Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cage's Bacchanale and Prepared Piano

This month, Clef Notes has looked at a variety of music set to dance. Let’s wrap things up with something a bit different than what we’ve seen so far.

You may remember my previous blog post on John Cage (1912–1992), an avant-garde and experimental composer of the twentieth century. He was known to use sounds and ideas that had not previously been used in music. One concept he became known for was the prepared piano. A prepared piano is the insertion of objects (pennies, bolts, wood, plastic, etc.) in between piano strings. The result is a percussive effect that creates various sounds, depending on the objects inserted, when the pianist plays from the keyboard. The piano is prepared in advance of the performance with detailed instructions provided within the score for which objects should be placed between which strings.

Prepared Piano
Courtesy of
Cage’s Bacchanale was his first work written for prepared piano. He created it for dancer Syvilla Fort in 1938. Originally, he wanted to accompany her dance with percussion, but opted for the prepared piano concept because he was unable to use many instruments. You can watch this modern dance and piano performance below. Do you think the piano and dancers balance each other or does one seems to hold greater importance over the other?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Philip Glass' In the Upper Room

So far this month, we’ve focused our attention on famous ballets. What happens when you combine aspects of ballet and modern dance? The result is a stunning production choreographed by Twyla Tharp to the music of Philip Glass.

In the Upper Room premiered in 1986 and breaks down the barrier that began to form between ballet and modern dance in the twentieth century. Tharp incorporates two groups of dancers—modern dancers wearing tennis shoes and ballet dancers wearing pointe shoes. She referred to her modern dancers as “stompers” and the ballet dancers as the “bomb squad.” In the Upper Room incorporates a variety of dance types including boxing, yoga, ballet, and tap, set to the minimalistic music of Philip Glass. Costumes and lighting add to the experience, dancers moving in and out of a heavenly, fog-filled stage.

Below you can watch a few excerpts from In the Upper Room. What do you think? Do you prefer this type of modern dance over some of the more traditional ballets we talked about earlier this month?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Appalachian Spring as a Ballet

Did you know that Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring began as a ballet? This Pulitzer Prize-winning work was originally written for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. In the beginning, Copland didn’t know what to call the work so he referred to it as “Ballet for Martha.” Graham later chose the title that we know today. The ensemble at the premiere consisted of only thirteen musicians. It wasn’t until later on that Copland arranged the piece into the orchestral suite most people are now familiar with.

One famous medley in Appalachian Spring is taken from the Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple. Copland then varies this theme throughout the work. In an attempt to evoke images of rural, American life, Copland uses wide sonorities and open fifths and octaves, a trait commonly used to express American ideas in music. The music and choreography complement each other beautifully, telling the story of young newlyweds settling in the Pennsylvania frontier.

Here is a performance of Copland’s original Appalachian Spring ballet. Do you think the music fits well as a ballet accompaniment?