Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How do drummers work with choreographers? JT Bates and Peter O’Gorman explain

From "Wine Dark Sea"
Photo by Steve Niedorf
When drummers drum, people dance. That has been true since time began. But what happens when choreographers enter the picture? Who leads, who follows? Is the drumming in service to the dance? Do the dancers respond to the drums? What is it like for a musician to work with a choreographer?

This is a piece about process, written for the 30th anniversary of Zenon Dance Company in Minneapolis. Zenon’s 30th anniversary season will span the first two weekends in May with a combination of signature pieces and world premieres. Two will feature music by area drummers/percussionists.

On Weekend 1 (May 3-5), the company will perform the world premiere of “Molten Substance” by Brooklyn-based Uruguayan composer luciana achugar (she prefers her name in lowercase), with music by JT Bates. On Weekend 2 (May 10-12), the company will perform “Wine Dark Sea,” which it premiered last spring, with choreography by Wynn Fricke and music by percussionist Peter O’Gorman.

In both cases, the music will be played live by the composers, who will be on stage with the dancers.

In “Molten Substance,” the dancers’ faces are largely obscured; at the end, they must put on blue jeans without using their hands. (You try it. It’s hard.) “Wine Dark Sea” is dreamy, fluid, and dark. At times, the dancers seem to float.

JT and Peter are different drummers who have followed different paths. JT is mainly a jazz/free jazz drummer who plays mostly in clubs with a lot of bands and artists, but not always jazz bands and artists. To name a few, he’s a member of Fat Kid Wednesdays and the Pines, his bassist brother Chris’s band Red 5, Alpha Consumer, Dead Man Winter, the Wednesday-night band at the Aster with Erik Koskinen and Molly Maher, and Real Bulls, a new duo with drummer Dave King. He curates the Monday-night jazz series at Icehouse, formerly and famously at the Clown Lounge. He recently received a Minnesota Emerging Composer Award from the American Composers Forum

Peter is mainly a new-music composer and percussionist; his works have been performed by musicians including the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Amy Knoles of the California Ear Unit, and New York percussion quartet Ethos. Currently, he performs with Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, Mary Ellen Childs, and various other artists. He writes pedagogical books and articles on drumming, and he teaches. He’s a McKnight Composer Fellow and a Sage Award winner (for his dance scores). His compositions have been supported by the American Composers Forum, the Mellon Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the Walker Art Center, and more.

Both are experimenters, improvisers, collaborators, and good listeners who are passionate about music.

JT Bates: A dash of blind faith

JT Bates at Icehouse
Photo by John Whiting
PLE: Have you worked with choreographers and dancers before?

JT Bates: I did some random improvs for dance with Mark Sutton, the original trumpet player for the Motion Poets. A piece for the Eclectic Edge Ensemble with Mike Rossetto, the banjo player and guitarist for the Spaghetti Western String Company. A piece years ago at the Southern Theater with Jim Anton and Dean Magraw for choreographer Megan Flood. A thing last year at the Walker with David Zambrano that was completely improvised. So yeah, a few times over the years.

Every time I do anything with dancers, they say, “I wish we could always have live music.”

Live music makes everything better.

Put that on a bumper sticker.

How did this project with luciano achugar and Zenon happen?

Linda [Andrews] at Zenon contacted Jeremy and Marsha Walker, saying that luciana wanted a percussionist. They recommended me.

What was your process of working with achugar on “Molten Substance”?

We emailed back and forth once or twice. There wasn’t a lot of information coming from her, just that she wanted percussion. She was looking for some rhythm.

That was before she came here and started working with the dancers. During the early rehearsals, she played beat tracks. She sent me the rehearsal video and basically said that the only thing she wanted me to take from the beat tracks was tempo, maybe a bit of attitude and energy. She said we would figure it out when we got together.

She came for two weeks, and I joined [her and the dancers] for the second week. They showed me what they had been working on and we started from there. She asked me a lot of questions about how the timing felt and what I was interested in doing. That was more her process than asking me to do specific things.

She has ideas for things she wants to see and hear [from people she’s working with], but she wants it to be their own thing, too, so they’re attached to it and feel more involved. I do all kinds of work, but being able to have input and [contribute] ideas is a big part of how happy I am.

Did she seem to have a clear idea of what she wanted from you?

It was more a dash of blind faith, that when we started working, we’d find that clear idea [together]. We were looking for a feeling. It was not very defined. I’m really comfortable working like this, with things not very defined.

From "Molten Substance"
Photo by William Cameron
Can you describe what you came up with and how you put it together?

We ended up using a couple of different tempos, and picking a couple of rhythms I felt fit really well. Then we added similar versions of the rhythms at different tempos. There are parts where it’s all improvised – no time, all texture. And parts where I use single sounds, or as many sounds as I can make at once.

I’m watching for certain actions, little movements from the dancers, times when I need to start changing and moving on to the next thing. Sometimes the dancers change first and I go later; sometimes I’m ahead of the dancers. It unfolds in a very natural way.

I’m moving through blocks of information. When they’re doing this, I’m in this tempo with these sounds. Then there’s a transition. In the next section, I’m in a slightly different tempo with different sounds.

When I go into an improvisation, I have a texture in mind. It’s not just, “What do I feel like doing today?” The dancers are expecting to hear certain things. That’s something we talked about during rehearsals.

Did you create a score, or take notes to work from during the performances?

There’s nothing written down. I have a map in my head.

How do you see your role in this piece? Were you supporting the choreographer, or collaborating with the choreographer? How much give-and-take was there?

I felt like I was collaborating with luciana and supporting the dancers. Playing drums is a supportive role, whether it’s for dance or Paul Metzger or Benson Ramsey singing a song in the Pines. I grew up doing that with my dad’s band. I always try to bring a little of that – being supportive.

What was the most challenging part of this experience for you?

Working in chunks. For the first couple of days of rehearsals, the dancers were still working out their sections and transitions. I was worried that I would never see and hear [the whole piece] in a linear fashion and be able to memorize it. Other than that, I enjoyed it. It was different. I wasn’t in a bar, I wasn’t in a band. I thought – this is awesome.

Will you be visible during the performance?

Yes. That’s a decision we made together. For the first few days of rehearsal, I was set up in a spot away from the dancers, watching them from the front. I started taking my cues from that perspective. But that won’t work in performance; I’d have to be sitting in the audience. Since it’s just me – not three or four people, no amps or horns – I suggested we try center rear, deep in the stage but in the middle. So that’s what we’re doing.

You’ll be able to see me some of the time. luciana didn’t really want me to not be seen. I feel like a part of the whole thing. [The dancers] are with me, I’m with them, and we’re all in this together. If I had any more than my standard little drum set, that wouldn’t work. I would take up too much space.

What is your instrumentation?

The standard bebop-size drum set. Bass drum, rack tom, floor tom, snare, two cymbals, hi-hat. I’m also bringing a bow and a small pile of random ringy things. Kind of my favorite thing to do is play the most standard drum set in the world with brushes and mallets and see how far I can go. Playing the instrument without the tomfoolery. There’s a lot of sound in that thing.

Do you ever get loud?

It definitely gets intense. One of the things that happened during rehearsal was – I’m following the dancers, they’re getting slower and more still, I’m getting quieter and making prettier sounds, and [luciana says] “No! The other way!” She was interested in having a lot of sound when there wasn’t a lot of movement.

It turned out to be a cool juxtaposition, a way to have constant tension and release. It’s fun but also challenging. Four people on stage, barely moving, and me making a lot of sound on the drums. I understand that energy, but it takes a bit to find it. I have to find someplace to draw from to make that happen.

If you put me on a stage in front of a thousand people, I’m going to try to play the quietest, longest note I can. Sometimes the aggressive stuff is the most challenging for me. I have a slight hang-up with getting all crazy on the drum set and playing all the notes, all the time. I’m not drawn to playing like Metallica. I like Paul Motian a lot.

So luciana is pushing the dancers and you to where you’re not comfortable?

That’s true.

Peter O’Gorman: Breaking down barriers 

Peter O'Gorman
performing his composition, "Serif"
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio
PLE: You’ve worked with choreographer Wynn Fricke before. How many times?

Peter O’Gorman: We have created two pieces together, “The Shape of Wind” in 2008 and “Wine Dark Sea” in 2012. “The Shape of Wind” was commissioned by Wynn, and “Wine Dark Sea” was commissioned by Zenon Dance Company.

How did your relationship begin?

Wynn approached me after seeing me perform with Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum and said “We must work together!” I was familiar with her work, which is amazing, so I said YES! and the seed was planted.

A few months later, I had the opportunity to apply for a Jerome Fund for New Music grant through the American Composers Forum. I was lucky enough to receive this grant, which covered the funding for the composition. Zenon then commissioned Wynn to create the choreography.

What is your process of working together?

For “The Shape of Wind,” I was interested in creating a piece just for cymbals. Wynn liked the idea, so I recorded around 20 improvisations and gave her the recordings. After Wynn listened to the improvisations, we met, bounced ideas off each other, and decided which recordings to focus on. I then started to mold some of the improvisations into a more set format while she worked on the choreography.

Through the rehearsal process, the music and dance were molded together. The music for some of the sections was completely set, and other sections maintained improvisational elements.

We used a similar development process when creating “Wine Dark Sea.”

In working with Wynn, do you see your role as supportive or collaborative? How much give-and-take is there?

There’s quite a bit of give-and-take. I would describe our working process as a true collaboration. In my work with movement, I’m interested in breaking down barriers between composer and choreographer, musician and dancer, sound and movement. In “Wine Dark Sea,” the dancers take on the dual role of dancing and making sounds that complete the score. They do this through the use of their breath and by playing crotales, which are small tuned cymbals.

What do you see as the most challenging part of working with a choreographer?

In some cases, choreographic changes require musical changes, which means reworking the score. I find that this process often results in a stronger piece both choreographically and musically. Working with an artist as insightful, intuitive, and open-minded as Wynn has been a pure joy.

O'Gorman's instrumentation
for "Wine Dark Sea"
What is your instrumentation?

I tend to create new multi-percussion set-ups for each piece I compose. The content of these set-ups is dictated by the needs of the piece.

For “Wine Dark Sea,” I created an augmented drumset that includes several unusual instruments. Some of the most interesting are made by the Hammerax company, including two Boomywangs that hang from cymbal stands, look like giant guitar picks, and sound like gongs with a vibrato. Also from Hammerax is a slap ride (“perhaps the world’s darkest ride cymbal”) and a coil chime, which spins while emitting a sonorous metallic sound. Directly underneath the boomywangs are two metal percussion instruments with springs on them that were designed and built by Pete Engelhart, a “reco reco” and “The Snail,” both of which have self-contained acoustic reverb chambers.

The row of chromatic conical bells is a new instrument called an Aluphone. This was only the second Aluphone ever built; the first one went to Evelyn Glennie. The sound of this instrument is a cross between Japanese temple bells, church bells, vibes, and tubular bells.

The instrument that I received the most comments and questions about is a Waterphone. When bowing this instrument, it creates otherworldly sounds, as well as sonorities reminiscent of the sea.

Has anything changed since the last time you performed “Wine Dark Sea” in 2012?

The music for “Wine Dark Sea” includes a structured improvisation that is a little different each performance. Other than that and a few small tweaks, the piece is basically unchanged.

What else would you like us to know about this music?

Before starting work on “Wine Dark Sea,” I had created a number of really quiet pieces, including the score for “The Shape of Wind.” The subtle characteristics of these pieces worked really well, but I was ready to make a little noise, so I proposed using drums for our new piece. Being a drummer, this seemed like a natural thing to do. Oddly, I hadn’t created a drumming piece since college, which was a long time ago. Two of the four sections in “Wine Dark Sea” use drums. Another notable item about the music is that much of it is really slow. In fact, it’s the slowest pulsed music that I’ve ever composed or played.


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