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Interview, 6-14: Harmonizing
Caines Takes on a Musical Opus
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom
NEW YORK -- On Thursday
at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, the Christopher Caines
Dance Company premieres Caines's "Tenebrae," with 10 dancers joined
by 40 singers and one conductor, Kristina Boerger, leading the singers
in 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis's magnum opus "Spem in Alium." The evening will
also include "Can't Sleep," a work for eight dancers, to selections
from William Bolcom's "Cabaret Songs." I interviewed Caines June
6 in New York City.
Philip W. Sandstrom: How did this "Tenebrae" project begin?
What drives you to make this particular kind of work?
All of my pieces really start in exactly the same way: I fall in
love with a particular piece of music and become completely obsessed
with it. Often the falling in love with a piece of music has something
to do with the specific musicians involved but not in this case.
I belong to the Columbia House Record Club and eight or ten years
ago, just on a lark, I bought the CD of the Tallis Scholars singing
"Spem in Alium" and other works by Tallis. I've always loved choral
music and vocal music generally and my core relationship to music
is to vocal music. I became instantly obsessed with this extraordinary
piece of music, which really is one of a kind. I immediately began
dreaming of choreographing a dance to this music. But it seemed
an insane idea to choreograph to a piece of music that requires
PWS: Okay, so
you bought the CD, so use the CD; do you prefer to work with live
CC: My company
has never once performed to recorded music.
PWS: Never, never?
CC: No, never,
even my very early solos were with live musicians. It actually never
occurred to me to work with recorded music, although now it has
become a very self-conscious principle.
PWS: Are you
trained as a musician or singer?
CC: I sang in
choirs when I was a child and I had four years of very adult piano
lessons. There was a phase, years ago, where I studied North Indian
classical drumming and North Indian classical singing as well, a
tradition called Dhrupad; it's an ancient tradition of sacred singing.
I've taken normal singing lessons and I've taken bel canto lessons.
So, I have a lot of musical training but what I know about harmony
and counterpoint and theory is entirely self-taught. If I had the
leisure and the money I would like nothing better than to find someone
to apprentice myself to and really systematically study counterpoint
-- especially modal counterpoint because it obsesses me so much.
PWS: So to recap
your process, you fall in love with the music, you always work with
live music; what happened next?
CC: This particular
piece of music so obsessed me that I'd listen to it hundreds of
times in a week. Whenever and wherever I'd listen to it, it would
always make me cry. I had to get over that before rehearsals started!
Through a project I
did with Kristina Boerger, the conductor, I met Rob Moss, who had
produced the only live presentation of "Spem in Alium" that I had
ever heard. He has all 41 scores necessary to do the piece; 40 for
the singers and one for the conductor. The score itself is an amazing
object; it's 40-part counterpoint, 40 independent parts! I've spread
the entire score out on the wall; it's quite amazing visually. It
appears, in a very abstract way, to be a man with his arms on a
cross or spread upwards to Heaven.
PWS: Do you choreograph
exactly to the music?
CC: I can't choreograph
without the score; I really have to have the score. I read music
and studying the score helps me. If I only have recordings, then
I feelI'm only choreographing to given performances of the music.
If I don't have a score I don't know what the music is.
you don't see what's coming next?
CC: You have
to see the score to understand what the composer intends. When I'm
choreographing, I normally keep the score on a music stand and race
back and forth between the dancers and the score.
PWS: How about
the speed of the piece -- doesn't it depend on the tempo set by
CC: I've heard
a variety of tempi, some fast, some slow. I think the tempo needs
to be like that of a resting heartbeat.
PWS: What's that
-- about 80?
CC: It's about
82 to 86 beats per minute.
PWS: Okay, it
sounds like I shouldn't say that you choreograph to the music; what
should I say?
CC: I'm a very
contrapuntal person, that's my musical disposition.
PWS: Please define
and harmony are two ways of looking at the same thing. Harmony emphasizes
the vertical (chordal) relationships among the lines of music, and
counterpoint emphasizes the horizontal lines and their relations
to each other. Bach's music is predominately very contrapuntal;
he's a great contrapuntist.
PWS: So what
does it mean when you say you're a contrapuntal choreographer?
CC: My response
to all music, of whatever period, is I'm not ever trying to mimic
the music. I'm trying to build an intact freestanding structure
that responds to and embeds (itself) in (the music).
PWS: Do you feel
you're trying to reveal the character of the music?
CC: I feel I'm
trying to honor the music, to be true to what it essentially is.
I've worked with music from anonymous polyphony to 20th-century
music in a new score by an American composer. I think it's better
to explain by example: For "Spem in Alium," I could have choreographed
40 dancers mimicking the 40 lines of music; that would be an insane
thing to do. I've actually choreographed the harmonic structure.
I've choreographed the chord progression.
At this point in
the interview, Caines pulls out the printed score to show me examples.
He appears to understand what he is talking about completely and
absolutely; I get lost.
CC: The music
is like a huge machine turning in space. I've made eight simultaneous
solos that are all based on the opening duets. So when I say I'm
a contrapuntal choreographer, I mean I devise my own structures
that I hope will complement music. In this case I've devised a complicated
structure for an unbelievably complicated piece of music. It's a
PWS: Now isn't
"Spem in Alium" only a portion of the whole program?
CC: Yes, it's
the big climax of the new piece, "Tenebrae." (The piece) starts
with a beautiful little jewel-like motet called "If you love me"
sung by five singers, continues with the first set of Tallis's "Lamentations,"
the other one of his big masterpieces, then "If you love me" again,
this time sung by the whole choir, then "Spem in Alium." There is
going to be a very ceremonial aspect to the staging of the singers:
every time we have a new piece of music more singers come onstage.
"Tenebrae" will be performed by the Christopher Caines Dance
Company Thursday through Sunday at Danspace Project at St. Mark's
Philip W. Sandstrom
is a theater consultant who has worked in production and lighting
design, management, and producing, as well as a consulting editor
for 2wice Magazine.
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