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Calm the fugue down because less is more

The impact of minimalism in music on contemporary choreography

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Published: 31 May 2019


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The impact of minimalism in music on contemporary choreography

Less is more, but we'll say this again, less is so much more. The legacy of the minimalist movement is almost organic, manifesting in the mainstream—Kondo-lences to all that does not spark joy—as a "lifestyle", and galvanising creators across industries over decades.

A controversial term since its edgy origins, minimalism began as an art movement in the ’60s as a response to abstract expressionism. The focus of minimalism is not self-expression but "objectivity", with emphasis on stripping the subject of all but the essential. Thus, writers spurn adverbs, architects open dialogues with their surroundings, musicians make silence part of music and choreographers deconstruct adages.

In this (dis)array, minimalism inched its way into film scores and pop music, theatres and concert halls. Along the way, repetition and varied iteration, which are characteristic of minimalist music, turned out to be the perfect aural counterparts to a gracefully deconstructed fouetté in a series of awkward rhythmic jumps with angled hips and flat feet.

And it came to pass, that classical contemporary sounds with minimalist roots, are now often heard in the dance studios of some of the world's most sought-after choreographers, inspiring movement and breathtaking works.

Forsythe’s sake, Blake works indeed

From a makeshift studio in a bedroom in London to the recording studios of music’s biggest hot shots, British composer and producer James Blake has come into his own after almost a decade dabbling in piano and voice, borrowing from technicolour sounds and video games, layering electronic melancholia with bursts of sombre optimism and ambient harmony. He's most inspired by the great classical pianists, particularly Johannes Brahms.

…a ghost gradually assum[ing] material form […] out of digital ether

British music critic Mark Fisher on Blake

Having won the Mercury Prize with the album Overgrown in 2013, James Blake (1988 -) has traversed genres, working with artists such as Justin Vernon (from Canadian band Bon Iver), producer Brian Eno, hip hop artists Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Wu-Tang Clan, even queen of R&B Beyoncé, whom he collaborated with for the track titled Forward in her album Lemonade (2016).

The spaces Blake creates in his music are reminiscent of the pared-down scenographies of seminal choreographer William Forsythe’s ballets. In 1987, Forsythe broke new ground with In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a deconstructed four-act ballet danced by Paris Opera Ballet to a powerful score by Dutch composer Thom Willems. Willems' electronic scores comprised subtle soundscapes and insistent rhythms, that gave Forsythe and his dancers the acoustic space for movement to take over.

Thirty years later, in 2017, Forsythe breaks the mold again, this time with Blake Works I, choreographed to seven of Blake’s songs, for Paris Opera Ballet. To establish cohesion among the varied sounds, Forsythe makes use of the musical principles of articulation between sound and danced movement: the fugue and the ”entrainment”.

The result is a progression of short and varied sequences, each starting from the same initial pattern (the fugue) that develops into different moods and keys. A solo becomes a duet, then a trio, a quartet and a finale in which the ensemble fills the stage in an explosion of energy (achieving "entrainment", a symbolic relationship that dancers establish with the audience).

I believe that fugue, counterpoint and entrainment are essential functions.

Biliana Vassileva, The Art of Improvisation by William Forsythe: An Unsual Approach

Because of Paris Opera Ballet’s notoriously strict entrance exams and grueling foundational modules that every student has to complete, its dancers adapt to every style, be it classical, neo-classical or contemporary. Forsythe himself admits that “these dancers can do anything”, and as a result, the dancers are as much executors as contributors to Blake Works I.

WATCH: Blake on Blake in a short film by Spotify

Pite on the Richter scale

German-born British composer Max Richter (1966 -) has had a prolific career, creating music for stage, screen, opera and ballet. Classically trained and considered one of the more influential voices in post-minimalism, Richter's solo experimental debut Memoryhouse (2002) recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, was lauded as a “landmark work of contemporary classical music”. The groundbreaking piece explored real and imagined histories, some inspired by the Kosovo conflict, and others, by his childhood memories.

…a reminder of just how much classical music has broken outside of its shell and into other realms

Pitchfork on Memoryhouse

Realms, such as dance. Richter’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons jolted something in choreographer Crystal Pite, who said that "it somehow created a new horizon to look at, and it inspired new emotions and a new character. It is as if it gave me new ears with which I could listen to it afresh". The result of this is Pite's spectacular The Seasons’ Canon, created for 54 dancers, first performed by Paris Opera Ballet in 2016.

Richter says, in an interview with NPR, “My piece doesn’t erase the Vivaldi original. It’s a conversation from a viewpoint. I think this is just one way to engage with it…I have to figure out how much Max and how much Vivaldi there was going on at every moment.”

LISTEN: Vivaldi recomposed

Inspired by her meticulous observation of natural phenomena, Pite was triggered by the titles of each movement in the reinterpreted composition: Spring 1, Summer 2, Autumn 3. It gave her the idea to create a series of portraits to describe nature.

Through the human body, I try to make this music visible.

Crystal Pite

In her words, “When I create a choreography, I face the act of building up, shaping, clashing, mounting, composing, assembling, digging; I connect to the making and observing, which deeply link me to the natural world, to its brutality and its beauty. This work is a gesture, an offering. It is at the same time my way of facing the immensity and the complexity of the natural world, as well as my expression of gratitude to it.”

Richter’s repeating patterns and diatonic harmony in his beautifully melancholic scores have also inspired others such as choreographic duo Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot, Justin Peck (Resident Choreographer of New York City Ballet) and regular collaborator, Wayne McGregor (Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet), whose stunning triptych Woolf Works, won the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production.

WATCH: An interview with Pite by Edinburgh International Festival

Reich to the pointe

No conversation on minimalism or its impact is complete without mention of the granddaddy of the genre, American composer Steve Reich. Born 1936, he’s recognised as one of minimalism’s key pioneers, whose compositions such as Pendulum Music, Clapping Music, Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians, ideas and concepts have influenced the work of music icons such as David Bowie, Björk, Brian Eno and U2. But Reich’s influence reaches far beyond music.

In 1982, choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker created Fase to Reich’s Come Out. That seminal piece elevated her as one of the most important contemporary choreographers today.

WATCH: A recording of scenes from Fase

Award-winning choreographer McGregor (notable works include AfterRite (2018) for American Ballet Theatre, Chroma (2006) and Infra (2009) for The Royal Ballet) has not only used Reich’s music extensively over the decades but has created work because he was triggered by Reich's sound. For McGregor, Reich’s music “populates the imagination in such an amazing way that you kind of know what to do with it”.

His first professional work for Company Wayne McGregor (which is also Resident Company at Sadler's Wells in London) titled Xeno 1 2 3 (1993) featured three pieces, one of which was choreographed to Reich’s Sextet. His most recent collaboration with Reich was for Multiverse (2016) for The Royal Ballet. McGregor combined the composer's early work It’s Gonna Rain, which loops a sound recording repeatedly allowing variations to emerge as the loops fall out of sync, with a newly commissioned piece titled Runner.

LISTEN: It began with It's Gonna Rain (1965)


Contributed by:

Miranda Chan

A writer and worker bee at Esplanade.


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