San Fermin founder Ellis Ludwig-Leone on penning music for the New York City Ballet and composing with motion in mind
Recently, I’ve written an unexpected amount of music for dance. I am just now sitting in the back of the tour bus finishing a piece for the New York City Ballet, my fifth piece for dance in the past two years. In this short period of time, it has been a steep learning curve. Even now I am not sure of the shape of things until I’m sitting in the audience on the night of the premiere.
Writing music meant for motion – running, jumping and impressive feats of athleticism – requires a constant awareness of that purpose. No matter how many notes I jam into a piece, it’s going to take a backseat to the dramatic and very physical things happening onstage. Often, it’s best to leave some space and not clutter things up. This is secretly great news for me, as it’s a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card; even if the music gets stuck, the dance whirls on, keeping things moving. It relieves some of the burden of getting from point A to point B.
When I write for dance, I’m looking for the moment where sound and movement are locked in a give-and-take… the sense of two things inhabiting and weaving through the same space. When this happens, it is a gratifying thing. To hear the music and simultaneously see it listened to and understood (by the choreographer and dancers) is surprisingly personal.
Usually, the scariest thing about hearing your own music performed is the fear that the listeners aren’t experiencing it the way you do i.e. the way you did when you wrote it. A bored audience is a gut-wrenching ordeal. Each little cough or shuffle of a programme is magnified a hundred times in your mind, and by the end of the piece you are so mired in insecurity that you never want to hear the thing again. But when there are dancers onstage, so clearly involved in the music, it feels like there’s someone up there translating things for you, a reassurance that you didn’t mess it all up. This reassuring feeling runs through the entire process of writing the piece.
When I work with New York City Ballet’s Troy Schumacher, I’m constantly sending him demos and drafts. As he choreographs, he spends so much time listening that he learns the contours of the piece possibly better than I do. As I finish it, it’s helpful to have him asking important questions I might not have thought to ask myself. By the night of the performance, the piece has been worked on from so many angles that it feels like a lived-in document… marked up, cut up, sped up and slowed down, spliced, reduced, counted to, stopped and restarted endless times. Arranged and rearranged and moved around until everyone feels like they own some part of it, which is always the best kind of musical experience.