When I was asked to contribute an article to AMN on the subject of Cotswold morris music and its relationship to the dance, I was both pleased and a little apprehensive. Pleased, because this is one of my favorite subjects and one which provided a satisfying focus for my U.C.L.A. masters' degree thesis in dance ethnology a few years back. Apprehensive, because I suspected that AMN readers wouldn't want to wade through a lot of academic jargon to get at a few cogent points, so I knew I had a lot of rewriting to do.
I decided on a two-part article, addressing both general performance issues and some of the practical elements involved in bringing movement and music together. This first installment will explain how I came to be involved with the subject of music and dance relations, and will examine some ideas about what makes good music for Cotswold morris. Part II will look further at participants' opinions on bringing music and movement together, and will offer some suggestions on how to improve communication between musicians and dancers - both verbal and non-verbal, and both in practice sessions and "on the spot" in performance.
Most of us know it and all of us seek it: that elusive "ideal" performance, the one which raises goosebumps in performer and spectator alike, which allows for a deep and overwhelming immersion in the event, and which creates, as Douglas Kennedy said, the feeling "not so much of doing as having something done to you." (1) Although there are many factors which contribute to this kind of experience, I don't believe it can happen unless the movement and music are in perfect sympathy. This brings up the question for which this article is named: Who's following whom, anyway - musician or dancer? Who's leading? And if both feel as though they are leading and following one another, how does the give-and-take actually work? Opinions vary widely on these questions, but most dancers and musicians I know find the subject intriguing and enjoy analyzing and discussing their ideas and strategies.
Regarding my own experience, I grew up with music and dance of all kinds, and "discovered" morris in the early '70s as an offshoot of my interest in international folk dancing. Since then I have danced and played for many teams, first in the Boston area and around New England, then in Los Angeles while researching my m.a., and finally in Oxfordshire, England, where I lived from 1992 to 1996. My longest association has been with Ha'penny Morris of Boston, including several years as both foreman and primary musician in the late 1980s. It was this combined role, more than anything, which inspired me to write about music and dance relations.
I had already begun to talk about the subject with other musician-dancers, both in and outside of morris, eventually taping some of these conversations. While in L.A. I chose five "primary respondents" from the international morris community, whose interviews became the focus for my thesis. (2) Later in England, as part of a postgraduate program in ethnomusicology (though on a slightly different research topic), I was able to follow two village revival teams and their American "counterparts" through a part of their practice and performance seasons, while actively playing and dancing with several other teams in the eastern Cotswolds area. (3) I feel very fortunate to have had such a variety of experiences in morris music and dance, and I am indebted to my teammates and to the many people who have been kind enough to talk with me, sit through interviews, lend me videotapes, dance for my playing and play for my dancing.
Acknowledgements complete, more or less, we can now return to the subject at hand. I have always been fascinated with the relationship between music and dance in any kind of conjugal performance, particularly as dancers and dance musicians are so clearly interdependent yet often seem to operate in different worlds, speak different artistic "languages", and barely acknowledge one another. In some performance genres, the musicians and dancers come from different social or cultural backgrounds; in others, such as ballet, the musicians and dancers can't see each other and a conductor must bridge the gap. Many western art musicians view dance music with distaste, believing that it hampers a purely musical expression. In morris, however, the musical expression is the dance. And to many, the dance is also music - "music made visible", as Maud Karpeles is widely quoted.
Why are the two so close in this particular form? The ideas which guided my inquiry had to do with five features of Cotswold morris:
1. The dances are composed mainly of leaps and jumps, small or large - aerial movements.
2. These movements are performed mainly in unison by a full set of dancers (though some are of course done solo or in pairs, etc.).
3. The performers are generally amateurs, encompassing many different body types, ages, goals and abilities, and participating for their own enjoyment.
4. There is a wide variety of performance environments, including dance surface, weather, audience, etc.
5. The collected music is very stark in nature - for the most part a simple melody which may be enhanced ad lib with percussion or harmony. (For now, this item will be treated as a simple fact rather than as a starting point for discussions on the 'traditional' nature of morris, the methods and biases of collectors, etc.)
So basically we have a dance form based on aerial movements performed in unison to a sparse tune, by people of differing physical abilities, outdoors in a variety of circumstances, for fun. What is the musician's role in this?
First and foremost, of course, it's to have fun too: by enhancing the dance, inspiring the dancers, and knowing that - although the audience is naturally caught up in watching the movement - it is the musician who defines good morris as much as (if not more than) any dancer. In fact, one thought shared widely among participants is that to be a good musician one must be a dancer. I do not necessarily agree, but I do think the exception proves the rule. Rather than being a technical virtuoso, the musician should understand what the dancers require to dance well, and the easiest way to know this is to have felt it physically. Without the experience of dancing, a musician runs the risk of approaching the music too cerebrally or focusing only on sound, and missing the opportunity to provide the dancers with exactly what they need.
The following may be considered a basic checklist of dancers' musical needs:
1. Confidence and trust between dancers and musician (5), including the ability to clearly see and hear one another, and knowledge by everyone of the basic style.
2. A suitable - or better yet, perfect - underlying tempo.
3. Rhythmic flexibility, appropriate to the elements of the dance.
4. Inspired and inspiring music, melodically speaking, with regard to articulation, dynamics, phrasing and embellishments.
5. Where applicable, percussion, harmony, and/or counter-melody which enhances the performance.
6. An awareness by the musician of elements unique to: a) the particular dance; b) the specific set of dancers, and c) the immediate situation, including tiredness, dance surface, weather, injuries, drink, etc.
Note that #6 leads directly back to #1. All these items are interrelated, and the list is not meant to be complete. Nonetheless, each point is worth considering on its own.
Confidence and trust
I consider this the most important item, because no matter who is supposed to be following whom, when there is mutual trust both dancers and musician know that the performance will work, no matter what. Knowing this, they can relax and enjoy what they're doing. Without this element, movement or music or both can be stilted, hesitant, or merely perfunctory. Trust is most easily achieved, of course, when the dancers and musician have been working together for a long time, and especially when there is a good working relationship between musician and foreman. However, most experienced musicians are asked to play for unfamiliar dancers at some point. In such a case, confidence may be enhanced by a musician's solid "once-to-yourself", along with attention to the other factors on the checklist.
The dancers, for their part, should feel confident in the style and trust their set leader (usually in #1 position) to communicate appropriately with the musician. If anything should go wrong, it is good to understand beforehand - or at least for the set leader to intuit - who can best adjust, dancers or musician. I personally think the musician should be accomplished and knowledgeable enough to adjust quickly, but if that doesn't happen it is up to the set leader to organize the troops with a well-timed call.
2. Suitable tempo
One of my favorite quotes comes from that most musical of choreographers, George Balanchine. When asked what he would choose if granted a single wish, his answer, without hesitation, was: "Perfect tempos all the time." (6) This underscores my own belief that the most wonderful morris can only happen when the music is at the optimum tempo for the dancers. Part II of this article will get into the details of finding that ideal tempo, but I'll start here by saying that the moment of truth for any musician is the dancers' first big movement - usually a jump or caper. Back-steps aren't as indicative, as they have two rhythmic elements (a step and a hop) and can be performed comfortably in a comparatively broad range of tempos. A jump or caper, on the other hand, has only one big aerial element, and most people agree that it is most spectacular and effective near the limits of a dancer's ability. Put six people in a set, jumping in unison, and the musician clearly has a crucial (and potentially very satisfying) task.
3. Rhythmic flexibility
Given the above example, it's easy to see that the rhythmic elements of morris music must be flexible to help the dancers achieve their best performance. Once an optimum tempo is determined (through years of practice, spontaneous evaluation, preliminary cues from the set leader, or whatever), the musician should NOT assume that the tempo remains immovable right through the dance or up to the slow capers - nor that the slows are exactly half-tempo just because they're written that way in the Bacon handbook. The dancers will expect the musician to be consistent and dependable as far as placing the beats to match their footfalls, and some may think that their steps are in perfectly even time. (These often turn out to be the dancers who say that they "just follow the music".) However, because of the aerial nature of the movements, there is more rhythmic flexibility involved in morris than in other more ground-based dance styles.
One phenomenon which is noticeable even to non-dancers is that many morris dancers double-step in 6/8 (or 'jig time'), even when the music is plugging away in a steady 4/4. (7) Musicians: try playing a 4/4 tune so that it would match a 6/8 dancer's feet - even exaggerate the effect. Now: in reality, you should be able to give a subtle hint toward this tendency, but no one should notice except you, not even the dancers. It isn't easy! Obviously this flexibility can be more or less marked depending on the dancers and the style, but it is something to consider in playing traditional tunes and especially in choosing or adapting tunes for new dances. (Once I spontaneously changed a 4/4 tune into a 6/8 one, to the dancers' delight; it has remained that way ever since.)
Another strategy is for the musician is to watch the dancers' upper bodies, which are more fluid in their movements and often under greater rhythmic control than stressed-out lower limbs. However, if the two are not in agreement, the feet will probably land early - and in some movements, such as plain capers, the arms may deliberately move "behind" the beat. Which part of the body should you watch - and whose? With six dancers, who will be the most together? Then there's the sound of the bells: if tied loosely, they ring after the beat, which can be distracting, especially if the group's footfalls are haphazard. And in stick dances, the stick-striking is often rushed. Ideally, each team ought to consider these potential minefields and strategize as a group. I would advise musicians to experiment and discuss such things in practice, but in performance always move toward what you know best or what the dancers do naturally.
Part II will provide more details on the crucial issue of rhythmic flexibility. Till then, consider this: a good musician can make the dancers dance better - much better - than they ever thought possible, and I believe rhythmic flexibility is the key element.
4. Inspiration and communication
The musician must love to play music and enjoy playing for dance. It's difficult to be inspired by a musician who is in fact a dancer, who really prefers to dance and would rather not play, except that there's no one else to do it. As Tony Barrand said in his instructions to would-be team founders: "Go, therefore, into the night and start looking for a musician before you drag in those unwilling bodies. . .They will never get it right if the music isn't right." (8) Alan Whear, a longtime musician for Windsor Morris, suggested the following quote be hung around the neck of every morris musician: "You can dance badly to good music, but you can't dance well to poor music." (9) Once a tempo has been chosen and solidified, that's when the fun really begins.
I believe - though many may disagree - that the collected melody is no more than a springboard for interpreting the movements a musician sees right then and there. I learn the melody first, but I don't feel that I have to play it exactly as it is in Bacon. For example: is a sidestep sequence coming up? How can it be guided or reflected in sound (without destroying the tune)? Should the hop be elaborated with a grace note, should the downbeat be hit hard, should a passing note be removed, or what? Again, musicians, experiment in practice and pay attention the the dancers' responses - though in many cases they may be unable to articulate what they feel. Edie Leicester of Sunset Morris described combining a smoother articulation with a slight decrease in tempo for the transition into the Bampton "Twizzle" sidestep sequence, after which a dancer came up and said, "Wow - that is the best you've ever played that!" But he couldn't tell her why.
Find your own way of enhancing each movement or sequence, and then try to settle into it and be consistent. It really helps, especially in the matter of trust (there's item #1 again).
5. Percussion and harmony
This is a follow-on to melodic concerns, and is largely up to the individual musician's aesthetics and capabilities. Some suggestions will be offered in Part II, but the musician should always keep in mind that that the sound must always serve the movement. Percussion speaks for itself - dynamics, drum rolls, rim taps and silences, for example, can all be used to great advantage in morris, which is why the pipe and tabor was and is such a favorite instrument. Regarding harmony, if you find a terrific chord sequence or counter-melodic enhancement, try it out in practice by all means. But beware of "extras" which may work fine musically yet confuse or detract from a movement's accent, or the ebb and flow of a sequence. The audience is there to enjoy the whole performance, of which the music is merely a humble adjunct to visual elements (at least on the surface). If you want folks to know what a talented musician you are, you can always wow them with pyrotechnics during breaks.
6. Awareness of Performance Specifics
This is pretty much self-explanatory. Have the dancers had a rest? Is this a corner or stick dance, in which they will get breaks, or a sidestep half-hey where they dance in unison throughout? Are there big capers, for which they must save their energy? If the dancers and musician are to trust each other, all must stay focused on the immediate issues of performance, even if these stray from the ideals worked out in practice. Regarding tempo, for example: you (as a team) may decide you can dance quite slowly, but if in performance the dancers are flagging or looking heavy on the ground, the musician would do well to nudge that tempo up and lighten the articulation to get the dancers back in the air!
This is a lot of information to consider, but you may have found a couple of threads running through this article. Firstly, trust between musician and dancers is crucial to a good performance. And secondly, practice is the place for experimentation - ideally, plenty of it with lots of feedback both ways - whereas performance is generally NOT the place to throw in something new. I'm not saying a clever musical joke can't ever help enhance a performance - it most certainly can! - but just that uncertainty on anyone's part can be seen and felt by an audience. Keep it simple, keep your team goals in mind and let the joy morris gives you shine through.
Next time: Musicians, foremen etc. talk about how to improve communication and technique. Specific examples of music/dance matching, practical experiments, and success stories!
(1) Douglas Kennedy, "To the Dancers: A Live and Buoyant Carriage," English Dance and Song, II(3), 1938, p.38
(2) Those interviewed for my masters thesis include Andra Herzbrun Horton of Marlboro Morris and Sword (a team foreman who plays pipe and tabor); Tom Kruskal of the Pinewoods Morris Men (anglo concertina player and dancer); Edie Leicester of Sunset Morris (a pipe and tabor player, now playing for Newtowne and dancing with Muddy River); Tim Radford of Adderbury and Kirtlington (squire and foreman, respectively - and also my husband); and Stephen Wass of Adderbury and Bloxham (a melodeon player and ex-dancer). One regret was that I was unable to interview a morris fiddler in depth. However my U.C.L.A. advisor, Colin Quigley, plays fiddle for morris and we had some fine discussions. Adderbury fiddler Chris Leslie provided additional information, and I was able to transcribe his playing for my thesis.
(3) I followed The Traditional Ilmington Morris Men and the Sherborne Morris Men in England, and the U.S.A. teams Marlboro Morris and Sword (VT) and the Bouwerie Boys (NY), who base their key repertoires on Ilmington and Sherborne respectively. During that time I performed in England with Kirtlington, Rogue and Bloxham, and videotaped teams such as Adderbury, Bampton, Chipping Campden, Abingdon etc. I also performed occasionally in the U.S. with Ha'penny and other teams.
(4) As Gene Murrow recently reminded me, the original quote is attributed to Imogen Holst.
(5) For consistency, I will use dancers (plural) and musician (singular) unless otherwise specified. This is meant to cover all situations, including the classic (and perhaps the best): six dancers and one musician.
(6) Merrill Ashley, Dancing for Balanchine, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1984, p. 153.
(7) Audience reponse to lecture/demonstrations at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., 1986; Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, 1989; Goldsmiths' College, London, England, 1992; dance conference in Skierniwice, Poland, 1994.
(8) Tony Barrand, Six Fools and a Dancer, Northern Harmony, Plainfield VT, 1992, p. 77.
(9) Alan Whear, personal communication, 1989.
©1997 Jan Elliott