Student Blog: Composers and choreographers collaborate

March 6, 2017

By Celine Kiner and Katya Richardson

Celine Kiner: Sophomore USC Kaufman BFA students are collaborating with sophomore USC Thornton composition students for a Choreographers & Composers concert this March 8 and 9 featuring the work of both departments, and facilitated by our wonderful professors Sean Friar, Thomas McManus, and Jennifer Lott. Fortunately, my communications intern counterpart at Thornton is the choreographer I’ve been working with on this project, and so we compiled our experiences so you can hear about both sides of the artistic process.

On previous collaborations

Katya Richardson: I have interacted with dance in the past, but not to the extent that the Kaufman collaboration pushed me to do so. Last year, for the Bill T. Jones USC Visions and Voices event, I composed a two minute cello and sax piece that my floormate, Ardyn Flynt, ended up rapping to with a rhythmical piece of text she wrote herself. There were very specific limitations in terms of length and instrumentation, and I had to communicate directly through choreographer Bill T. Jones, not the Kaufman students. That was my first time working with dance, but I hungered for more.

In December of last semester, I received another opportunity. One of my USC Cinematic Arts colleagues, Annalise Pasztor, filmed a dance video called “DAWN,” a duet between light and dark, in which blue and yellow lights were fixed to two dancers: Kaufman students Alyssa Myers and Jake Tribus. Again, I had no interaction with the dancers—I received the video footage and wrote music to the rhythm of their movements, much like the process of film scoring, which I am incredibly passionate about pursuing.

CK: If you have read my blogs before, you know that USC has provided me many resources for collaboration–most notably, I had the privilege of working with Madeleine Meyer last semester, who wrote an original composition that she performed live for a solo I choreographed on Rachel Walton–and that collaboration is one of my biggest passions. In fact, I chose USC Kaufman because of its collaborative nature: here we can connect dance into so many different fields, and we are encouraged to do so by the school’s various partnerships.

Collaborating with Madeleine was a dream: our piece was selected for performance in the curated final student works show, and the process itself really helped me to explore my own artistry and choreographic habits. So you can imagine my excitement when we were given this semester’s composition project: working with a composer from USC Thornton to create a piece for their original work. After an introduction to the seven sophomore composers, each of us was assigned a composer whose work we particularly enjoyed, and we ended up in groups: five dancers and one composer.

Inspirations and exploration

CK: My group of students included myself, Justin, Trevor, Lenai, Brianna, and composer Katya Richardson. Originally, Katya sent us a sample of her work, and we were inspired to each create our own phrases of movement. But naturally, the looping nature of the music prompted movements that linked all of our choreography together very cohesively. We built a phrase together based on a few themes and Katya’s original title “Feel Love.” Working together came easily to our group’s dynamic with Katya–she has very few demands compared to other composers, none of which stifle our creativity and all of which are particularly constructive for the shape of the piece.

At one point, we did hit a rough spot where we suddenly became very aware that there was not much time left and that we did not have anything close to a finished product–Katya will touch on that in a moment. But one rehearsal with Katya helped confirm structure, place all of our floating and leftover material, and suddenly we began to see a piece, with themes.

KR: Naturally, when given the chance to finally collaborate with the Kaufman students this semester, I was ecstatic, but also overwhelmed. Unlike before, where I was somewhat limited with my options, I was faced with an incredibly open-ended assignment. Where do I start and what sounds do I want? And how do I make sure that my dancers also contribute to the musical process?At an early stage in my writing, I had been toying with a few short clips of looping music that I knew I wanted to incorporate. I ended up with three ideas: guitar and voice ambience, a looping vocal phrase called “Feel Love” and a driving string sequence. I sent each of these clips to my dancers and received videos of choreography back.

But at this point, both the dancers and I were very much in the dark; I was writing my own thing while they were working out ideas separately. At first I grew concerned, since most of the other composers–my colleagues–had fully formed pieces at this point, and were well into rehearsal. But our vision came together in the first meeting. And in my opinion, that’s where the real collaboration began. I was giving my dancers input on the choreography and lighting, and in turn, they gave me feedback on musical timing and transitions.

We ended up agreeing on ideas pretty easily, and even though we took a slower pace, I realized that there is nothing good that comes out of expectations. There is no right or wrong way to collaborate. Diving into the final week before our performance, I could not be happier with the result and how much effort each of us has invested in the final product. As a composer, it’s important to remember that whether it be film, dance, or any other medium, collaboration is essential to learning more about oneself and writing relevant music that reaches vast audiences. This experience has been one the most valuable in my time at USC and I look forward to many more opportunities.

CK: Now, a few days before the show, we prepare to jump into tech rehearsals with live musicians–Katya herself will play piano onstage, along with guitarist Tristan Heinicke–and we put the finishing touches on our piece. The way it has evolved in the last month has been really incredible, but I’m confident that our final project will be a collaboration worth performing. If it is anything like the collaborative process we experienced ourselves, I know the piece will be worth sharing, both with our fellow choreographers and composers and with the live audience this week.

RSVP for the Choreographers & Composers concert.