Yesterday in dance class, the teacher (who was the chair of the department substituting for the regular instructor) decided she wanted to do an exercise using phrases of three measures length instead of the usual four.
At first I didn’t understand. Dancers use language different from musicians. I think three or four in terms of meter or pulse. In other words three means the oom pah pah of the waltz and two is the left ride stride of a march or walk. It organizes the fundamental unit of the measure.
Dancers think in larger terms. In terms of reference to the moves. It reminds me of marching band. Probably because I remember marching eight steps between yard lines.
Ballet dancers think in eights like that, or sixteens or even fours.
Many if not most western musical phrases are in the same groups of 4, 8 or 16. 4, 8, or 16 what? Measures of oom pah pahs (3/4) or left rights (2/4 or even 4/4).
Of course much interesting music does not fall into these regular patterns. This is one of the reasons I adore Bartok. His use of irregular rhythmic patterns often derived from folk music from Hungary or surrounding areas.
Anyway improvising in groups of three measures presented a fun little challenge.
I also ran across a good explanation of the history of the cross rhythm of playing fours against fives. Haven’t read the whole thing but this is the kind of thing I think about quite a bit as I learn music that uses these more complex interaction of meters. Link to Kyle Gann’s music blog post: “Metametrics: a brief history of 5 against 4.”
I had a flattering moment also in class when the instructor turned to me (as they some times do) as she was formulating a series of moves and asked me to play. They usually say “What do you have?” or something vague like that meaning what are you planning for what I am formulating.
I immediately start playing when instructors do this, to help the pace of the class and keep things moving. As I played the instructor moved and murmured the description of the moves she was planning to give to the students.
After I stopped she asked me what it was that I was playing and that she quite liked it. I said in my goofy voice, “Made it up.”
It’s funny what works in the ballet class. The music doesn’t need to be profound. In fact I think it might help that it’s not complicated. It does benefit however from being delivered musically. I think that might be key. And one of the reasons dancers like live pianists for class.
A melody played with expression and as much beauty of execution as the poor pianist can muster helps remind the dancers of the expression content of the rigorous physical moves they are attempting.
It seems to be another of those rare odd niches in musical life where I just about fit in with my interest in spontaneity, improvisation, composition and gratuitous nature of art.
My daily schedule continues to be nuts. I collapsed in the living room last night after the dress rehearsal for the Grand Haven High School performance of “The Beauty and the Beast” and told Eileen that I didn’t think I could work three part-time jobs permanently.
Ballet, church and pit orchestra is at least one thing too many. Thankfully there are only four performances in the next three days and then I’m done with the musical.