How the Friction Quartet, the Garrett+Moulton Dance Company, and myself collaborated to create “A Show of Hands,” a unique, site-specific Dance Piece.
by Dan Becker
LAUNCH & ARRIVAL
On January 17th, 2013 at 2:32pm, I sent the following e-mail (excerpted here) to Doug Machiz (manager & cellist) of Friction:
“Dan here, wanting to make just the gentlest of inquiries about a project I’m involved with:
– There’s a Dance Co. called Garrett+Moulton Productions, which has done some amazing stuff, and they’re
really committed to using live music for their shows, which is wonderful.
– They won a bunch of awards a few years ago for a piece where the musicians did more than just play the soundtrack, they became a big part of the performance, to the point of even being carried around stage, etc.
They’re really pretty hot stuff.
In any case, for the first time they want to do a big show with all original music, and they’ve commissioned me for the score.
MY BIG INQUIRY:
– I’d love to know if you think that FRICTION might be interested in this gig.
– The main thing for me is to find a group that would enjoy this type of project, and who wouldn’t be shy to become part of the dance action if things move that way.
Please let me know if this is even something you’d like to discuss further.”
**Exactly 34 minutes later I received the following message from Doug:
DOUG MACHIZ WRITES:
“Dan, We are incredibly flattered and thrilled that you thought of Friction for this project. This is exactly the type of project we dreamed of when we first started the group. Friction is in! And congratulations on the commission, fantastic news! I cannot wait to hear what you come up with. We are interested.
This company looks super cool, and I’m really impressed with the videos I saw. Easily the most creative integration of theater, music, and dance I’ve seen.”
In many ways there you have it, the entire dynamic of my nine-month collaboration with Friction:
• Me: always asking carefully and tentatively about any issue at hand, and…
• Doug: jumping in immediately with an answer of “why not?” or “of course!”
Fast-forward nine months, several hundred e-mails, hundreds of hours of composing, dozens of hours of rehearsing, one brilliant choreographer creating movement, another brilliant choreographer creating visual art, six amazing dancers, four amazing musicians, forty minutes of music, and one bright and beautiful Public Space later, and A SHOW OF HANDS was premiered. It ran for two weeks and by all accounts was both a public and critical success: standing ovations, wonderful reviews, and often some tears on all sides.
I think the emotion was genuine. The chemical reaction between all the collaborative elements really sparked, and the result was a work both deep and rich, filled with smarts as well as heart, danced beautifully by the GMP dance company to original music played with virtuosity and grit by Friction. [Editor's note: Read Allan Ulrich's review of the show for the San Francisco Chronicle here.]
BACKGROUND & PROCESS:
The first good omen occurred when Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton, the Artistic Directors of Garrett+Moulton Productions asked me if I would be interested in writing an original score for their next production. Ironically, this occurred just as I was preparing to seek their advice about finding a dance company that might want to work with a live composer. (I happen to find synchronicities like this quite meaningful.) Up until this point Garrett+Moulton’s approach was to aggregate and then “curate” a large amount of already existing music. (I was lucky enough to have had two of my pieces used this way in a past production.) But now I was being asked to be the first composer to write them an all-original score. I naturally jumped at the opportunity.
The next chunk of good luck was receiving a pretty beefy “Commissioning USA” grant from (what was then) Meet The Composer. Janice, Charlie, and I had thought about using a string quartet from the very beginning. I already knew and was quite fond of Kevin Rogers of Friction (1st Vln), and I was just getting to know Doug Machiz, the main engine behind Friction and someone with whom I was very impressed as both a cellist and as a tremendously interesting human being. From the beginning they were my ideal ensemble: young, with great chops, and seemingly fearless.
Once all the musicians and dancers were secured, Janice began workshopping the dance movement in March. The overall piece had gained its identity by that point, and the title “A Show of Hands” was in place. Charlie was fascinated with hands and was beginning to draw what would eventually be a series of 100 hand images. (The full-wall backdrop of the final piece was a large grid made up of a couple dozen blowups of these drawings.) Janice was inspired by these images, and the idea of hands as a metaphor for touch and connection and relationship became the deep theme of the piece.
From March all the way up until the very day of the premier, Janice and I traded hours of both musical-tests and movement-tests, communicating frequently about the “flavors” and issues around of each of them. When people ask which came first, the music or the movement, my answer is that every possible variation of these two poles is at play in this work. It was a truly collaborative ping-pong game of ideas and material. And there are probably dozens of hours of both music and movement that we left on the cutting room floor. What remains is a lean and mean piece that totals 45 minutes.
Starting in May, after a good chunk of material had been generated, we began bringing the members of Friction into rehearsals to workshop many different ways that the musicians themselves might be incorporated more overtly into both the music and the movement.
First to come in and work with the dancers was Doug. Very soon Kevin and Otis (2nd vln) joined him for more experiments, including one where the players were slowly lowered to the floor by the dancers during one of the slower tunes. This image/gesture made it into the final piece and was a highlight for many in the audience. To see the musicians, who had previously been on the side of the space, suddenly become part of the action was a powerful theatrical gesture that worked to great effect. One by one, first Kevin then Otis then Clio (vla) stop playing, only to have the dancers lower them ever-so-gently to the floor. Only Doug remained at his instrument, playing a cello solo designed as a structured improvisation (and for which he deserves 90% ownership). He played this piece gorgeously (yet always differently) at each performance. [Editor's note: Click on the linked names to watch rehearsal videos of Doug Machiz in a short but clever structured improv with the dancers and Otis Harriel being lowered to the floor by the dancers.]
PUBLIC SPACE & AUDIENCE:
All of this was performed in the modern, sleek, sun-filled Atrium of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. At first I was somewhat skeptical of this “site-specific” public space component, but Janice and Charlie were committed to it. And by the end of the first performance, I was a convert. The rectangular space was arranged with chairs on two sides, but there was also an open 360-degree balcony on the 2nd floor from which people could watch the action below. The JCC is a busy place, and to see people, from the very young to the very old, “happen upon” this performance and then get sucked into the music and the movement was absolutely mesmerizing. [Editor's note: Watch this 3:00 video made by the JCCSF, in which Janice Garrett and Charlie Moulton discuss the collaborative process and the beauty of creating art in a public space.]
From my perspective what happened during the performance was that our own artistic community (from the performance side) was naturally and effortlessly extended to the audience since there was no proscenium, no real theatre, just a chunk of space filled beautifully with natural light. The proceedings were all seemingly “overseen” by Charlie’s floor-to-ceiling backdrop consisting of the large drawings of hands mentioned earlier, and all of this was further ornamented – by sheer good luck – with a slowly moving multi-colored patch of reflected light which was created by a glass sculpture that hung near the ceiling skylight. The whole event was truly an astonishing experience of art amidst life, where all the usual boundaries between the performance and the audience and the world that surrounds both, fell away. During peak moments – of which there were many— everyone was breathing and swaying, listening and looking, in an amazing example of what I can only call human counterpoint.
A Show Of Hands was a beautiful, rich, and fulfilling artistic experience. And it was made all the better by my being able to share it with Friction, all of whose members are now part of my extended musical (and personal) family. I give to them my most sincere and heartfelt thanks.
Dan Becker is the chair of the composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Recent commissions include works for the Kronos and Ives string quartets, the Other Minds Festival, and NYC’s acclaimed chamber ensemble Le Train Bleu. He is the founder and artistic director of the Common Sense Composers’ Collective. Explore more of his works at his website.