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University of North Texas

Final Process Paper

Creating Mastery and Manipulation

Michael Ramirez

DANC 4700

Claudia Howard Queen

8 May 2018
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Michael Ramirez

Professor Claudia Queen

DANC 4670

8 May 2018

Final Process Paper

I believe that this, my second collaboration with Keeley Dunnam, was quite successful.

We knew we both shared a passion for telling a story. Once we were paired up, we worked

vigilantly and were both in constant communication, eager to propel the project forward so that it

could be as effective to an audience as possible. We strove always to make the emotional journey

of the character clearer. In fact, we decided that the primary goal of creating this work was to

clearly communicate a story of a young woman facing a difficult set of obstacles head on and

eventually conquering them (i.e. achieving a major milestone). The setting and specific

circumstances of this story was an arena in which she would encounter four elements (air, water,

earth, and fire) and learn to master them.

Following our first collaboration (simultaneous composition motive assignment) which

we both deemed successful, Keeley Dunnam and I set out on another collaboration. During our

first collaboration, we discussed several ideas. Though we decided to focus on water as our

central image for the first project, we had discussed possibly using a ball of light or energy that

she could manipulate in space. When it came time to propose what we wanted to create for our

final projects, Keeley gravitated toward the ball of light idea, while I proposed that I expand

upon a previous collaboration with Amy (separate composition site-specific assignment), which

involved manipulation of the elements. We were paired together because of how similar these
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concepts were (both involved manipulation of tangible, yet potentially volatile materials through

dance and movement).

We met for the first time and discussed the basic element of what our project would

include. Keeley made it clear that it would be a work for one dancer and that she would be

performing it at the final showing. We found that our desired concepts were similar enough to

create something that pleased each of us artistically. We made a few compromises which

actually led to a more fully fleshed-out concept. In fact, this was a recurring theme I found

throughout the several weeks we worked on this project: the more we communicated and

discussed potential ideas (assuring each other that there were no “bad” or “wrong” ideas) and

explored them through trial and error, the closer we got to our mutual artistic vision by making

the work clearer, more emotionally precise, more visceral. We scrapped the idea of her

exploring, manipulating, and controlling the “ball of light” in favor of her doing the same with

four distinct “elements.” We knew we wanted there to be a clear narrative and character arc that

the dancer was to experience.

Unlike my previous collaboration with Amy, which featured a dancer manipulating three

elements (air, earth, and fire), we added a fourth element: water. I initially thought that this was a

clever and wise move on our parts since our collaboration featured water as a subject and image.

I thought that we could perhaps reuse previous musical and movement material from that project,

but Keeley wanted to convey a much different journey than that project. The previous piece,

after all, depicted the dancer as water itself (and inside a pitcher). This new piece required a

different relationship between dancer to water. While in the previous piece the water was being

controlled by outside forces (a person carrying the pitcher), this one involved a role reversal: the

dancer was to manipulate and control the water. I then figured that this would likely require an
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entirely new instrumentation and decided to put the old water ideas out of my mind and start


Our next step was to create a contract, or Commissioning Agreement. This is “a written

document that governs the payment of money for the creation of a new work” (Meet the

Composer, Inc. 2009). This document served as a legal record and an agreement between

composer and choreographer for the music-dance collaborative work we were to create. We

provided detailed terms which we both agreed upon, such as the duration of the work, the

instrumentation, deadlines, and rights of ownership for each party. We also decided that the work

would be entitled, Mastery and Manipulation. Once this was reviewed and signed, we were able

to properly begin creating the piece.

Since Keeley commissioned me as a composer, we decided that I would create the music

first and that she would then choreograph to my music. This is the “music first, dance second”

approach that the collaborators took with the first project. Though it was my responsibility to

create music for dance, I did have some inspiration from Keeley’s movement and graphics.

These gave me a more specific sense of the movement and mood my music was to encourage.

We decided that we would each create corresponding music and movement motives (as in the

motive assignment) early on so to encourage cohesiveness between the two mediums. In other

words, we sought to create a “synthesis between dance and accompaniment.” For the most part,

we were to avoid dramatic contrast, “opposition,” or “counterpoint.” (Horst 1963). We would

instead rely mostly upon “music visualization.” I drew inspiration from the videos of the

performances of Inspired by Bach and Appalachian Spring in that both were ideal examples of

clear music visualization. The inflections in the dance were directly inspired by the inflections
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and gestures in the music, and the dance relied on the music for emotional support. In other

words, the music motivated the movement.

After we decided on the music-dance relationship, we discussed possible instrumentation.

Each element would have one or two instruments that represented them. We agreed that each set

of instruments should have a distinct timbre. I proposed that we keep some of the same musical

material from my collaboration with Amy since it seemed to match up tonally with the

movement motifs Keeley showed me as we discussed instrumentation. I later showed her the

music and she agreed that it was a good fit. That music actually became the second section of the

“air” portion. For the “air” section, we knew we wanted a high soprano instrument; we landed

on flute for its capacity to make airy, floating gestures through long tones (sustained and/or with

“flutter-tongue” technique). For the other three elements, I suggested saxophone, trombone, and

trumpet, respectively. Keeley, however, gravitated toward percussion instruments, both pitched

and unpitched. I made a compromise and decided to challenge myself to write expressive parts

for percussion instruments, which I was relatively inexperienced with. For water, we enjoyed the

drip-like sound of the tongue drum and the rain-like sound of the gourd. For earth, we wanted

deep drums, so we decided to use a pair of conga-like drums. For fire, I wanted both an

instrument that could produce “rumbling” sounds, and Keeley wanted an instrument that could

produce metallic “flicking” sounds. We compromised (and once again, ultimately came to a

solution that left us better off than before) and decided to use both timpani (for the “rumbling”

sounds) and hi-hat (for the “flicking” sounds). Our intent for each of these instruments was to

characterize each of the elements through logical sound cues that an audience would understand.

Next, we discussed in which order the dancer would explore and master the elements.

Kelley decided that the order should be in order of what the dancer finds least challenging to
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manipulate to most challenging. Air is the lightest, so it would be first. Water is fluid and

malleable, so it would be second, Earth is dense and harder to break through and mold, so it

would be third. Last would come fire since it is fickle, violent, and unpredictable. The dancer

was to explore her relationship with each of the elements, initially experiencing difficulty with

manipulating with each element. She was to persist and become fluent in the physical language

required to master them. We wanted the piece to portray a rite of passage in which the dancer

overcame adversity and conquered obstacles in order to ultimately achieve a major milestone.

I then set out to create music to support and ultimately motivate movement for the

dancer. I sought to create “a cohesive piece of music based on an underlying thematic principle,”

one without a predictable “technical structure.” (Joio 1963). The elements we were to depict

were somewhat unpredictable, to varying degrees, and I sought to honor their capricious

character. Once I had created sketches for all four elements, we concluded that in order to

portray a true mastery of the elements, there would need to be a final section in which they were

all referenced simultaneously. During this section, the intensity would grow to an overall climax,

suggesting a mastery of each of the elements. Another important element of the work was that

each section should sound very different. We observed videos of dancers improvising to music.

Each time the mood or texture of the music would change, so would the movement vocabulary

or energy of the dancers. I sought to do the same with my music, so that from section to section

so the music would very apparently be distinct from the previous section (and the dancer’s

movement would follow this change).

About two weeks after we began creating the work, Keeley decided upon a new way of

portraying a sense of growth and mastery in each of the sections. She would begin by holding

and moving a piece fabric, each of a different color, shape, or material (blue strands for air, a
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blue sheet for water, a brown sheet for earth, and red strands for fire), to represent the element

and provide a tangible visual cue. The music would then reach a climax and she would release

the fabric and the element would then manifest in a projection, which Keeley would create. She

would then move as if she was controlling the projection, signaling that she grown in her skill of

manipulating the element.

After our preview performance, at which we presented the first two sections of the piece

(air and water) with the corresponding media, Professor Queen noted that there needed to be a

clear climax in each section. She also recommended that we change the gourd to another

instrument with more reverb; that is, the gourd sounded too dry in contrast with the very resonant

tongue drum. We incorporated these changes: I changed the gourd to a shaker, which was less

harsh and crisp in its attacks, and I created more clear moments of climax in each section.

That week, we made our final changes to the music. Keeley wanted the earth section to

be shorter and to have a lower end; I condensed the section by eliminating a few measures,

careful to maintain the sense of growth from the beginning to end, and I wrote a part for bass

drum to give the part an additional layer of depth. I also created the final section so that each of

the element would have a moment to restate each motive.

The performance at the final showcase was very well-executed and effective. The final

section was especially poignant. It was apparent that the young woman in our narrative had

developed and mastered the language of each element. This was reflected both in the way the

music interacted through counterpoint and in the intensity of Keeley’s movements. I felt as

though it achieved what Doris Humphrey believes is one of the “aims of the theater:” to “arouse

emotion” (Humphrey 2011) The music moved the dancer emotionally and also provided the

audience with the emotional context through which to experience the piece. On the subject of
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music, I made a discovery only once I saw it performed on the night of the final showcase. For

the first time, I realized the how bare and empty the space felt when there was only one

accompanying instrument per section. At first it was shocking, especially in contrast with the

other projects, which incorporated polyphonic textures in larger proportions. However, I quickly

appreciated the vulnerability it allowed the dancer to portray (I felt vulnerable while watching it

too, since it was my music being performed in such an exposed way), and I knew that it was

necessary for the sake of the piece’s intended effect.

Participating in this class expanded my perception of my relationship to dance. Because

of my background in musical theatre, I had come to expect that just about every dance movement

should correspond to a figure in the music (“Mickey Mousing”). I learned that this is not the

case. What I had become used to was “music visualization.” “Dramatic contrast,” however,

could also be used to create an intentional distinct contrast between the music and dance. I

realize that some of the most renowned musicals employ a good deal of both of these techniques,

though I had only been aware of recognizing the former, the more obvious one.
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Horst, Louis. “Composer/Choreographer: A Symposium.” Dance Perspectives, vol. 16, 1963, pp.


Humphrey, Doris. “The Race of Life: My Side of the Story. The Relationship of Music and

Dance.” Making Music for Modern Dance, 2011, pp. 69–77.

Joio, Norman Dello. “Composer/Choreographer: A Symposium.” Dance Perspectives, vol. 16,

1963, pp. 140–143.

Meet The Composer, Inc. (2009). “Meet The Composer. Music for Dance: Composer-

Choreographer Collaboration.”