Kinetic and Open

there is a music in which the body dances as opposed to a music in which the dance drowns. The first is kinetic and open, the second contemplative and dense...—Elizabeth Sawyer, Dance with the Music

I love dance, energetic melodies, and a feeling of action. Music that feels disembodied—separated from a sense of bodily movement or energy—seldom engages me at a visceral level. I can admire and appreciate contemplative music, but it seldom stirs me deeply. So I tend to write “danceable” music—music that is kinetic and open—as Balanchine said of Verdi’s music.

When I compose, my first ideas are usually melodic (melodies and bass lines). I often conceive these melodic ideas as they would sound for particular orchestral instruments or voices, making particular timbres integral to the melody’s expressive qualities. To highlight these qualities, I tend to create lean, open textures that showcase the expressive qualities of the melodic lines, and to avoid adding unneeded harmonic padding that might obscure them.

Learning from Experience

Ironically, in my late 20s I did not use dance-like rhythms in a number of works I wrote for dance performances. I composed these works for modern dance choreographers who wanted music that would create a background atmosphere for their movements, but they wanted music without regular, metric rhythms—rhythms the audience might expect them to “dance to” in a synchronized relationship.

Having attended many such performances, I could (and did) compose music suited to their purposes. I usually enjoyed seeing the dance performances, but I found I had little interest in listening to my non-propulsive compositions on their own. For me, these pieces lacked enough inherent feeling of action and progression to hold my interest, and I soon withdrew them.

Such experiences helped me better understand my deepest aesthetic preferences, which include a love of music with kinetic energy. So from my mid-thirties on, my compositions have relied extensively on propulsive rhythms, including social dance rhythms.