Interview with… THE MUSICIAN

The first of a series, in which we interview people from different aspects of this project - from the producers to the artists - to see how their experience has differed. First up, Diane Manson, double bassist with Scottish Ensemble, offers her perspective on the project from a musician's point of view. 


Q: What were your first reactions to the idea of being asked to perform, as well as play, on stage?

My initial reaction was slight fear. I was excited by the idea, but also apprehensive as it was quite new and totally out of most people's comfort zones. I wasn't sure quite how it was going to go.

Q: Did that change after the first couple of rehearsals when you had been introduced to Örjan [Andersson, choreographer] and Paul [Pui Wo Lee, dancer]?

When we first turned up we were slightly giggly because we were feeling so nervous, but Örjan was so clever because he very slowly built it up so we’d feel more and more comfortable just moving. He started with simple things like walking in a circle, walking at right angles, changing direction, mirroring somebody - with each step you just felt better and better about it. Also, because he wasn’t at all awkward about us moving, it made us feel OK about it, and we got more and more relaxed. Paul, the dancer, was fantastic as well and made us feel so at ease.

To say that by the end of the two days we could do something that wasn't going to be laughed at... I think most of us were relieved that it wasn't pirouettes or demi-plies, it was movement, which made a lot more sense, and again Örjan was very clever on how he got us started with that. He asked us to make noises, so we were immediately coming at it from a musician's point of view. The noises would then have a physical action attached to them, which we could build up to make into a dance.

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Q:  The heart of the piece for many is seeing the musicians doing their solo performances on the same stage as the professional dancers. On those first days, it was very much sprung on you that you had to go into a corner, create an improvised routine on your own, and then perform it in front of each other… How did this feel?

When Örjan said “OK, you've got twenty minutes to go and make up a ‘phrase’”, as he called it, most of us just thought "twenty minutes. You’ve got to be joking.” As you say, if we'd known we were going to be performing it on our own... I think it was probably really good that we didn't know that beforehand. It made us freer to do different things.

 

Q:  These first rehearsals took place with Örjan and just one dancer. The next stage was arriving in Sweden and seeing what the five dancers had been developing over four weeks. Was it what you expected it to be?

Actually, on day one of arriving, the weirdest thing was getting used to playing off iPads! Any movement or dancing was fairly low down on the list compared to getting our heads round how that was going to work.

Seeing the dancers moving, everything made more sense, because they were incredible - but yes, at that stage I was still thinking: "how is anything we did in Edinburgh going to fit with that?!" They looked fantastic, they knew exactly how they were doing... I just didn't know how it was all going to mix together. But again, it was a case of building it up, for Örjan too, I think. At those rehearsals he started off with 3 musicians and 5 dancers, then he had four musicians, then the rest of the band arrived, so it was constantly developing right up to the last day.

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Q: So, you’d built a production, you’d had a dress rehearsal: what was the comparison to the feeling you got on the actual opening night?

By the time we'd done the dress, people were feeling more confident about how it was going to pan out. Not so much in terms of the movement, but being separated from the other musicians on the stage. For us, that was one of the biggest challenges. As Jon [Morton, Artistic Director of Scottish Ensemble] kept saying, we had to start listening in a completely different way to how we normally would - and watching, too. We had to communicate with each other differently, particularly in anticipating everything a lot more. The basses and cellos were right at the back but the violins were playing antiphonally, really. I think by the dress, we were just relieved that we felt like we had that working.

When it came to the opening night we were in a state of high alert - which meant we walked out and gave it our all. When we played Variation 1, the audience’s reaction was brilliant - clapping and cheering. After that, he show whizzed by and after that... everyone was just exhausted and exhilirated. Which we took out on the afterparty... We've never had an after show party like that before, with DJs and wine and food and fizz and lots and lots of dancing. In fact, we danced more than the dancers did. The problem being that most of us couldn't walk the next day...

Q: One of the benefits of playing with Scottish Ensemble is that you have known the other musicians for a long time. How easy was it to work with dancers who you've never met before and had to get to know over such a short space of time?

The dancers have been quite incredible - so warm and open from day one, with real, genuine care and concern for everyone around them. There's never been any sense of them and us. I was thinking, for the dancers it must have been quite hard as we're an established group, socially, but we've really spent time with them and socialised quite fluidly. They've been so encouraging and helpful with warm-ups. I was casually bending down to stretch my back one day and before I knew it there was a dancer behind me helping me.

Q: There are lots of new things in this project, such as being involved in decisions about movement, thinking about how to move around a stage... Do you feel you're using a different part of your brain, creatively?

It's definitely more exhausting. All of us have noticed how tired we've been. There's just so many more things to concentrate on. One of the things we’ve found, in terms of processing things differently, is that when we've had to move around quite a lot in one of the pieces, then we go back and have to play, it's not great for us because as musicians. We need to keep the heart rate very low, calm and contained - otherwise, it's hard to play without feeling jangled and out of control - whereas the dancers need that high heart rate for what they do. So that's been a real challenge for us - managing that high heart beat, then getting back to your seat and trying to calm down and control your digits so that you still feel focused.

Q: The idea behind this collaboration was to bring music and dance together to create a piece where both elements play an equal part. What is it like to take part in that kind of thing?

It definitely feels like a collaboration. It hasn't at any point felt like we're just the hired musicians. From what we've observed, Jon has really been able to put in his opinions on things and Örjan has been understanding if something is just not possible for us to do. Although, I think we've managed to do everything that he had in mind...

Q: What about classical music in general being presented like this?

Well, it’s certainly going to feel really strange when we go back to more traditional concert tours! But I think it's going to have a really positive effect on how we present them. We've got this ability to do something really special on top of what we normally do, so it'll be interesting to see how we build on that. It does make you think, "well we can't go and just play the music” - that we should present at least some sort of other aspect of it. Even if it's just singing on stage like we did with Patricia Kopatchinskaja [at the Enescu Festival, Bucharest, in Sep 2015] - even just that...

Q: The way the audience has behaved has also been different to what you’d expect from a ‘normal’ classical performance - there is a sense of real curiosity, interest, laughter. Have you felt any of that on stage?

Yes. Definitely. Obviously we don't know who in the audience is more interested in dance, or music, or neither, so it’s fascinating as we go along to see how audiences will react to it, and to which bits. I like the spontaneous clapping - if people want to clap, they can clap - rather than having to wait until the end. And Örjan plays with what’s going to happen, so they get a bit confused as well. It's been a fantastic project, and I can't wait to do it again...


Diane Manson is a double bass player for Scottish Ensemble, which whom she has been playing for 20 years. She started playing bass at the age of 16 because “my hands were big enough”, and went on to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She spent 10 years in London playing with groups from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to The Academy of St. Martins in the Fields as well as recording for film, TV and pop artists. She now lives in Derbyshire, where she works with the BBC Philharmonic and the Halle and is Co-Principal Bass with Manchester Camerata

On Music and Movement, Part 2: The audience

The link between music and movement is nothing new. Music moves in directions - up and down, standing on the same spot, trilling around one point. It even moves in descriptive ways - jumping or gliding, whizzing or sauntering. In fact, the connection between the two ideas can feel quite basic. The fact that we are ‘moved’ by music is significant - the direction and pace of the notes is something that happens to us, as a passive listener, not something we apply to the music.

What is interesting, and something that has come up since we began to create this project, is how music moves us - physically.

Think about when you hear someone play a little upwards flurry of notes, high up on a string - you go upwards mentally. You feel something upwards - and, probably, if you’re the sort of person to get particularly affected by music, move upwards in some tiny increment in your stance. Same for particularly low notes - that release of coming out of a cramped, dark passage at the bottom of the strings’ register and moving upwards through pitches. Think about a lonnnnnng, high, sustained note coming out of one of these passages and you can almost feel your back stretch. Maybe you put your head back. Either way, if you’re free to move, the sound affects how you move and place your body.

This is, of course, a very crude way of linking music and movement. Pitches go up, body moves up, echoing the ascending line of visible notes on a page. My point is that sometimes it’s taken for granted that this invisible element, music, makes us move while we’re listening, even if that’s just mentally. And, by paying attention to this, we can experience a piece of music we think we know so well by paying attention to how we’re moving as we listen.

 Having now seen Goldberg Variations performed, not just played, it sounds and feels different and I wonder if that’s because I’m creating movement in my head. I can attach emotions to it more easily - exhilaration, despondence, calm. This is not insignificant when it comes to Bach, whose music is seen as magnificent but certainly not emotionally demanding. Maybe there is something in this. One of the starting notions of Goldberg Variations is this idea that the addition of movement to the invisible notes can create a completely new entity - a new art form. Mance. Dusic. A third realm which blends sight and sound.

Either way, next time you listen to a piece maybe just take note of whether you’re moving - and if so, how? Physically or mentally? Does it change if you’re listening on your own - sitting, or standing? What about sitting in a concert hall surrounded by other people? Which do you prefer?

And are you creating your own, brand new, completely unique choreographed artwork in your head as you listen? 

[Rosie Davies]

Glasgow

It is Friday the 13th, and we are in a big, industrial, Northern city in the UK, cowering under the threatened arrival of the innocuous sounding Abigail. Whether it's the weather or the building (amazing hangar-like warehousey vibe) or what, there is definitely a buzz in the air about this event. 

Two artistic collectives - one side dancers, one side musicians - take on an iconic piece from the classical canon, creating a new work that sits somewhere between a concert and a dance performance, taking bits from each tradition, using some, discarding the others; all to create something new which people may love or people may hate.  

There is something compelling about that.

Will the dance fans get an unexpected pleasure out of watching outstanding musicians performing complicated, endlessly circling and cascading notes, close up? 

Will the classical music fans understand and enjoy the dance - and do they need to?

How many fans of both contemporary dance and classical music exist in each city? Do they want to see the two things at the same time? 

Will the purists be forced to look away? Will people... and whisper this now... clap in between movements?

...clap in the actual performance, in response to something funny or touching or brave?
Take a look at the UK previews below for what the press have been saying so far, or buy tickets for all UK performances here.


On Music And Movement, Part 1: The Performer

Music is invisible. Dance is visible.

So far, so obvious.

But as a performer, it’s only when you’re made to think about the other realm - whether the invisible or the visible - that you really notice this. As this project has taken shape, in rehearsals and conversations, so has the notion of how one affects the other.

Musicians are used to their art being invisible, which means they become semi-visible. It’s an appealing thought to certain personalities - you can create something which leaves you, the object of attention is elsewhere, and you can admire it alongside the audience member.  

Dancers are looked at. Yes, the shapes they make become something else - an impression which can burn onto your retina divorced from the object that created it - but their body is still creating that impression.

o what happens when you ask a musician to play and, at the same time, move in a set, choreographed way which renders them more than visible?  

It’s a bigger challenge than first imagined. On a basic level, there is the practicality of it: technique, on a classical instrument, is about stance and positioning, ingrained and perfected over years and years of practice. Once you've perfected that technique, everything note you play after that is played within a physical structure. Deliberately. 

Similarly, some musicians will move their instrument whilst playing, some play stock-still, but both ways the heart rate remains in the same realm (give or take a few beats for a difficult passage). If you suddenly raise your heart rate through physical exertion, this changes everything - the way you move your fingers, the control you have over your arms, the way you count time.

On a second level, there is suddenly becoming more aware of how you do move as you play - and then being told to change that. You may not have realised how you express something in moving, subtly, as you play. Can you still play the notes as you want them to sound if this is taken away from you?

And, more pressing for the less extrovert of musicians, the ones who want to hide behind an instrument and present an invisible creation, like a gift, to the audience; can you still focus on the invisible object with all the concentration and precision you need if you’re forced to suddenly become visible?  

[Rosie Davies]

50 Seconds

50 seconds taken from the opening sequence of Goldberg Variations - ternary patterns for insomnia. 50 seconds to get an impression of what happens in this work. 50 seconds to decide whether you want to see it in person.

All we will say is that this is a work that is transformed by being there in the flesh - by the audience, their reaction, and the liveness and vulnerability of it. 

For now, enjoy the preview. 

 GOLDBERG VARIATIONS 50 SECOND TEASER - CLICK IMAGE TO PLAY 

GOLDBERG VARIATIONS 50 SECOND TEASER - CLICK IMAGE TO PLAY