How to Write a Ballet: Part One

18/03/2014 18:44 | Updated 18 May 2014

So I have pretty much finished writing a ballet. It's called Waiting Room.

The first challenge was that it needed to be 80 minutes long. In our heady days of the resurgent 180-gramme vinyl, that is the equivalent of two full albums. I have been writing for the best part of a year now, but to a very real deadline. There was no "let's push the release date, it's not quite ready" or "let's see where we are in a few months". The premiere was long ago set for 6 June 2014. This means orchestral rehearsals in May, dance rehearsals starting in April and 80 minutes of original choreography for 20 dancers needing to be created... well, now.

So how does one think up a load of dance music? Which comes first, the dancing chicken or the musical egg? Many people have asked me whether you need to see the dance in your mind's eye, and to some degree, I found that yes, you have to- not the way a choreographer would of course, but as a musician who understands rhythm at least, and especially in any given section where the action on stage requires a firm pulse.

Step to the left and count to three, step to the right and count to three, back to the left and count to three, and then to the right and count to TWO. What we have here is a basic visual representation of a slightly unhinged waltz in 11. Try it at home. I have spent many happy minutes 'waltzing' around my studio. The choreography will look nothing like this of course but in my mind it created a simple musical concept from which to compose a couple of minutes. Which left only another 78 minutes to do...

I was just reading an interview with Max Cooper, with whom I collaborated on Fragmented Self recently. He has just released his debut solo album, Human, and pointed out how inevitably there are occasionally times when we might have to jettison substandard ideas along the road to completion. This is of course absolutely correct. I'm sure most every writer, except perhaps Mozart would agree. But with 80 minutes to write and a hard deadline, this is a daunting prospect. And so, you have to self edit your 'creativity' as brutally as you might with a 30 second commercial- which incidentally was the length of my first 'commission,' a radio commercial for bookers.

So this ballet is the equivalent of 160 ebookers commercials in a row. Well almost. There is also scale to consider. I used two instruments in that first ebookers grand commission. (30 seconds seemed like a good amount of music to write back then, which serves as a reminder that life is all a matter of perspective) My ballet on the other hand is for 15 violins, six violas, five cellos, four double basses, four horns, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, two trumpets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, two clarinets, two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, timpani
and multiple percussion instruments- all potential weapons of mass destruction in a composer's hands. Then I decided to throw in a computer played live from the orchestra pit just to add a bit more texture. Orchestra interrupted as it were.

Works of this size are rarely commissioned from 'up-and-coming' composers. They are reserved for the titans only- Adams, Reich, Adés, Golijov, insert your favourite composer here... (Although I heartily encourage you to check out Atomos- A Winged Victory For The Sullen's new collaboration with Wayne McGregor)
So to have a visionary ballet director, Silvana Schröder, take a leap of faith in commissioning a full Balletabend, I count myself extremely fortunate. (There was the small matter of conducting all the creative discussions in German, but ultimately you jump in the deep end and learn to swim.)

And so it is score delivery next week (all 245 pages) in Thüringen and I have a couple of workshops with the dancers. I'm sure that aforementioned waltz in 11 will be a hot topic.