues doing 14 as the musicians pause. Then, the musicians come in playing behavior 20 (while the dancer is still on 14), and the they slowly interpolate to behavior 5. Divergent behavior interpolates to convergent behavior.

The third system introduces the improvisation game that Jack and I developed last summer in Darmstadt. I went over in an earlier entry, but I’ll repost it here for reference:

In the written score, I’ve based these improvisations off the original material created by the performers. The movement/sound concepts will be based on different movements or musical ideas found in this material, and they will be worked out during our rehearsal sessions in Berlin. The goal for this system is to have a more fluid structure than the first 2 systems, which I view as being a bit rigid. I left the duration for these sections unknown because I have no idea what exactly the performers will do here, nor what kind of momentum they will bring to the situation. Thus, I will rely on them as to know when to move on.

The last system is a traditional recapitulation of the first, though with a few small changes. Basically, the form is A, A’, B, A”.

See? Totally traditional! And under my word limit!


define//defile: working methods of dancers and musicians

In this entry, I’m going to go over DEFINE//DEFILE, a recent project of mine that will be premiered by the Mivos Quartet and dancer SanSan Kwan this Friday night in San Francisco. Click here for details. I’m also going to go more in depth comparing how artists in different disciplines work, and what these comparisons mean for interdisciplinary collaborations.

For the past 2 or 3 years, I’ve been collaborating on projects that interface dancers and musicians. In the process of forging these collaborations, I’ve been exposed to different working/rehearsal styles native to each respective discipline. Typically, these differences can be traced back to performance practices, audience expectations, and the way we experience time and space (vague, I know…).

P.S. I’d like to thank dancer and choreographer Christine Bonansea for inviting me to observe rehearsals for her show Asteria, which was presented in Berlin last summer. It was fascinating for me as a composer to learn how dancers rehearse. If you aren’t familiar with her work, it’s badass and you should definitely check it out.

Anyways, let’s start with the obvious differences:

  1. Many dancers don’t read Western musical notation, and I’ve never seen dancers perform while referencing a visual representation of the choreography. Usually composers use paper (or electronic) documents to communicate with musicians, and the musicians often read the music while performing. If a piece hasn’t been played yet by musicians, or if mockup recordings don’t exist, the composer and dancer must use some other medium of communication.
  2. Dancers usually rehearse for many weeks before a performance, and choreography needs to be demonstrated/shown, not read. Therefore, if many dancers are involved and the choreography is complex, this takes more time. When dancers perform, their shows usually run 3 or 4 iterations in the same venue. Musicians might put in 3 long rehearsals the week of the show (even if it’s a world premiere!), therefore relying on each individual musician thoroughly preparing themselves prior to meeting. With written chamber music, this usually works (dependent on the effectiveness of the score). In situations involving more complex paradigms of interaction, this rehearsal structure may be less effective.
  3. Musicians are more sensitive to WHEN something happens, and this aided through the placement of the notated score on the music stand. Musicians rehearsing written music will reference moments in the score, and improvising musicians will reference audible features that occurred at a given moment (i.e. “that moment after the piano arpeggios when the violin plays tremolo sul pont in the high register”). Dancers, on the other hand, are more likely to remember WHERE it happens. They usually refer to moments through spatially-oriented features (i.e. “that moment where our hands are above our heads and we’re standing stage-left”).
  4. Not all musicians play all the time during a performance. Someone may sit quietly in their chair waiting for a cue to come in, yet we still acknowledge their idle presence in the performance space. This is more complicated with dancers because all on-stage/off-stage movements are choreographed, and dancers cannot simply idle like musicians. If they are visible to the audience, they attract attention, and their movements must be stylized.

These differences manifest themselves during the composition and rehearsal process:

As a classically-trained composer, I learned how to create detailed scores to be read by musicians during a performance. When I started working with dancers, I struggled to learn how to create a graphic representations of the piece that could be easily committed to memory. I realized that I needed to represent the music in a way that is readable by dancers. Usually, this meant creating a highly-condensed graphic-score specifically for the dancer’s perusal. They are able to carry the score folded up in their pocket during rehearsal, and can quickly pull it out during pauses. This graphic score needed to present approximations of the general activity of the music with a few words referencing the dancer’s movements. Usually, the words/symbols used in this document make reference to the dancer’s personal highly-detailed notes.

During the rehearsal process, musicians reading music usually won’t be visually sensitive to spatially-oriented events (unless directed otherwise), and dancers typically don’t hear subtle audible cues the same way musicians do (there are, of course, exceptions). Thus, interfacing performers of these two disciplines in interactive/improvisatory environments is sure to involve tricky rehearsal situations…

This past November, I wrote a piece scored for string quartet and dancer to be performed by the Mivos Quartet and SanSan Kwan. In the work, I wanted to engage themes of  influence and control by playing with the modes of interaction between the musicians and the dancer. My compositional process was simple:

  1. Record myself improvise on viola while keeping in mind how I wanted the sound to relate to the movement, and vice versa. Being a violist writing for string quartet, I can easily (electronically) modify my improvisations to fit all the instruments. Though my technical prowess on the instrument isn’t great, my shoddy playing served as a personal reference to what I knew a professional musician could do.
  2. Edit the improvisations to my liking to create a mockup recording. This was sent to the performers.
  3. Transcribe the recording to create a score.

As is the case with most ensembles on the university circuit, the Mivos Quartet will spend a few days in Berkeley and learn 5 new pieces, giving each piece 90 minutes of rehearsal time. My piece is scheduled to be rehearsed the day before the concert (yikes). Granted, they are professionals of the highest order, but the sheer magnitude of this labor scares me a bit. Due to the time constraints of this collaboration, I limited the amount of improvisation in the piece. If I wanted a moment of seemingly improvised coordination between the dancer and musicians, it’d have to be predetermined, and I’d have to specify it in the score. I submitted my finished score and sent it to them a few months ago.

Lucky, SanSan is local. I proposed the project to her back while we were still working on the choreography for Naked to the Sky. It would have been impossible for us to create the choreography in a single 90-minute rehearsal with the musicians. She would have to have it memorized before the first (only) rehearsal. We met several times during the past several months to develop the choreography, and we created a graphic score for her personal use: definedefile-dancescore.jpg

This is about ten minutes of highly-notated music approximated on a single page. The large letters will be used to reference passages in the score during the rehearsal, and the durations are approximations of each section’s length. The graphics used in this score were chosen intuitively, and they communicate the music’s general character/effort, articulation, and register. They don’t succeed at conveying specific pitch relationships, but I didn’t believe these features were salient enough for the dancer to readily perceive.


Let’s just hope it all works…


It’s gonna work!





music amplifies and subverts the body

In the summer of 2016, I attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses where I met Berlin-based English tubist Jack Adler-Mckean. We quickly became friends and I learned about Jack’s unique situation: he was the only tuba player at Darmstadt. In case you’re not familiar with the general make up of this event, it consists of hundreds of composers and performers of new/experimental/contemporary music (whatever we’re calling it now…) who arrive in a small German down about 20km south of Frankfurt for two intensive weeks of concerts, masterclasses, bier, discussions, lessons, lectures, und mehr bier. Out of the hundreds of instrumentalists, Jack was the only tubist. Not only this, he was an avid improviser, champion of collaborating with composers, a specialist in microtonality, and regularly performed standing with his instrument strapped to his torso. He explained to me the stark lack of contemporary music for tuba. If you’ve never heard a microtonal tubist shred, please take a moment to listen:

As we became friends, I told Jack about my current project with Thin Edge, my then-annoyance with complex notation, and my desire to work with dancers and improvisers. His solution? Let’s do some work together. We soon found an empty class room near the Lichtenbergschule and things got weird.

We decided to do an experiment similar to the one I did with Thin Edge (which had taken place only weeks before), though with a few important modifications:

  1. The dancer (being myself at that moment…) would pick 3 movement concepts. These could be body-centric (movement that focuses on various body parts, i.e. the elbow or the shoulder), or more abstract (handling imaginary objects of different sizes, using gestalt gestures, different types of attitudes)
  2. The musician (Jack) would pick 3 sonic concepts. These could be simple (pitch/rhythmic/motivic ideas), technical (modes of playing/interacting with the instrument), or conceptual (different types of attitudes).
  3. Optional: these choices are kept secret by the performers.
  4. During the session, the musician maps their three concepts to the dancer’s three concepts. The players learn these concepts in real time. The mappings are made as follows:
    1. Musician concepts 1 and 2 mimic/amplifies dancer concepts 1 and 2.
    2. Musician concept 3 contrasts/subverts dancer concept 3.

Here’s one of our sessions:

The rules are meant to be bit vague/flexible. The point in this experiment was to create a fluctuating feedback loop between the musician and the dancer. The dancer’s behaviors become an abstract score, and the musician’s response naturally becomes material to which the dancer may react.  Both performers learn during the improvisation how they affect the other. The concepts are there just to serve as communicative signals. Thus, the performers become each other’s scores through a multi-modal translation. Movement is translated into sound and back again in real time.

While exciting, this experiment also turned out to be quite difficult. Dancers and musicians treat time and development differently in their respective disciplines (more on this later). As a musician pretending to be a dancer in this situation, I intuitively phrased my movements in more of a musical manner, less in a physical one. Additionally, the task of juggling 3 concepts, learning 3 concepts, and preserving the mappings while improvising is challenging. I can’t speak from a dancer’s point of view, but as an improvising musician, playing your instrument and keeping a sense of musical continuity is hard enough without actively interpreting a constantly changing body. During a session, current material often naturally suggests the following material, but those tendencies must be acknowledged and checked. The dancer might suggest changes that the musician is not ready for, or unable to make (both disciplines have their physical limitations).

I chose to encourage Jack to mimic and subvert my movement to problematize the movement-to-sound mapping. I didn’t want the piece to be simply an exercise in sound-painting or abstract conducting. Once a 1-to-1 mapping is “learned” by an audience, the performance becomes a banal act of “Mickey-Mousing” (sorry for the Disney reference) – like hearing a downward scale as a cartoon character tumbles down the stairs.

By creating the possibility for subversion, the relationship between the musician and the dancer flirts with hostility and betrayal, creating the opportunity for tension and resolution.

Anyways, Jack and I discussed collaborating on a performance for tuba, contrabass, dancer, and motion-sensitive live electronics. I wanted to further investigate the ideas I was working on with Thin Edge, but in a wilder, more experimental setting. Thus, the concept for ironic erratic erotic was born. The piece will feature instruments that have the lowest register in their respective families, but I feel that this also sets up a musical expectation that can be creatively subverted by creative improvisers. The instruments are large and physically imposing on the players, which contrasts well with an instrument-less dancer. More so, the possibility of the dancer gaining sonic dominance over the musicians through the use of the motion sensors problematizes the power dynamics of the performance situation.

I should probably address a fundamental question at this moment: why write for improvisers?

As I said in an earlier entry, I felt like my written compositions could not approach the level of dynamic reflexivity, spontaneity, or inter-personal focus that I found manifested in free improvisation. Additionally, my ego was slowly becoming more comfortable with my music not being performed exactly as written (which is to be expected in any situation regardless…). I wanted my imagination to be the foundation of a musician’s performance, not the ceiling. Thus, I began to imagine the compositional process not as crafting precisely-written instrumental lines, but creating situations in which performers are free to explore provocative behaviors and relationships in different ways. I would rather work with a performer to create compelling material that originate from the performer themselves, making the material prime for quick embodiment/memorization and development without the use of complex notation.

Making this piece will be an exercise in creating responsive and flexible performance situations while working remotely with improvisers. While composing ironic erratic erotic, I will not write down a single note. Here are our methods:

  1. I record 20 short (ca. 30 seconds) viola improvisations that I send to Yuri Shimaoka (the dancer).
  2. Yuri films herself embodying these improvisations, focusing on creating a clear behavior from each one. She will identify an attitude in my playing and translate it onto her body. These clips are sent to Jack and Adam Goodwin (the contrabassist).
  3. Jack and Adam mute the audio from Yuri’s clips, and together translate her movements back into music in two sessions of improvisation. The first amplifies her movements and reinforces her behavior, the second contrasts it. These audio clips are sent back to me.
  4. I take all the clips (about 20 groups of visual and audio recordings), analyze them, and order them, being sensitive to the time-scale that each suggests, the sense of continuity or contrast between them, mixing and matching clips from the same group, staggering transitions, etc…

Additionally, sections of the piece will implement of the game that Jack and I developed at Darmstadt, though of course with two musicians and a dancer. The concepts that will be used in the piece will be planned ahead of time, hopefully eliminating elements of insecurity in the performers and helping the flow of the piece.

By working in this way, we are free to explore complex material and compelling interactions without the burden of complex notation. Since all the material originates from the performers’ bodies, all that is needed for notation is a symbol to reference a particular behavior (documented in online video and audio files) and a system of simple graphics to communicate cuts/transitions/interpolations/durations between different behaviors. We should be able to fit the entire 15-20 minute-piece on one piece of paper, eliminating the need for long rows of music stands, huge cardboard scores that hide the performers, page turns, and footpedaling. This stage setup allows the performers freedom to engage/interact with each other, hopefully creating a more vibrant and visceral concert environment.

I’m already over my self-imposed word limit. So much for restraint.

a little background – part 3

Until last October, I hadn’t played viola solo in public for about 8 or 10 years. I had performed with orchestras and string quartets, but never alone. I had always thought of myself as a terrible player. I did not have the patience to practice, but I still enjoyed playing, if only for myself in private.

While I was living in Montreal, I would go to hear improvised music at Cagibi, la Plante, Sala Rosa, Wilder & Davis, and other venues. These musicians almost never read music. Their eyes were either closed or fixated into the ether. There was sense of intense focus and sensitivity. Their performances were explosive, contemplative, and thrilling. The goal wasn’t playing correctly; it was making situations of provocative behavior. Literally people interacting through their instruments, creating conversations that transcended the norms of typical social behavior. They were creating something that I felt I could never write down.

^^ Lori Freedman, one of my favorite improvisers

I mean, I love written music. I still rock out to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip, Sørensen’s Angel’s Music, music that would not exist without precise systems of music notation. But I felt at that time that my notation practices were lacking.

So I started recording my own improvisations and transcribing them on a 5-line staff. This was brutal. Most of my improvisations feature rapid changes in bow pressure, bow position, finger pressure, irregular rhythms, and things that they don’t teach you in conservatory. A 5-line staff was inadequate. I tried tablature notation. It looked something like this:

Now I have mad respect for Timothy McCormack, but I didn’t want my music to look like this. I wouldn’t want a performer to rehearse several hours to create something that took me a few takes to play. I didn’t want to establish “one correct way” of performing something if what I’m after was created with spontaneity.  I don’t like causing other people headaches. Granted, I’m not a seasoned performer, and there are certainly players out there who eat notation like this for breakfast. But to me, it seems masochistic.

In addition to my phobia in creating overly complex scores, I was also fed up with the rate at which composers learn. Typically, composers may spend several months on a piece. The project might be proposed in August, you finish the piece in January, make the parts and send them off in late January, have a couple of rehearsals in April, and a concert in May. Thus, this model gives us approximately a 9-month period between a work’s impetus and the performance. In my experience, I’m not convinced a piece works until several months after the premiere when I can clear my head and listen to the recording. It might take a year to figure out if a particular musical device works or not, and in which context it functions best. Sure, you can imagine an orchestra’s sound to the best of your abilities, but hearing the musical flesh is a totally different experience. The point is, I wanted to learn faster.

Young composers often sound very different from year to year, so when you hear a premiere, chances are that the music was written about a year ago, and the composer is already working with more matured ideas. Listening to my old pieces is like cringing while reading old diary entries…

When I moved to Berkeley in 2014 to start my PhD, I was immersed in a totally different socio-economic situation. The rent here is high, thus putting a strain on the local artistic communities. Thus, there was, in my opinion, a huge shortage of peer ensembles playing challenging notated music (see Tim’s score). Thus, I was drawn to the free improvisation scene and started performing at monthly sessions in Temescal led by Jacob Felix Heule. In these events, participants wrote down their names on slips of paper that were placed in a hat. Jacob pulled out three names. If your name was called, you went up to play with the other two folks who were called. 7 minutes on the clock. Go.

They played with the complexity and intensity of a Ferneyhough score without the neuroticism involved with looking at the score during performance. The focus was still there, but it was directed towards the sound, the instrument, and the situation, not the score. I grew comfortable performing in public, and I was hooked.


I gave up writing down my improvisations, and started I performing them. In order to mask the insecurities I had in my playing technique (but also due to inspiration from improvising saxophonist Frank Gratkowski), I thickened up my sound by strapping a motion sensor to my bow arm and hooked it up to a maxpatch similar to the one I used in Naked to the Sky.

I started performing with other musicians. This clip features composer/pianist and fellow UC Berkeley colleague James Stone, also wearing a motion sensor. His motions process my sound and mine process his.

And I started performing with dancers. This clip features James along with Shoshana Green, a butoh dancer. Shoshana has the motion sensors and is controlling the musicians’ sound, and the entire performance is improvised.

There was no concrete method to how we (the musicians) interpreted Shoshana’s movements, or how she responded to ours. We just jammed, talked about what felt good or awkward, talked about what we could do better, and jammed again.

Tangent: in 2015, I met Beat Furrer at Impuls in Graz, and I was speaking with him about his approaches to music composition through the years. He told me that he used to improvise at the piano until stopping around the age of 25. Coincidentally, I started improvising (in public) around the age of 26 — just a strange bit of information that I just remembered.

This brings me up to the present. In the next entry, I’ll discuss my next project, ironic erratic erotic. And you’ll see another video of me dancing with a tuba player. Hopefully it’s not the most awkward thing you’ve ever seen, but to be honest, it might be.