On April 9, 2015, Journalist David Levesley interviewed composer/pianist Elizabeth Myers in advance of the premiere of her new music/dance collaboration with choreographer Julia K. Gleich.
David Levesley: Julia Gleich said you were fundamental to the conception of this collaboration. How were you involved in its formation?
Elizabeth Myers: I put the idea out into the universe because when I first heard this piano piece- which I had known, but I was re-introduced to it a couple of years ago- it really spoke to me. The last couple of years I’ve been channeling Johannes Brahms. I’ve really been studying his late piano works, and this is the next to last piano piece he ever wrote. After a career of 50-odd years of extraordinary composition, which elevated him to the level of Beethoven, which was the big problem in that day: how to surpass Beethoven. And he became one of the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. It’s undeniable, the man was a genius.
His personal life was shambles. He had this Madonna complex with his muse, Clara Schumann, who was married to Robert Schumann. She was older, 14 years older, something like that, and actually Johannes had been their protégé. But when the time came for there to be something more? He resisted. So that was an interesting little tidbit, you know, when you start channeling someone you always get into the juicy tidbits. But the music really spoke to me, especially it’s form- A B A- the B-part being the most sublime lyrical piece you’ve ever imagined. It just said ballet to me. And when I discovered Julia’s work, it was something I’ve always dreamed about, which was modern dance on pointe.
My first job in this city was as the assistant and musical director for Agnes de Mille who was a choreographer who took elements of traditional ballet and put it into the Broadway world: Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Carousel. She was a master of storytelling without pantomime, which is really a tough thing to do. But she got the emotion across. So I started in the dance, I’ve been sidetracked by a career writing commercial music with my husband John, and my classical training has really helped me do that. My husband is a rocker and we write for (the heavy metal band) Blue Oyster Cult. So we get that juxtapositioning of musical skills. So when you ask about collaboration, I believe this collaboration with Julia has grown out of my original idea, but it has always been there, and we’re just discovering it now.
In figuring out how the music and the dance would exist together, how did the relationship develop between you and Julia?
Well I’m there on-stage, playing live. So it’s as if there are two worlds. There are moments of simultaneity, and then there’s an additional (audio) element which I added. When I was working with it, and when Julia started choreographing it, and also when I realized the context of the festival (one piece in a myriad of other pieces, small black box theatre, house sound, an intimate audience) well I thought perhaps it would be nice to have something else. Something that modernizes it. Something that gives it a little bit of additional gravitas. Because, you know, nostalgia is dead. If we just look back, it’s not quite as interesting as imaging it as a photograph where all of a sudden we see something new in it. So I created this electronic soundscape to run alongside it. At first I wanted to use noises from the late 1800s, the German cityscapes, the ambience of what it is to live in that time. But that failed miserably, so I went to non-tonal music, just sort of a palette of non-tonalities. And that failed miserably. So then I decided to give in to the harmonies of Brahms but use a selection of electronic noises.
It follows. Sometimes it leads. It’s like a cheerleader going out with the bad guy at high school. The Brahms is squeaky clean and beautiful and then there’s this bad guy she’s kind of attracted to.
How has the process been in the rehearsal room?
It’s been startling. The first time we ran it, we had never been in a room together before. Julia had been teaching it to the dancers, and they’d brought in a third dancer who was learning it. And we just did it. And there was silence. And Julia said, “well that’s lovely, should we go home?” It was kismet, it was kind of crazy. Now the pressure’s on. Because for performers you’re inside your body at that moment, and you develop your aural skills- not necessarily your visual skills because you generally can’t see the audience (due to the spotlights)- but tomorrow night we will be able see them. We’ll gather that sense of ‘do we have it or not?’ A sense of what else is going on in the room. Because when people aren’t paying attention they put out a wavelength that a performer can read.
The choreography is not pantomime. It’s the most subtle geometrics, and angular, with moments of simultaneity and we don’t overplay those moments. I was raised in an era where you went “5, 6, 7, 8 BOOM!” And whenever I go to a performance of Rodeo, which was Agnes’ true master work with a score by Aaron Copland which has become a quintessential American orchestral work, and if they don’t have the oomph on the downbeat? I walk out disappointed. Because that piece of music started off as a ballet, and when the dancers hit the floor the music also has to hit the floor.
But I was at New York City Ballet a few months ago and I saw Justin Peck’s performance of Rodeo, where he had completely redone it, and it was extraordinary. It was all about joy. I noticed the pianist just played the piece, so I’m enjoying that moment of two worlds (when I perform our Intermezzo).
Ballet and modern dance are forms that have been around a long time and want to stay current. So in performing a piece based on classical dance using 19th century composition, how are those forms changing to keep the audience engaged, like with Peck and Rodeo?
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think there’s a sea change in how people view the female body. The swan used to attract a lot of attention, but there are no more swans. The female body has changed into the human body and it’s becoming a human that is more interesting than the turnout or the foot above the head. It’s a simplicity and authenticity of emotion. It’s extraordinarily beautiful to watch but you find yourself not just watching the women, the men are no longer (just) assisting. They’re fantastic. I think that’s what’s going on with dance. It’s something I noticed with Justin Peck’s choreography: it’s becoming unisex. I found it really freeing. Liberating.
What is it about dance that makes it an art form and not just gymnastics?
The problem with dance is you have to go to the theater or watch it on a stage. When someone’s dancing on the metro, or on the bus, it’s bothersome. You don’t enjoy it. There has to be a little bit of appreciation of distance. It’s beyond gymnastics. There has to be a sense of denying gravity.
I remember seeing John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet years ago and I literally could not breathe. There was a moment where she floats and… That was defying gravity. I don’t think it’s gymnastics because gymnastics look hard to me. When someone’s doing an iron cross they sweat, but in dance it’s still to to be very graceful.
I’m sure there are many people who will read this article, debating which dances to see in the rotation, and see that this is using classical music and are put off. For people who don’t know Brahms, or are scared of Brahms, what do you think makes him so great for choreography?
It was used in the Ang Lee’s movie Lust, Caution in the seduction scene. So if you need anything to be interested, this piece is a very emotional piece. Apparently when Clara played it for Johannes just weeks before she died he started crying uncontrollably because it meant so much to him. It touches everyone who hears it in the right setting. I started by saying nostalgia is dead, but this is a timeless thing. It’s like a John Legend song.
Would you like to keep working in dance and music?
In a word? Yes. I have found this collaboration process almost like ESP with Julia. It reinforces what I believe about music and the dance that there is something nonverbal about it. Something more eloquent than words.
I’ve been taking piano lessons again after a long career. And I’ve been relearning the masterworks. My teacher keeps telling me to get it down to one word, one attribute, regardless of length. And that’s really freeing. However, I’ve not yet thought of the attribute for this one yet.
At first I thought it was mystical. There’s the concept of the doppelganger: the alternate self walking through life. But it’s also grateful. There’s a gratitude for a lifetime of music. But that’s a hard one to hang a performance on. It must just be line, or the arc. The arc is itself, because of that form. (A-B-A) What would be the musical form of ‘form follows function’? Form is itself’s own beauty. Something like that.
How does the dynamic of working in a festival differ from working on a singular commercial composition with your husband?
Advertising is horribly wonderful because you usually have 24 hours to deliver. It’s either there or it’s not and you get an immediate response. There’s no time to turn back. I chose this week to take off and just be available for this but I noticed that the dancers are committed all over town. I don’t know if I could handle that kind of focus, focus, focus. For me the festival setting is wonderful because this is a 7-minute work, I’ve spent my 10,000 hours preparing for it, and now we just go in and do it.
I once spoke to the playwright Edward Bond who said the main problem with actors today was that they couldn’t commit to a single piece for a long period of time. You mentioned the dancers are committed all over town, do you think it’s better for an artist to give your 10,000 hours as you said, or is it artistically more beneficial to have a finger in every pie?
I teach at UCLA on the graduate level young musicians who want to become composers. I talk to them about eclecticism versus stylism. Some of them come in with a particular style they love, and you can get deep into that style and be successful. But eclecticism wins the day in terms of doing more work, a greater variety of work. I’m on the fence about which is more true. In the world of journalism if you go home and write too many words your work will be less focused and less appreciated because people are busy. I still believe in the artist, and I think it’s amazing when an artist goes away from what’s expected, away from civilization’s practices, beliefs and religion and comes back with an album that gets tremendous attention. But it takes someone to come up with that one word to describe it to make people listen.