Jeffrey Levine: A Musician, Composer’s Insight into the World of Dance

March 17, 2014
Jeffrey Levine - Composer, Double Bassist

Jeffrey Levine – Composer, Double Bassist

From time to time, we feature other artists who have worked in close collaboration with dancers.

Today, we were fortunate to interview double bassist, composer Jeffrey Levine, who has performed and written music for some of the most influential artists and orchestras in the world.   

Recognized for his artistic skill, versatility and humor, Mr. Levine has enjoyed an extensive career that has encompassed many styles of music ranging from classical and contemporary music to jazz and big band.  Over the years, Jeff has also performed on Broadway and his work has appeared in film.

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Jeff’s career has taken him all over the country where he has worked with a veritable who’s who in the dance world. Some of the most notable dance companies on his résumé include the San Francisco Ballet (Principal Double Bassist), American Ballet Theatre, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and the Oakland Ballet.

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After only a few moments into our interview, we soon discovered that Jeff had many amazing stories to share.  Before we get to that, however, we recommend that you visit his official website to find a more complete version of his bio, to hear news about exciting future projects, and for a detailed library of his compositions.

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When it comes to composing for dance, Jeffrey Levine says…

Jeffrey Levine and violinist Shem Guibbory with the Koichi and Hiroko Tamano Butoh dancers at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival  (photo courtesy of Jeffrey Levine)

Jeffrey Levine and violinist Shem Guibbory with the Koichi and Hiroko Tamano Butoh Dancers at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (photo courtesy of Jeffrey Levine)

“Primarily, the composer must be flexible and imaginative, and have a deep insight into the project he or she is about to undertake.  Some of the dance pieces for which I have been commissioned to write over the years have been refreshingly challenging in that way.”

 

DanseTrack — Well no matter the degree of musical and conceptual challenges he may have faced at the time, the outcome is a body of work that has received numerous accolades and has been hailed as masterfully sensitive,” and as “very expressive, intellectual music that retains a sense of humor.”

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Question – What have been some of your fondest memories in the dance world?

Jeffrey Levine –   “As it pertains to dance in general… Whenever I watch a performance, a rehearsal, or work with dancers, I am always impressed by their hard work and dedication. One simply cannot ignore the amount of discipline, athleticism, and strength required while striving for perfection and silently creating expression and beauty.”

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John Lanchberry 

“I remember working with John Lanchberry when he conducted for American Ballet Theatre, and looking back, it would be difficult to find a more capable and musical conductor than he was.”

Christine Walsh, John Lanchbery and Maina Gielgud in the curtain call for for the Royal Gala Performance of The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1988. Courtesy Express Newspapers London

Christine Walsh, John Lanchbery and Maina Gielgud in the curtain call for for the Royal Gala Performance of The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1988. Courtesy Express Newspapers London

“His approach to the music was essentially this:  Unless the dance was a solo variation, where the tempo was largely determined by the dancer’s virtuosity, Lanchberry would insist on having the dancers follow the music rather than adjust the tempo to match the ability of the dancers.  After witnessing the results, I’m convinced that he was correct and that, in this way, the dance will always have a more beautiful effect.”

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 Eleanor D’Antuono of American Ballet Theatre

Eleanor D’Antuono, Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theatre, The Firebird (Photo by Kenn Duncan)

Eleanor D’Antuono, Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theatre, The Firebird
(Photo by Kenn Duncan)

“While I was with ABT, there was a principal dancer, Eleanor D’Antuono, who was a great virtuoso and a tremendously strong dancer. She used to have a contest with the conductor, David Gilbert, to see who could go faster, the orchestra or herself. She used to tell the conductor, “Take any tempo you want, I’ll be right with you.”

“It seemed that she never got the recognition she deserved (at that time, there were so many acclaimed dancers in the company, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Cynthia Gregory), but when Eleanor danced, the audience loved her.

During those years, I was also  fortunate to see Alicia Alonso perform as a guest artist from Cuba as well as such great artists and Natalia Makarova and Carla Fracci.”

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Merce Cunningham and John Cage

John Cage - Merce Cunningham - New York - 1960 © Richard Avedon

John Cage – Merce Cunningham – New York – 1960 © Richard Avedon

“Once, I played for a week at the Brooklyn Academy with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I was in an ensemble with the formidable and innovative composer John Cage, who for many years supplied the music for the Cunningham company. For his part in our piece, Cage improvised on a plastic champagne glass that created an amplified sound when he brushed it or struck it against a small microphone. What impressed me, however, was that while the music was unpredictable and changed from one performance to the next, the dancers were extremely disciplined. We’d hear them counting silently as they performed Merce’s choreography. Then, occasionally, our accompaniment would somehow coordinate with the steps they were doing which made it seem as if they were actually dancing to the music, instead of dancing while the music was playing.”

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The San Francisco Ballet Company and Orchestra

“I was with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra when it was first formed in the mid 1970’s.  That was truly a memorable time for me…I wrote a reduced score for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, so that the ballet could tour with a smaller orchestra. I made some piano reductions of orchestral scores for rehearsal purposes, and I even wrote some music for the annual ballet gala performances. (I remembered being chided, in a joking way, by the choreographer because I had put a 5/4 measure in the middle of a phrase just to keep the dancers on their toes! …pun intended.)

Jeffrey Levine and Steven D'Amico, San Francisco Ballet (Courtesy of Jeffrey Levine)

Jeffrey Levine with Steven D’Amico (double bass) and Randall Pratt (harpist: left, foreground), San Francisco Ballet Orchestra in the 1970s.(Courtesy of Jeffrey Levine)

“It was then and continues to be a terrific orchestra.  We had a wonderful repertoire to play, a very competent and respectful conductor (the late Denis de Coteau), and the dancers were so inspiring to watch. (I had made sure that the bass section would have a good vantage point from the pit!)  Indeed, that combination of dance, music, and exciting choreography is something I still treasure to this day.”

“In that regard, there is a great story about a former conductor of the San Francisco Ballet, who, in rehearsal, was constantly being told that the music was not fast enough. ‘Play it faster,’ he was exhorted by the choreographer. ‘But the music just won’t sound good if it’s faster,’ he pleaded.  Still, the choreographer insisted, but by that point, the conductor said, ‘OK, we’ll do it faster, but we won’t play it a whole step higher!’ (The choreographer hadn’t realized that the phonograph he’d been using for rehearsal had been playing faster than the normal 33 1/3 rpm speed for the record. Not only was the tempo faster, but, consequently, the pitch was too high.)”

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Question –  Who are some of the artists who have most inspired you?

Jeffrey Levine – “There are so many that it is almost impossible to answer, but I’ll name a few.”

 “Starting with Composers…in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach….you can hear everything that music can offer in his works. I admire the music of Igor Stravinsky for the rhythmic complexity and drive, for the use of delicious dissonance, for his adaptability to incorporate new styles, for the clarity of form, and accessibility of the work, despite being considered revolutionary in its time. I have always enjoyed Sergei Prokofiev, for his expressive melodies, his classical approach, his sense of harmony and harmonic movement, his orchestration, and ability to capture characters in music. Alban Berg is another favorite for his attention to detail and rigorous intellectual approach. Johannes Brahms always struck me for the vastness and intimacy his music can convey. The list goes on….”

As for Choreographers…

“I would definitely have to include George Balanchine for his love of form and celebration of the physical. I very much admired Michael Smuin’s sense of the dramatic, the projected feeling of letting it all hang out, and his razz-ma-tazz. Martha Graham has always been another favorite.”

 A Legendary Collaboration Between Choreographer & Composer

George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky with members of the New York City Ballet (Martha Swope/©The New York Public Library)

George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky with members of the New York City Ballet (Martha Swope/©The New York Public Library)

It is interesting to note that George Balanchine (Founder, Artistic Director and Choreographer for the New York City Ballet) was a trained musician in his own right. See biography: here.

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DanseTrack – Consequently, we asked Jeffrey Levine:

Question –  Do you feel that it is important for choreographers to have some form of musical training? 

Jeffrey Levine –  “Music is a language in itself, but it also requires a different sort of language just to be able to talk about it. Concepts such as getting softer, increasing the speed of the musical pulse, indeed, the idea of having a musical pulse, repetition of a section, the definition of a musical section, a phrase, the organization of musical time….these are all abstract, yet concrete phenomena in music. For a composer to be able to communicate his or her ideas, and for the choreographer to understand and discuss those ideas knowledgeably and intelligently, it is imperative that a choreographer have some musical training, just as it is important for the composer to understand, space, movement, and staging, as well as have an understanding of the language choreographers use to create a dance.”

“For a collaborative effort to work well, the composer and choreographer must understand each other and be able to communicate their ideas. For instance, a choreographer may refer to a piece of music that is particularly inspiring, and want the composer to understand what it is that he or she likes about the music, so that the composer, too, can draw on the choreographer’s vision.”

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And, speaking of a vision, we could hardly wait to ask……

Question – What about Jeffrey Levine the dancer!?

Are you a dancer?Jeffrey Levine –  “The only dancing I ever did was to study ballroom, including cha-cha, merengue and rhumba.  Otherwise, I am a klutz!”

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DanseTrack –  Now, don’t be modest, Jeffrey. A talented musician such as yourself must have some incredible moves on the dance floor!

Anyway, thank you, Jeff, for sharing with us your wonderful stories and valuable insight.

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More About Jeffrey Levine

Jeffrey Levine on Double Bass (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Levine Music)

Jeffrey Levine on Double Bass (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Levine Music)

Jeffrey Levine has been composing music professionally since his first commission from the Fromm Foundation and Tanglewood (Massachusetts)  in 1967. A widely experienced and eclectic musician, he has drawn upon his musical background of jazz, symphonic and chamber music, and contemporary art music, to write pieces that range from the most post-modern-abstract to easily accessible pieces for children. Also an accomplished double bassist and teacher, Jeffrey Levine was a founding member of Speculum Musicae, principal bass with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, and has been on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, Rutger’s University, and Bennington College, and The University of Massachusetts.

Not only has Jeff composed for film, but he also appears as one of the wedding musicians in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

See detailed bio: HERE

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