The Choreographer

Mark Morris talks about putting music first, the importance of boring music, the problem with musicians, the three Hs, and why  it's more fun workign with people who are really good at what they do.

By Ben Finane


MARK MORRIS SPOKE TO LISTEN at his office at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, New York. He formed the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980; the center, which serves as a space for Morris’s company, other companies and students from the community, opened in 2001. Morris — whose works include The Hard NutGloriaDido and Æneas and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato — understands classical music as well as any living choreographer. He can read scores, play the piano and conduct. And he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks.


You’ve said, ‘Everything I do is based on music. I like music more than I like anything else.’ How does the music dictate your approach to choreography?

It doesn’t dictate my approach to choreography; it dictates that I choreograph. It’s not ‘How would I do it differently if I didn’t go music-first?’ It is ‘This is why I’m choreographing.’ The No. 3 Kammermusik [indicating the Paul Hindemith score on his desk]: A friend of mine is a really great cellist, I like these pieces, and it’s a period of time that I use a lot, so it’s like, ‘Oh! Why don’t I do one of these?’ So then I learn it and make up a dance to it. It’s not that I have this dance that needs musical accompaniment, this dramatic situation, and the Schoenberg String Trio would be perfect for that. Well, no, the Schoenberg String Trio is fabulous — and do I want to make up a dance to it?

We pointed this out to each other, me and Ethan Iverson, who’s a very good friend of mine —

— the [now former] pianist for The Bad Plus.

Ethan was my music director for years and my pianist. I was saying how there has to be the boring part of the music because then there’s the fabulous payoff when the boring part is over.

It’s like the recitative.

Or Mozart trying to find his way back to the tonic at the end of that concerto. It’s like, ‘Okay, okay, I got it: rolling through every chord in the progression — fine. Is that exposition anymore or is it just filler?’ There’s filler and there are boring bits.

[Singing à la Don Giovanni:] ‘Hello! Who is it? Come in!’

Yes, and that’s the thing: When I’ve cut music — which I do rarely — as in the case of [Rameau’s] Platée, I cut some of the dance music, some of the repeats, because I don’t need them anymore. I would never cut any of the recit or repeats in the vocal music, because it’s necessary. But if you need this rigaudon to have two more As and a B, well, I’m sorry, but you’ve lost them by then — c’mon, it’s show business!

So I said to Ethan, ‘You have to have the boring stuff, because if it’s not there, there’s no effect; it’s just this horizontal thing of music.’ And he said that it’s so interesting that we [choreographers] don’t have to use only the greatest music ever written. It’s not the greatest music of the canon that becomes a dance, because it’s not necessary for it to do so.

Years ago I did a piece to Jean Francaix’ Trio for Strings in C major. And it’s a kooky little nothing-ish piece of music — you wish there was another instrument in it, it’s a little underpowered — and it’s wonderful, so it made me think of a particular kind of dance. And I made up a dance set at a sixth-grade party, and the dance is called My Party. And it kind of looks like kids at an awkward party, and it’s not a story or anything. But that music is this psychotic ‘la-la-la’ — you know, the thing about French music that people don’t like (the people who don’t like French music, and that’s half of everybody).

So, anyway, a lot of music that has been written for dance is just crappy, ’cause it’s so square and so not interesting.

It’s in eights.

Yeah, of course people imagine Baroque music is in eights. Paul Taylor imagines that all Baroque music is in eights, even though the seventeen is the same as the one and the phrase is nine — it’s never square, it’s thrilling!

So it doesn’t have to be the greatest piece in the repertory. Sometimes a piece of music is great and there’s no reason to make up a dance to it, ’cause why mess with it? Or it has to have a dance or it’s not very interesting. A good example is Four Temperaments, a great, great dance of George Balanchine, and an okay academic piece of music [by Hindemith]. If you just hear it, it’s ‘Okay, I understand how composition works,’ a boring lesson in how to write modernist music. And then the dance is one of the great genius works of all time.

Somebody proposed to me years ago to do Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus and I said no, because it’s really boring and not interesting. Music makes me make up dances, but I’m not that bullied by it. It has to be a particular piece of music. There are things that I’ve tried that just won’t turn into a dance and that’s fine, I don’t mind that. [Laughs.]

The dancers cannot ruin the music. It can’t be done. However, the musicians can completely destroy a dance.


Apart from sustaining your interest, what must a piece of music possess to make it well-suited for choreography?

I like it when it’s not well-suited. That’s something I like: when I hear something and think ‘How can that possibly work out?’ Many, many years ago as a teenager I choreographed the fourth movement, the pizzicato movement, of the Bartók Fourth String Quartet. I love all of the Bartók quartets, and that seemed like a nice little weird dance: it’s very short and it’s all pizz and it’s quick. Then, thirty, seventy-five years later, I decided to do the whole piece, the whole quartet. So I kept the dance intact from when I was seventeen, when I made it up, and went back and sort of retro-choreographed it. But you listen to the piece and it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? No one can dance to that, you can’t even count it — I don’t know how they play it!’ Then I did the research and sourced all the incredible folk music, all the Magyar folk music Bartók was listening to at the time, and it’s not at all scary. It’s fabulous, fun folk-dance music, imitating the gardon [a cello-shaped string instrument hit with a stick] and these weird special effects that only became weird special effects later when it was labeled as this daunting, modern music. At the time, they were just these fabulous folk tunes, stacked up in a weird new way. So the music, circa 1925, that sounds like scary modern music, is actually really friendly and rhythmically interesting. It has to be rhythmically interesting. There has to be ‘the wrong chord’; some phrase has to be the wrong length.

Finally, the music has to be interesting a bunch of times. I study and listen and forget about a piece of music for a long time before I choreograph it. So it has to drive me crazy, it has to be an Ohrwurm [German, literally ‘earworm,’ a tune that invades your consciousness] in one way and I also have to be able to forget about it because I can trust that it’s well enough composed.

Finally choreographing a piece of music that’s driving you crazy, is that a resolution for you, in a way? Is that your full cadence?

Yeah, but then also, sadly, it makes me not want to listen to music anymore. [Laughs.]

Clear the decks.

Yeah, I mean I don’t go home and listen to [Handel’s] L’Allegro[, il Penseroso ed il Moderato].

It seems to me that in the first half of the twentieth century, more choreographers were able to read scores. I feel like you’re the exception rather than the rule now, sadly. What happened?

Well, musicians used to be able to read scores, too.


Wooooooh! I don’t know if they ever had rhythm, but they could read scores. I don’t know. But if you go farther back than that, everybody could play the piano. That’s how you knew music. Even my grandma bought rags and brought them home and played them on the piano.

Transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies for piano —

Exactly. I have friends who are old enough to have learned all of their music that way — that’s great! — instead of the only recording of that piece, whatever it is, that anybody heard, which drives me nuts! I hate that, and I read music enough to be able to do my job really well. I’m not an instrumentalist at all, but I get sense out of a score I feel that a lot of people don’t get [because] I’m not reading it analytically — there’s nobody telling me I’m flat or late. [Laughs.]

People who aren’t dancers tend to think of dance in rigid counts of 5-6-7-8 — Broadway chorus line–type stuff. But with gestural movement, movement that is choreographed to musical lines and musical motives, there’s a different sort of rhythm there.

Yes, there are a million different kinds of rhythm. The simple answer is: dancers are incapable of ruining a musical performance. I only work with living musicians. So we’re putting on a show: there’s a band and dancers. The dancers cannot ruin the music. It can’t be done. However, the musicians can completely destroy a dance, the dance part of the piece.

Through bad tempo?

Through bad playing. Everybody always jokes — they cite a different conductor, it’s always [Thomas] Beecham or somebody asking the dancer — ‘How do you want it tonight? Too fast or too slow?’ That’s the joke. If everybody knew that I had known that joke my whole life, they wouldn’t tell it to me all the time.

So, indeed, some people think it’s just a tempo marking thing. And very often with young musicians that are so conservative and so badly educated, they don’t swing. That’s what I mean by badly educated: there’s no music there. And so they’re pushing buttons at the right time to make music happen, and it’s not music in any way. Of course, if it’s way out of the ballpark, tempo wise, it’ll screw us up. But they’re not even thinking about timing within something. They’re talking about a pulse, not a relative rhythm, not rubato, not anything that’s musical. They think it’s a click track, and they try to do it inexpressively; they also don’t notice that if it sounds like shit, it looks like shit. So if you miss an entrance, if you’re the violist and you mess up in the Bartók Quartet, the dancers miss that.

And the dancers are on their way in anyway — it’s too late.

Yeah, they’re doing the part; you don’t have to play it. It makes it bad. It doesn’t ruin it, but if you leave out a repeat, or you suddenly jump tempi, or you miss an entrance, or you drop a page or you lose track of something — that screws us up.

Dancers are inculpable. They’ll always look fabulous even if the music is not giving them anything to stand on. But I work with really good musicians, and my work always makes sense with the music from anybody’s point of view. I’m very specific, but rhythm isn’t just from the downbeat of one bar to the next; it’s within each beat, it’s each phrase, it’s each page, it’s the whole evening. Mozart Dances, this piece that we do with two concertos and a sonata in the middle, is built in this nine-part pyramid from the middle, from the slow movement of the sonata out to the outer movements, which match. So the structures all answer each other and it all makes perfect sense if it’s all calibrated right. That’s the rhythm of the evening, of a two-hour evening — not just the rhythm of ‘Let’s get this tempo,’ because who cares, really?


Working with people who are really good at what they do ‘is way more fun than people who are slightly not as good and who are usually defensive and irritating.’


It’s tricky to write about the performing arts because . . . they don’t really exist.


Is the temporal nature of music, for you, the same as that of dance? Does dance evaporate the same way as music evaporates?

Yes. However, it’s easier to imagine that there’s a thing such as abstract music. But there’s no such thing as abstract dancing. The personalities of the people you’re watching dance — or sing — are something. That’s the edition that you’re listening to and watching.

[With music, you can hear] the personality of a player or a singer. . . . It’s like, ‘I’m Kathy Battle and here’s what I sound like.’ ‘I’m Jack Nicholson and I’m an actor, playing Jack Nicholson.’

‘I’m doing my best Jack Nicholson.’

Yeah, it’s like that. That’s the beautiful soprano on the CD cover, but it’s also ‘Here’s what this orchestra sounds like,’ ‘Here’s what this pianist sounds like.’ 

Fine, but you can still get ‘What the hell was that about?’ instead of ‘And now: Ein Heldenleben. Let’s go on a trip, if you will, with our hero.’ You can get ‘What was that crazy sound I just heard?’ with music. You can’t do that with dancing; it’s always people. I don’t mean to make music robotic — [but] music can be more ‘only itself,’ to paraphrase everybody who ever said anything like that. You don’t expect it to be something else. Like Balanchine always said, ‘You don’t ask a flower to be anything but a flower.’ If you go farther: they don’t even call themselves flowers. I don’t think they speak, they just are.

Just hangin’ out.

But they don’t even have ‘are.’ [Laughs.] So dancing, it looks more like relationships. But yes, it goes away. It absolutely goes away: it’s over. And hooray! I love that it goes away.

Even more than the three Bs, you seem to be fond of the three Hs — Haydn, Handel and [Lou] Harrison.

Yeah, that’s kind of true, isn’t it?

If you could imagine these composers in a Venn diagram, is there some overlap there?

Oh sure! [With irony:] Well, they’re the same person. Obviously. Exactly. [Thinking:] Handel, Haydn and Harrison . . . no, that’s right! It has to do with... that’s perfect! All of them work with surprise — always. It’s always a surprise. Even, like, String Quartet No. 7,000 of Haydn, it’s like, ‘Whaaat? How did you think of that? That’s so fabulous!’ Handel? The same thing, even though he wrote the one thing over and over again.

Not as much as Vivaldi did.

No, except if you listen to those operas that have been released lately you’ll lose your mind — they’re fabulous.

I’m sorry, I’m putting you off track.

No, no, I’m never off track.

The surprises, and also their kindness. There’s a great deal of kindness in their music. Handel’s kinder than Bach. That’s another story. . . . One of my favorite pieces of music in the world is Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross in the two quartet forms — the string quartet and the vocal quartet. It’s my favorite, favorite thing. You can’t make a dance to that. It’s so soporific and gloomy and you want to kill yourself and there’s an earthquake at the end. So it’s thrilling, surprising, just exactly right; it’s ‘Of course, here’s what’s supposed to happen.’

I used to talk about myself in relation to Haydn, how I realize that I work in the way that I read in Classical Style, [Charles] Rosen’s book, many years ago. I read a passage that reminded me of how I choreograph. And it wasn’t ‘See? I’m just like Haydn,’ it was ‘That’s interesting. That’s how I think.’ It had to do with Haydn not inventing a new language to finish a piece, but rather just dropping the keystone in the arch to hold itself up — and it doesn’t have to have a video monitor or a column or a mirror: it doesn’t need anything, that’s it. And you can’t just, like [Alfred] Schnittke, throw in something you just thought of in the name of postmodernism and kill mosquitoes with a bazooka. It’s the exact right touch of completing a piece in its own language that all of those people, including me, do.

Harrison, I sent a piece back that he wrote for me once, the piece that would become Rhymes with Silver. He wrote this waltz — refitted from a waltz he’d written in the forties or something — and it was kind of gorgeous. We were friends — he was writing it for me — and I sent this piece back and said, ‘Lou, it seems not quite somehow to cohere. It doesn’t sound done.’ And within two weeks he’d sent it back to me, slightly adjusted a few bars, and that made it perfect. It was actually, like, five or six bars shorter, but it completed itself. He took my advice, which was ‘Something’s weird, it doesn’t sound finished.’ And then he finished it by tightening it up, just making a tiny little click, and it was like, ‘Of course — that!’ So that’s what I’m talking about. [Laughs.]

Nutty. Inspired by the work of cartoonist Charles Burns (and set to the Tchaikovsky), Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut is, according to The New York Times, ‘satirical and camp . . . but also starkly anti-illusionist.’ 

Did you make discoveries working with Baryshnikov in the White Oak Project?

Not really. I can say this generality: It’s a lot more fun and more interesting to work with people who are really, really good at what they do and are really serious and fun and smart and talented. It’s way more fun than people who are slightly not-as-good and who are usually defensive and irritating. Like when I was conducting — this is really good — some band, I won’t tell who it was. They were sight-reading the Vivaldi Gloria, and some violist, some string player, says, ‘Excuse me, on this page on this bar, do we have an F-sharp or an F natural?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I can’t read alto clef. How am I supposed to know?’ [Laughs.] And everybody else was like (snort), because he’s an asshole. And I said, ‘Well, play it,’ and obviously it was an F-sharp. I could figure it out, but I’m not teaching a music lesson. I’m just doing this [waves his arms].

And that’s the same with Mischa Maisky or Mr. Yo-Yo Ma or Zakir Hussain or Stephanie Blythe or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson or Peter Sellars or Nicholas McGegan or the whole bunch of really fabulous people that I get to work with. And they want to work with me because I’m also fabulous. So it’s like, ‘Yay! We get to do this.’ Manny Ax: ‘Hey, Manny, can you bring out that Five in the left hand a little more?’ He says, ‘I can’t. I can’t even play it; it’s too hard.’ Then it’s like, ‘Okay, well, use more pedal.’ ‘Hey, Yo-Yo, you’re flat.’ ‘Oh, thanks.’ Instead of ‘What’s that supposed to mean? My teacher told me that I’m supposed to sing under.’ Your teacher’s lying to you. Who’s your teacher, Beethoven? Are you deaf? You know? It’s like come on.

That’s why they like me at Tanglewood — because I go in as a coach. I give music lessons to everybody. I do master classes with the singers and their accompanists. ‘What is that, that face you’re making?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, gee, nobody told me that.’ It’s like, ‘You’re producing sound and you look great now, so why don’t you just look like that when you sing? Now try it.’

I was in a chamber singing group doing ‘Shenandoah.’ For a previous conductor we had sung ‘across the wide Meee-zooo-reee.’ And then the next conductor came in and was baffled. ‘What are you doing?’ he said. ‘It’s Mis-sou-ri. You’re from this country!’ It’s easy to get caught up in that.

Of course, are you kidding? Why do you think Jessye Norman talks that way, whatever country she made up that she’s from? It’s like, come on, everybody. It’s funny, but also, nobody blows the whistle on that kind of shit.

This is boring, but I won’t allow people to lead each other, string quartets in particular, by sniffing [as an upbeat to a piece]. (Sniff.) Even just a small (sniff). First of all, it’s not breathing; it’s fake breathing. The other thing is, it’s making a sound. Why can’t you count off? You know: ‘Ready? Five, six, seven, eight, play!’ Instead of (sniff). I don’t allow it. I stop people. And it’s bullshit. It’s fake. (Sniff.) If you fill everything with sound, it loses all proportion. I bought the complete Haydn string quartets because I’ve worshipped Haydn for years. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ Every movement started (sniff). So it was like, fast-forward: (Sniff.) (Sniff.) (Sniff.) And seven hundred quartets later, I had to give it away. I had spent hundreds of dollars, I couldn’t afford it, but I had to get it out of my house. I couldn’t listen to it, because it was (sniff sniff sniff). It’s pretend.

At Tanglewood, I gave all these pianists notes. They’d finish something — pum-pummm![Morris freezes his body and holds his hands above an imaginary keyboard for five seconds.] Wait a minute, I want to clap. You just finished playing, and now I have to wait for you to come out of the music trance you were trying to put me in? It’s like, it worked on you. What is that? No, no, no, no. It’s not important; you’re done.

Or preparing to sing. That’s why I’m there: to blow the whistle on that kind of shit. ’Cause I hate it.

And I don’t hate Arvo Pärt, I don’t hate Philip Glass. It’s just not the music I want to use.

It’s everywhere [in choreography]. And it’s easy. It’s easy.

And so is a Bach cello suite. If you go to a university anywhere, somebody’s doing the solo. In a chair. With long hair. To one of those movements, to one of those suites, you know, about themselves. And it’s like, ‘I have such a difficult life and I’m twenty.’ You don’t. And I have the same record. 

photos: beowulf sheehan, amber star merkens


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