Siobhan Davies + Matteo Fargion

“I do one thing once, or one thing a lot and by repetition it begins to tell you something... the right things repeated the right amount of times though, not just repetition for its own sake...” Matteo Fargion, Composer
  • SD _ I know you as a friend, composer, performer and teacher. You and I have often spoken about the problems that exist for choreographers, dancers, musicians and composers. There is a perception that music and dance accompany each other well but there is less of an understanding about the tensions that exist between them. I think there is more to learn about their distinctive qualities before we combine them for a performance.
  • SD _ Image 1, Image 2, Image 3. I asked you when we were working on In Plain Clothes to make us a musical score but one that would never be heard. It should be used more as a script for the dancers. Can you now talk about that process? I feel very clearly that your presence as a composer was also very choreographic.
  • MF _ I was interested at that time in the idea of translating music into movement, as literally as possible. Jonathan Burrows and I had just made Both Sitting Duet, in which we translated a score by the composer Morton Feldman into gestural movements, very rigorously, note for note. I wondered what might happen if I gave your dancers simple folk tunes to translate: would the resulting phrases somehow equate to melodies?
  • SD _ Why?
  • MF _ Most of them just looked like a bunch of permutated arbitrary movements, more ‘plinky plonky’ music than folk melody! And such hard work to make. Then we made a leap: in order for the movement phrases to be more like music they had to come from the same ‘family’, like Sarah Warsop catching a ball, for instance.
  • SD _ Yes I think there were others that worked, for instance there was a family of moves between sleep and wakefulness and another using breath. So knowing what I know now I would probably have limited the families and kept them within more simple actions.
  • MF _ The other obvious thing we realised was that visual rhythm works in a different way to musical rhythm - it needs to be much simpler than music for it to be read.
  • SD _ Tell me a little bit more about that?
  • MF _ Fingers move a lot quicker than limbs, and musicians can articulate rhythm much more clearly and rapidly. Our ears are used to that. So anything that’s too complicated rhythmically looks vague in movement. I think that’s why the folk melodies eventually worked- they were really simple dumb durations - crotchets and quavers - rather than anything too complex that would tend to be lost visually.
  • SD _ Each dancer chose several families of moves, each individual move required no preparation or no recuperation?
  • MF _ Yes, I remember that idea being important. When you play an instrument, the movement required to produce the sound is not an issue, you are simply attacking the note or chord in the most efficient way, and then releasing, going to the next one. I think it was Kevin Volans who drew my attention to this obvious difference between music and movement. So, if B flat equals, say, arm above your head, then getting your arm to and from that position is not part of the material, if you know what I mean. Very difficult to do.
  • SD _ An unusual grammar for us and one that we learnt a great deal from was that there is a tendency within a dancer’s body memory to order material in known ways, ones that their body is comfortable with. In contrast, the randomness of the order dictated by the score was creatively shocking.
  • MF _ Yes and very difficult to learn, as it’s not organic.
  • SD _ For some it was a tongue twister that they liked and for others, the signals between brain and body were genuinely awkward.
  • MF _ It drove them mad! That kind of careful patient work doesn’t suit everyone.
  • SD _ But it also provided something concrete and known at the end.
  • MF _ Yes. Here’s another problem though, which took me years to figure out. Most Western music is led by harmony. It’s in a key and there is a very clear sense of ‘home’ and moving to and from this point. It’s very emotional, what that produces for the listener. Well, in movement there is no real equivalent to harmony. There is nothing that equates to a modulation to another key, except maybe in space, but it’s not the same….
  • MF _ So if you translate into movement a tune as logical and pleasing to us, like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, you aren’t really going to get that sense of rising away from, and falling back step by step to the tonic.
  • SD _ It’s typical of human beings that we want to make sense of the situations we find ourselves in. In this case the dancers eventually found clarity in the dislocation.
  • MF _ The other interesting thing is silence.
  • SD _ Yes – talk about silence.
  • MF _ How do you do that in movement?
  • SD _ We’re always there, always present.
  • MF _ Is going to neutral the same thing as silence?
  • SD _ The neutral position, standing straight and evenly on two legs, seems to be too weighty because the stillness can become an inertia, a non place but still seen.
  • MF _ … and very po-faced and meaningful. And where does the dancer look? At the audience? At the floor? Again, these are very useful parallels to work with, but you can get very bogged down if you try too hard…
  • SD _ Sound just stops, and then a decision is made when to start again. That silence or rest between the sounds is very different from the stop and start of a dancer. Our image is always there. But we do have the use of space. We can enter an empty place and have an impact on it. We can change the proportions of the space, measure it out, draw attention to a particular place and move on. The dynamics we use can alter the sense of place, if our gestures are bigger, maybe our use of space is bigger and the empty and full space can become the equivalent to silence and sound.
  • MF _ Yes, all this is very fresh in my mind. I was leading a composition workshop for choreographers in Montreal last week, and we were trying to find very clear parallels between music and dance. Space is the one I always get stuck on. What is the difference, what is the musical equivalent of doing something at the back of the stage or the front of the stage, or left and right? It’s not as simple as loud or soft and it’s not quite transposition (as in higher or lower), but you could choose to interpret it as one or the other – it doesn’t really matter, as long as you do it rigorously and it produces something marvellous.
  • SD _ Well, knowing where you are in relationship to the space and testing out what happens with each change of place is one of the pleasures of organising movement.
  • MF _ As you know, I am spatially challenged! That’s why everything I’ve ever done has stayed very much on the spot.
  • SD _ WatchI’m going to look at two more pieces – the second half of Two Quartets: I had asked them to make portraits, which were built layering movement information shifting from one layer to another. They had choices as to which part of their portrait they were bringing to the foreground, each of the layers had compositional structures. In this case we asked you to be not a choreographic composer but a composer of sound, and you mentioned you felt it was more like making film music.
  • MF _ Yes, that’s how I approached writing it. In writing music for dance, I always try to start off from similar principles to the choreography.
  • MF _ In this case it was a struggle, because the solos - the portraits - were very intense and very personal. An introspective world. And one which didn’t seem to allow much else into it, because they were made in silence. By the time I was ‘allowed’ into the process, they were already complete nuggets. There was an understandable resistance to someone coming in and adding anything to them. That’s why I thought of it like a film score - I worked from video , and slowly I started discovering a kind of language that was, in a way, very personal to me too. Bach Chorales, electric guitars, my own voice… rather thin and pathetic sounding. It seemed to produce something that kind of supported and very gently interacted with what they were doing.
  • SD _ Describe what you mean by ‘thin’, because I think that’s a strange word.
  • MF _ Ah, I’m struggling to remember the music…
  • SD _ You mean not full blown compositional?
  • MF _ I guess so. Not music that’s structurally demanding or rhythmically strong. It didn’t have many changes. Water colour rather than oil. I remember attempts at wilder, denser music which were immediately rejected because it fought too much with the dance…
  • SD _ It needed enough transparency for the dance movement to ride through it.
  • MF _ But it also needed enough of an identity to glue together the solos.
  • SD _ You also helped us because the solos were very personal, as you said. We were very conscious of trying not to make them introspective – self conscious. We tried to shift our focus, not dwell in one place, to bring expectation or even humour into them. We knew our problem and you helped us a great deal with that by using irony in the music.
  • MF _ I think this is a problem with solos, generally. They so often seem to be too much about self expression, about suffering, or about ‘look what I can do’. I don’t think the music is ironic, incidentally. But it has an archness which maybe diffused the earnestness of the solos…
  • SD _ …which I do think the dancers tried to address on their own: how the person who is the performer is also the instrument; how each one abstracts themselves enough by developing a rigorous use of movement organisation which helps them side step away from self expression during rehearsal, but later they re-engage with themselves for the performance.
  • MF _ Yes - it’s more difficult to do with movement I think. Composers are used to writing things down, notating them and giving them to somebody else.
  • SD _ You use that practice choreographically and in teaching don’t you?
  • MF _ Yes,. The very first time I taught at PARTS (Anne Teresa de Keersmaekers school in Brussels) in 2002, they asked me to do a 5 week workshop on dance-music relationships. I felt completely unqualified and completely terrified! So, a bit naively, I came up with reductive compositional tasks to torture them with, and always encouraged them to write scores, to ensure that they didn’t improvise! Sometimes they had to pass on their score to someone else to interpret. That produces a sense of detachment and makes them less self conscious and more able to use their imagination. And the person receiving someone else’s score couldn’t care less, because it’s not their thing, and is left completely free to do wonderful things. I still do this now in workshops.
  • SD _ It’s how thought might lead you to action, rather than beginning with action because the action might not be able to forget your own body history and not give you the detachment required. I remember Henry Montes and Deborah Saxon in The Collection, in which they were trying to find physical states of being and stay in them for a minute or longer without using compositional growth. They thought deeply about how they were going to get into a constant place or a series of repetitions. They would test it and ask themselves or me ‘Is this working, can somebody else see and appreciate this state, can they be with us?
  • MF _ Yes, like when they just shake hands for a very long time. Why is that not boring? What were they doing to sustain that? I’m still not sure…
  • SD _ But in the context of our conversation it’s an opposite way of working, except the rigour of it is equal.
  • MF _ I would probably have written a very complicated score to achieve the same thing! They didn’t need all that. I’m always banging on about the need for structure in the small and the large scale and they achieve something very engrossing without that. Fascinating.
  • SD _ At the same time you and Catherine Bennett were existing in a micro world of a very carefully worked out counterpoint.
  • MF _ It’s the only way I know how to make anything. Starting off with an image of what the thing might be, and then writing on paper, away from ‘how does it feel’, but rather ‘how does it look on paper’ - writing a rhythmic structure in order to keep the thing going. Then adjust it when you try it out.
  • SD _ When you look at the scores, do they have pleasing visual patterns? Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4, Image 5, Image 6
  • MF _ Absolutely. Although I’m completely crap at maths I do get very excited about patterns. Nothing too complicated, mind. But notation for me is often more than half the work – once you figure out how to write something down successfully, it writes itself! Morton Feldman said that about his own music, I think. It’s a very nice image. And often in workshops people complain at first that they don’t know how to write something down, and then they get it and make a big leap in their work.
  • SD _ I hear you often say ‘I do one thing once, or one thing a lot and by repetition it begins to tell you something….’
  • MF _ ...the right things repeated the right amount of times though, not just repetition for its own sake…
  • SD _ At the moment there’s a real inquiry about movement and conceptual thought – where the concept drives the movement and you only need enough movement to support the idea and no more. I don’t want the body to be negated; how do we find another balance or displacement between action, thought and feeling, and one that gives us the choice to integrate or separate those elements?
  • MF _ Isn’t that the job of structure and form?
  • SD _ It can release ideas or activity and squeeze out the unnecessary?
  • MF _ And can support or transform very personal material.
  • SD _ We are plain curious about what is next.
  • MF _ Yes. And, how can we present something familiar and it seems fresh?
  • SD _ You have made a decision not to use improvisation, which could give both music and dance room to manoeuvre around each other without one doing the job of the other.
  • MF _ I don’t use improvisation because I can’t do it. I am a terrible improviser! And I don’t like to see ‘playing’ with ideas or material, which so often happens. But in the hands of the right person, it’s fantastic of course. I love it when I don’t know how something is made. Like ‘ The Match’ by Deborah Hay. Who would have thought that they are improvising?
  • SD _ Very strictly though. She asks her artists to prepare so thoroughly that they can make very informed decisions in the moment of performance.
  • MF _ I suppose the other thing about structure and formalism, which I’ve discovered through working with Jonathan Burrows and more recently with Catherine Bennett is that of course there is improvisation – I mean you’ve seen us perform The Collection 100 times and it was probably quite different every time, although we very much stuck to the score note for note. The score gives you plenty of room without needing to ‘play’ with the material. If it’s right it supports the performer and looks after them and leaves them free.
  • SD _ A wonderful performer has time. The audience knows that they have the time to do what they need to do. It can still be speedy but they have…
  • MF _ …control of it.
  • SD _ I suppose it does feel like there is room for breath.
  • MF _ I don’t like it when I hear or see the performer too much. If Alfred Brendel is playing Schubert I don’t want to hear Brendel being Brendel. I want to hear Schubert and imagine Schubert playing it. So the performer should be both visible and invisible. Somehow.
  • SD _ I’m curious that the performer is a person but using a different edit of themselves during a performance. I see what you mean about the clarity but the performer and the material can be a unique partnership.
  • MF _ Yes I’m not sure about that, I don’t know about that thought.
  • SD _ Because you as a person are not lost when you perform?
  • MF _ No, exactly. Certainly that’s what people say about the 3 duets with Jonathan. With all it’s formality what you see is…
  • SD _ Two men at work
  • MF _ Yes. Two friends at work. It allows the audience in…
  • SD _ What devices do you use when making a form to ensure that there is feeling, because I believe that’s what you do but I wonder how conscious you are of that? Your use of structures reveals more human behaviour, not less.
  • MF _ Sometimes you can use very personal emotive material and by forcing it into a structure or a rhythm or super-imposing something onto it you can get away with it. Ultimately I like Beethoven’s definition of composition: the right note at the right time for the right instrument. Everything takes care of itself .
  • SD _ Yes it does, I am conscious of the personal within myself but know that in a way I have to atomise it, explode it in order for it to collect together again within a refreshed form, it’s gone through this fractured moment.
  • MF _ Fractured by what?
  • SD _ Let’s say I have an emotion, a statement, a personal thing within myself. By breaking it down into smaller parts there is an opportunity to re-set, re-order the whole, gaining not losing clarity because of a shift of perspective.
  • MF _ I see what you mean. I tend to work in a different way, linearly, from the beginning.
  • SD _ Yes. We’ve occasionally enjoyed talking about the writer Italo Calvino and Six Memos for the Next Millennium. He uses one-word titles and one is ‘Lightness’.
  • MF _ Lightness of touch?
  • SD _ Lightness of touch, not easiness, maybe lack of interference...
  • MF _ Like gardening. Which doesn’t exclude rigour – but too much rigour can also be bad. Lightness of touch is certainly something that I like to see in other people’s work – which doesn’t mean thinness or doesn’t mean frivolity…
  • SD _ Somehow the thing exists on it’s own terms – without the weight of over-seriousness.
  • MF _ For me it’s Matisse rather than Francis Bacon
  • SD _ and there were two other words. One was ‘visibility’…
  • MF _ Absolutely – crystal clear is best!
  • SD _ And yet you don’t want to know how they’re made?
  • MF _ Also true. So many contradictions…
  • SD _ That’s good.
  • SD _ The other word is ‘multiplicity’.
  • MF _ What do you think that means?
  • SD _ Well – I suppose it is a recognition of contradictions. It’s not just the one thought – because the one thought might have arrived through multiple forms; it’s a recognition of those multiple forms.
  • MF _ I was mercilessly teased for ages for once describing something as ‘simple yet complex’. Is it that?
  • SD _ I think so!