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Pas de deux

Jonathan Burrows In what different ways have you collaborated with dance?


Kevin Volans
Firstly, people danced to the music that I'd already written. The earliest I'm aware of is Sue (Siobhan) Davies with White Man Sleeps (1988). I remember it took me a while with that piece to see the counterpoint that was going on between the dance and the music. I expected the dancers to follow the pacing of the music exactly. The next phase was to write a piece especially for dance, and I made some mistakes.


JB
Was that Chevron (1990)?


KV
Yes. I didn't realise that while it's easy for the composer to have instant cuts in the music, like film: to have all 16 instruments playing, then a solo; it's not so easy for the choreographer. Sue came along saying, 'You know, unlike you, I do have to get people on and off the stage, and this is a problem!' If she had the whole ensemble onstage and suddenly the music was reduced to a very thin duet, there would be too many people on stage for the music to support. The relationship between music and dance is very much linked. The one should not be out of balance with the other.


JB
How do you work with Sue?


KV
What I really like about Sue is her total trust. I think that's essential for any collaboration to work. She'd say, 'Write me something wonderful', and I'd write a piece and say, 'Do something marvellous with this', and that's the basis of our relationship. But we realised after several pieces that we were both being over- conscientious. We filled in everything from one end to the other and didn't allow each other any space. For example, I'd send her what I thought was a perfect piece of dance music (by someone else) and she'd say, 'Well, it's great, but there's no room for me.' It was the same with Cicada (1994), which you thought you'd be interested in doing, but there was no room for the dance. There was no 'in'.


JB
Yes, with Cicada, I felt that there wasn't the physical space for anything else to happen, but it also seemed to me after living with the piece for a while that nothing else needed to happen, so I didn't use it.


KV
It was your work with (composer) Matteo Fargion that really convinced me that the music could stop completely, could come in only occasionally and transform the meaning of the dance. Rather like music in the movies. I found it very exciting that music could make a comment on what was going on and then withdraw, or just fall silent, waiting for its next moment.


JB
It's as though when you started working with me on The Stop Quartet, you left holes in the music through which the dance could be seen. That gave me the confidence to realise that I could also leave holes in the dance, through which the music might be heard. The thought is always that choreography is about moving, whereas through this piece I was discovering that actually one of the most interesting things is the relationship between the moving and the stillness.


KV
Yes, that can be a major structural element. I also discovered working in this way that there is a moment in time at which a pause becomes a silence. Take the long pauses in the opening piano solo of The Stop Quartet: for the first 45 seconds it's a pregnant pause, then after that it becomes a silence. Much more beautiful, much more delicious. And the interest for me is in pre-empting the next entry by a millisecond, that you enter just before you're expecting the music to begin again. But in the section where we were using 12 pianos superimposed, the weight and the density of the sound meant that we could be silent for three minutes before the next burst: that the stop in fact had to be longer.


JB
For the density to disperse.


KV
Yes, so that we got back to silence as a structural element and not just as pause. All this is terribly exciting for me, because it's allowed me to rethink how I write generally. For example, my Piano Concerto was like two instruments, the ensemble and the piano, completely intermeshed and interlocked, but my Cello Concerto is much more like Billie Yellow, the film we did with Sylvie Guillem. There the music comes in just occasionally and points up what Sylvie's doing, and she's doing her own thing in the next room. The whole cello part is written as a piece of choreography for the cello, and the orchestral part is 'the music'. This is, for me, a new focus on concerto. I love the idea of the weight of a large orchestra sitting silently while a soloist is playing away, then very quietly just making a statement about it, then withdrawing to silence again. With dance I've arrived at a new idea of orchestral balance.


JB
You spoke recently of finding ways to construct work without composing. Does collaborating with another medium allow you to work more openly, to work less burdened by having to carry the whole thing?


KV
Yes, with much more serendipity, definitely. I've discovered that what is required on all levels is a common sensibility. Each layer is working with an awareness that there are other layers, each with a certain pacing of its own, and with a trust that it's going to work out. If you get the pacings and the weightings right, the beauty of the correlation is just fantastic. The idea of composing without composition is to do with not manipulating form. For example, to structure layers of material that will cover some layers, but allow others to reveal themselves. Relinquishing control of form and trusting in counterpoint. It's like trying to arrive at what Gerhard Richter does in those paintings where there are many layers of paint applied and then scraped away. So that you have multiple layers of time superimposed, and then a layer of time scraped from left to right which reveals the layers of history. And what is revealed at the moment of the scrape is not controlled by the painter.


JB
In a time-based medium like dance, how do we avoid falling into traps of systems and methods in trying to find that objectivity?


KV
I don't think we can ever get rid of systems and methods entirely, but we can certainly get rid of methodologies, and we can get rid of notions of structure. I've just started thinking about a new idea to do with chaotic structures. I now want to rethink composition technique as I have been taught it. I want to work backwards from chaos. Instead of starting with something simple and building up a complex structure, as in

serialism, I want to find methods of composing where you reduce chaos to complexity. You start with something so complex it's not structured, then filter that until you reach a point where pattern becomes discernible.


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