Sunday, September 30, 2012

Writing for a Dance

It has been a while since I've posted anything about music.

Really, I haven't been doing much music of late.  But looking back, the two dance sequences I wrote for a show last season have some interesting lessons.  The first, particularly; the "Dance of the Machine."

Normally, as a sound designer for musical theater you are not responsible for music.  There will be a Music Director -- in smaller theaters, the same person will organize the music, write out parts if necessary, rehearse the cast, hire the orchestra, and lead from the pit.  Often they are a pianist as well and will be the rehearsal pianist for music rehearsals and the lead keyboard in the pit.

You may sometimes help out a little, including such things as setting up and programming synthesizers.  But generally the music comes from the score and goes through the Music Director and it isn't your job to break out parts or do vocal coaching or play piano.

The main exception is for productions using pre-recorded music.  I've done quite a bit of chopping and looping and even some re-synthesis in MIDI for those.  Can be an interesting challenge setting up a vamp in QLab (a fermata is much easier!)

The other exception is music-like material that may be in the sound effects you design.  For instance, a designer friend of mine chose to make the doorbell sound (for the home of the very fey director) in The Producers chime, not some Westminster thing, but the first bar of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story.

And then there are those unusual circumstances.  The context to the show I'm going to talk about; we had added a great deal of incidental music already.  All of this was expanded from musical material in the show.  But these extended dance breaks were not in the original score.  The Music Director had to write these out -- fortunately, he had a good pit and charts were sufficient -- but this was more work than he had been prepared to face and eventually he put his foot down.

Leaving two key dances without written accompianment.

At which point they turned to me, the sound designer, and asked for rhythmic sound poems to cover those gaps.

As it evolved, by the time we opened the band had stepped in to largely cover one (with what I felt was not entirely satisfying results) but they also lent just a little additional material to the first dance, which I felt blended wonderfully with the sound effect to make a hybrid that totally suited the feel of the show.

In any case.

My impression is that most classical dance music was written in a way not dissimilar to the old "Marvel Method" of comic books.  The director/choreographer would have the idea, they would rough out what had to happen and how long it would be, the composer would then come up with the music, then the actual choreography would be done to that.  With a fair amount of adjustment during the development and rehearsal process.

We actually did do something like this but on a compressed time scale that left both of us (me, and the choreographer) feeling very stressed.

Since I only had a week to work, I asked for desired tempo and length.  And since the dance was already partly developed, I asked for how long each section was, and what the division of beats was.  I got several different answers -- in part because the director's vision was not the choreographer's vision (they were talking past each other a bit) and the cast was too under-rehearsed in those dances to actually adhere to either.

In any case, there was just enough time for me to be able to see what they had before I sat down to write.  So I watched.  And taped the whole thing (on my aging digital camera).

At which point I then had three pieces of information; the director's notes, the choreographer's notes, and the visual record of what the dancers currently thought they were doing.  None of them matched.  But, also, none of them entirely made sense.

So I created on paper a hybrid of the two sets of verbal notes that I thought would work.  This sounds simpler than it was; it took ten hours and multiple pieces of paper, going over and over the notes and viewing the video and trying to break down what I saw and what I thought was supposed to be into sensible divisions.

My tentative breakdown after all of that was three sets of eight for a line of dancers that passed three items down the line like a machine, another set of eight over the transition into a different feel, (with a big gesture happening in the middle), and a set of fast threes for the last sequence to be vamped until the final flourish.

On paper, it looked okay.  I sent a copy of my notes to the choreographer but got no reply.  So I pressed on.  Took the video of the actual dance and brought it into Cubase.  Jiggled the tempo track until I got a rough line-up with the general pace of the recorded moves.  Then edited the video track to take out the pauses and false starts and make it line up with the tempo track, with the hit points on bar lines.

Then started putting in sounds.

At this moment in the development of the sound of the show, I was using mostly sampled sounds.  I wanted machinery with an organic feeling to it.  So I used a lot of stuff like car doors being opened and bits of farm machinery and sloshing water and stuff that basically had a lot of complexity and life and was generally "softer" in feel -- less hard-edged, less distinct clanks and clinks.

About half the sounds I plugged into a software sampler so I could play them from a keyboard (basically, performing the sequence into Cubase).  Others were inserted as individual audio events and tweaked into the right place.  For the general feel of "machinery in motion" I was combining what had been originally snippets of one-shot sounds in ways so they blended into a loop that felt like a cyclic motion of machinery.  A lot of this was just playing repetitive patterns on several keys until they gelled into something that sounded like a single motion.

Since I wasn't sure how much time the choreographer would have with the music, or how much time I'd have to edit, I was extremely conservative with meter and with the beat.  Almost all of it was strongly accented on the quarter-notes, and most of it had clean eighth or sixteenth-note riffs playing as a constant clock tick.  I also put in pick-up sounds before every major change.

(Pick-ups are when something changes in the music in the bar just before a vamp ends.  It may be just a single extra bell in the percussion, but it tells the singer or dancer where they are if for some reason they lost count).

I also, after some back-and-forth (especially once I got the first sketches into dance rehearsal), cut it into three independent cues, with each going into a vamp that would be faded out under the new cue.  This meant if the dancers got much, much faster setting up for the third part (which they did!) we could arrive where we were supposed to be musically just by hitting a button.

Then sitzprobe hit and I had another problem.  The feel of the show was very 70's, with a lot of funk and a lot of synthesizer keyboard and processed guitar and bass sounds.  And the look of the set, costumes, and props was also colorful and artificial.  And my samples just didn't work right in that world.

I had to re-do the dance music for more of a synth feel.  And I had no time left.

So, mostly I pulled out the clicking gear sounds that had been on the eights and re-patched the exact same notes to drums instead.  Specifically, to 808 electronic drums from my software synth collections.  I added electronic bass -- mostly from one freeware software synth I've used and loved before (The Hornet).  And I ran the remaining samples through EQ with resonance, and tricks like ring modulator, to make them sound like synthesizers instead of samples.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken the step of going into actual pitch; into harmonic, even melodic development.  The sequence still sounded "strange" being just unpitched (or, rather, being musically treated as unpitched rhythmic events).  The rhythm, too, was just too simple.  I wish I had dared to break it up more with stronger internal divisions and even some poly-rhythmic elements.

And, as I said, the second dance sequence got essentially covered by the orchestra anyhow.  But the first one worked.  It was okay.

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