5 Questions With David K. Israel About Music for Dance
Either way, if you wanted to learn more about dance, or more about music, a very good place to start would be to talk to David K. Israel.
You can learn a lot about music from the world of dance. In dance you discover that movement is like melody, that collaboration is a kind of harmony, and that there are moods and textures in music that only choreography can share. Still, it may be that you can learn even more about dance from the world of music. You learn that melody can imbue movement with intent, that harmony, like collaboration, can deepen and change. Either way, if you wanted to learn more about dance, or more about music, a very good place to start would be to talk to David K. Israel.
David K. Israel knows a lot about dance, because he’s worked with some of the people who knew the most about how dance is made. He’s composed for Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor, and Rudolf Nureyev once said that he liked Israel’s music so much he was recommending his music to a number of artistic directors “because I thought it could embellish the contemporary musical canon of ballet”.
Israel knows even more about music. He was friendly with Leonard Bernstein, for whom he collaborated with Jerome Robbins on The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and after Bernstein died, his estate hired Israel to complete the definitive editions of West Side Story and On the Town. Israel is also a successful writer for film and television, and he’s written an exeptionally intriguing film about Balanchine called The Lost Muse, which he talks about here.
Most of all, David K. Israel knows about music for dance, because he’s done so much of it, and because it’s so important to him. Along with his insight and expertise, he’s shared with us here an exceptional collage of images from some of his projects — a tablecloth where he and Twyla Tharp sketched out the last six minutes of Falling Bodies over dinner, a picture of himself in Leonard Bernstein’s private study, photos of him and Paul Taylor in rehearsal. For an even more enchanting look into the magic world of music and dance together, watch the priceless video of Twyla Tharp and David K. Israel improvising together.
Of course, DancerMusic wanted to learn all that we could about all of this, so we asked David about music, about dance, and about some of his plans for the future — plans that seem likely to add even more important stories to a storied career. Here’s what he told us:
The combination of the exhilarating music and that powerful choreography made a strong impression on my formative mind.
In the photograph: Paul Taylor and David K.Israel (Photo by Judy Bernstein Bunzl)
Johnny Nevin: As an accomplished composer, there are an almost unlimited number of ways you could compose — for concert orchestra, for opera, for chamber music or solo instruments, and you’ve composed for many of these. Yet you have an especially strong interest in composing for dance. What is it about concert dance that you find so compelling as a medium for your musical composition?
David K. Israel: It’s really about my passion for the theater more than anything else. That’s where I feel most at home. When the lights go out, my curiosity is piqued. For most composers who gravitate toward theater, like, say, Mozart or Wagner, it’s the voice that inspires. For me, it’s the body in motion. The body as chief storyteller.
When I was a young kid, my parents would take me to musicals and ballets in Philadelphia (where I was born) and up in New York City, too. One of my fondest childhood memories is of seeing The Wiz on Broadway. We had third-row seats and I vividly remember sweat flying off the dancers’ bodies and hitting me in the face. The combination of the exhilarating music and that powerful choreography made a strong impression on my formative mind. I was literally dancing in my seat. Likewise, the movies that captivated me as a kid were Saturday Night Fever and Grease. My friends and I would have dance contests to see who could mimic John Travolta’s moves most accurately.
Later, in high school, I played in the theater program’s pit orchestra and was exposed to West Side Story, which wound up having the biggest influence on me and my developing compositional interests and style. In college, I studied music and theater and was writing full-length musicals and ballets by the end of freshman year.
… but fortunately my passions and my good fortune all aligned, allowing me the honor to compose for dancers.
In the photograph: David composing in Key West, Fla. (Photo by Marc Israel)
My sophomore year, I met the legendary dance instructor Truman Finney, who had known Balanchine and worked for him at NYCB in the ‘60s. Truman and I became fast friends and he spent countless hours introducing me to Balanchine’s body of work and educating me on his style and technique. Balanchine became like a god to me. My music composition teacher was good friends with my other idol, Leonard Bernstein, and so between the two “Mr. Bs,” by the time I graduated college I was ready to move to New York City and seek out the best choreographers I could find.
I got to meet and work with many of Lenny’s great collaborators on his ballets and theater works, like Jerry Robbins.
In the photograph: With Truman Finney in Seattle, WA. (Photo by David K. Israel)
Going to work for Bernstein’s estate (where my first job was editing and publishing the definitive edition of West Side Story), I got to meet and work with many of Lenny’s great collaborators on his ballets and theater works, like Jerry Robbins.
These were all extremely formative experiences that seemed to reinforce the idea that my talent belonged in service to the theater, most specifically, dance. Had the signs pointed in a different direction, I likely would have followed that path, but fortunately my passions and my good fortune all aligned, allowing me the honor to compose for dancers.
… what a rare honor to have made music for these two greats!
In the photograph: Over dinner, Twyla Tharp and and David K. Israel sketched out the last 6 minutes of Falling Bodies on a table cloth. (Photo by David K. Israel)
Johnny: You’ve worked with a number of widely admired choreographers, including Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor. What was it like to work with them? Were there any important similarities or differences in what it was like to collaborate with each of them on a musical score for their choreography?
David: Twyla and Paul both hailed from the Martha Graham lineage. And of course early on Twyla also danced in Paul’s company. So they were very similar in the sense that they grew up with, and helped define, the modern dance experience that Martha championed. Working with them was at times intimidating because they were both so accomplished by the time I came on the scene as a twenty-something-year-old. Paul was in his late 60s and Twyla in her late 50s, so a good thirty to forty years older than me. But both of them treated me as an equal, the same way they treated Jennifer Tipton or Santo Loquasto, the other giants who we wound up collaborating with on various pieces.
Paul was generally less involved with my creative process once we settled on a basic structure. Whereas Twyla wanted constant updates, frequently popping into my studio to hear how things were progressing and offering input.
My uptempo movements tend to be hard-driving, which both Paul and Twyla seemed inspired by. Each created equally hard-driving, very physical, taxing sequences and steps that left the dancers so out of breath sometimes it seemed they were going to drop dead in rehearsals!
Oh, that’s another thing that was great about working with both of these masters: they were very inclusive and allowed me to come into the studio to watch them work as often as I wanted. I know a lot of composers don’t want to see the dance until most of the steps are finished, but I was so inspired by the process, watching it all emerge from the ground up, I couldn’t stay away. And the process was super educational for me, as well. I could see what they struggled with, what came more easily, what kind of challenges a bar of ¾ followed by another of ⅞ might present… what ignited the dancers and what fell flat.
Both Twyla and Paul became friends of mine and we wound up spending free time together outside of work. That said, another thing they both had in common was that they were both rather difficult people to be around sometimes… fragile egos that needed a lot of special attention. You had to choose your words carefully, which meant I couldn’t always be myself around them. Maybe some of that was the generational gap, too. Or just my age. I was definitely still finding myself and my voice, so that might have contributed, as well. But what a rare honor to have made music for these two greats! I definitely was in the right place at the right time.
So in that example, only after many months of listening, absorbing, musing… did I begin to compose.
In the photograph: Composing in Los Angeles, CA (Photo by David K. Israel)
Johnny: When you compose, is there a specific process that you rely on? How do you begin, and at what stage do you feel that you’re ready to show what you have to a choreographer? Or do you sometimes begin with nothing and work with the choreographer even at the idea stage?
David: It’s different with each project. I’m working on something now where I’ve composed about 12 different short variations on a theme. The idea is to find the right choreographer and then sit down with him/her and see which 5 or so movements they like best. Once we settle on instrumentation (will it be for piano and violin or full orchestra? etc), and the rough length of each movement, I’ll be able to move forward and finish the piece.
With something like The Word, which was a commission from Paul Taylor, we visited the The Metropolitan Museum of Art together to see a show on Byzantine art, which inspired a Greek Orthodox Mass (maybe the first mass with no text/voices!). From there, I began researching a ton of music from the era and the structure of the mass. So in that example, only after many months of listening, absorbing, musing… did I begin to compose.
But the idea of creating a whole body of work with a like-minded choreographer was and still is extremely interesting to me.
In the photograph: In Leonard Bernstein’s studio at his Dakota apartment, NYC (Photo by Jennifer Beck)
Johnny: You describe Leonard Bernstein as a mentor, and you began working with him at a very early stage in your career. What do you think his impact was on your own work — is it mainly as a context for composition, or did knowing him as an artist have an even broader impact on how you approach your own art?
David: I certainly was influenced by the way he infused his “classical” music with jazz and Latino rhythms, very much an extension of what Copland, Gershwin and Ravel were doing before him. But Lenny’s brand was much more playful. There was humor in it, which Jerry was good at underscoring in his choreography.
I was also influenced by how accessible Lenny’s music was. He was composing at the height of the 12-tone movement, when other composers were alienating classical music audiences. There was a ton of pressure on him to move past tonality, past the expected chord progressions and tonic/dominant hierarchy that dominated Western music for hundreds of years. I had similar pressure on me while at music conservatory — from my teachers, from some musicians. But Lenny said: no, no, we must not abandon tonality! And so I did not, which could be why my music is popular with dancers and choreographers but not musicians!
I also think because of Lenny’s relationship with Jerry — they worked together their whole careers — and likewise, Balanchine’s with Stravinsky, I was also always on the lookout for my soulmate. Never really found him/her… at least not yet. But the idea of creating a whole body of work with a like-minded choreographer was and still is extremely interesting to me.
In the photograph: Rehearsing Prime Numbers with Paul Taylor (From the film Dancemaker by Matthew Diamond)
Johnny: You’ve written a biographical film about George Balanchine, and it focuses on a very specific time period in his life. Can you tell us a more about the film?
David: It’s called The Lost Muse and is based roughly on Elizabeth Kendall’s amazing book called Balanchine & the Lost Muse: Revolution & the Making of a Choreographer. She focuses on the early period of Mr. B’s life, before he left Russia when he was at the Mariinsky Theater School. There, he meets ballerina Lidia Ivanova and the two of them come of age together. It’s as much her story as it is his, and certainly one that almost no one knows, with a very tragic ending.
In the photograph: With Zippora Karz, Los Angeles, CA (Photo by Jack Israel)
As a screenwriter, I’m really lucky on this project that one of my executive producers is the extraordinary Zippora Karz, a former soloist ballerina with NYCB who is now a repetiteur for the George Balanchine trust, staging Mr. B’s ballets all over the world. Along with our other producers, we are currently looking for the right director who can help us get the film made but I think the script is fairly solid. It will be challenging to find young actors who can also dance, but that’s nothing new in casting any film set in the world of ballet. The great thing is that the Mariinsky hasn’t changed much at all since Balanchine’s time there, so we can shoot on location and it will feel very authentic.
PHOTOS (from top, all photos courtesy of David K. Israel): David K. Israel (taking a rehearsal break in Los Angeles) (Photo by Jack Israel) • Paul Taylor and David K. Israel in rehearsal (Photo by Judy Bernstein Bunzl) • David composing in Key West, Fla. (Photo by Marc Israel) • With Truman Finney in Seattle, WA. (Photo by David K. Israel) • Over dinner, Twyla Tharp and and David K. Israel sketched out the last 6 minutes of Falling Bodies on a table cloth (Photo by David K. Israel) • Composing in Los Angeles, CA (Photo by David K. Israel) • In Leonard Bernstein’s studio at his Dakota apartment, NYC (Photo by Jennifer Beck) • Rehearsing Prime Numbers with Paul Taylor (From the film Dancemaker by Matthew Diamond) • With Zippora Karz, Los Angeles, CA (Photo by Jack Israel)