The Music of March: A Playlist
by Rhea Daniels
February 17, 2022
The music that fills out the scores of the works on this season’s Winter Mixed Programme include an energizing range of genres, from American popular dance hits from top of the 20th century to minimalist mystic vibrations out of Estonia, all the way to South African lullaby and contemporary chamber music. It is an eclectic sounding list, for sure, however, when we dive into the music and the artists of the season, we can hear how particularly as time marches on, no style of music is an island unto its own. The sonic selections made by the choreographers on this programme invite us to hear the connections and influence of various cultures and histories on the composers and the dance. From the gleeful to the hypnotic to the transcendent, the scores make for a great playlist to carry us through these complicated times. A brief listen to some of the compositions offers an ear into what drives the dance and the creators of this season’s programme.
Elite Syncopations – Ragtime Rocks
Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Elite Syncopations is a 1970s tribute to the popular American dancehall music of the early 1900s: ragtime. Known as the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin’s compositions feature heavily in the score and are played by members of The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, fully costumed and on stage, creating the dancehall atmosphere within the ballet. The specific syncopated or “ragged” rhythmic figures of ragtime – a precursor to jazz – feature prominently in this music with its roots firmly planted in the African American experience, including during slavery.
Within ragtime are musical elements that emphasize the offbeat, blended with European playing styles, which Joplin learned from his first and most influential piano teacher in Texarkana, a German-Jewish immigrant named Julius Weiss. Ragtime also contains the influence of minstrel songs and social dances like the cakewalk; both popular performance styles that used racial caricature and were performed and adapted differently by white and Black entertainers in the post enslavement period. This blending of genres and cultures that informed ragtime’s origins continued as the style experienced an explosion in popularity inspired by the 1973 film The Sting. The Entertainer composed by Joplin in 1902 reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Artists working in the 1970s, like MacMillan and even, pop musicians of the time began delving into the archives of early recorded American music, incorporating the sounds of honky tonk and ragtime into the rock n roll vibe of the era.
After the Rain – Spiritual Showers
Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain premiered in 2005 and is performed to two famed compositions by Arvo Pärt. Pärt, a deeply religious Estonian composer of minimalist style, employs a technique of his own invention called Tintinnabuli, which refers to the ringing of bells. Influenced by the composer's mystical experiences with chant music, the compositions Pärt created during this period came out of his immersion into plainsong, Gregorian chant and the emergence of polyphony in the European Renaissance. Although he is considered a national treasure in his home country today, with its religious content and Western influence, Pärt’s music was at odds with the Soviet establishment and in 1968 his music had been banned in Estonia and across the Soviet Union. By the 1980s, several of Pärt’s recordings became available in the West, leading to his music’s popularity in film scores and live performance (he was the most performed living composer from 2011 to 2018). The first movement of After the Rain is danced to Tabula Rasa (1977) (First movement - "Ludus"). The popular pas de deux section is set to a simple duo for violin and piano titled Spiegel im Spiegel.
Skyward – Soaring Sextets
The score for Alysa Pires’ Skyward is made up of excerpts from four contemporary pieces commissioned and recorded by the award-winning contemporary sextet Eighth Blackbird. The first piece, Doublespeak, is written by the prolific young American composer Nico Muhly. Muhly’s numerous credits include the score for the 2013 Broadway Production of The Glass Menagerie and the opera Two Boys performed by English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. Recently Muhly has collaborated on ballet scores with choreographers Kyle Abraham and Justin Peck for their New York City Ballet commissions.
Another of Skyward’s sections is danced to Murder Ballades: 2. Young Emily,
a work by American composer Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. Dessner is also known for composing the orchestrations for Taylor Swift’s Folklore album and collaborating with Swift for the song Coney Island on her follow up album, evermore.
On Solid Ground – Words That Move
The songs Siphesihle November chose for the world premiere of his work for The National Ballet of Canada, On Solid Ground, feature uplifting vocals, reflective of choreographer’s deep sense of connection between music and the body. UK based music producer, DJ and film composer Benjamin Gordon’s piece Back To You inspired Siphe to attempt to capture the feeling of marrying music and dance. Gordon’s composition features a spoken word poem performed to a simple chord progression and pulsating vocals.
A South African native, Siphe was also inspired by the sounds of home. The score for his work also features the song UNdize, a recording by Msaki, a contemporary South African and English composer, singer and songwriter vocalizing a soaring lullaby.