It will keep metamorphosing

A Conversation with Jacopo Godani and Jagdish Mistry

In 2016 Ensemble Modern first worked with the choreographer and artistic director of the Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company, Jacopo Godani: in ›Metamorphers‹, the Ensemble Modern string players performed Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4. Taking this as their point of departure, Jacopo Godani and Ensemble Modern have now developed an evening-length programme which will be presented in nine performances between December 12 and 22, 2019 at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt. The dance and theatre scholar David Rittershaus spoke to Jacopo Godani and the Ensemble Modern violinist Jagdish Mistry about their joint approach to the project, the attractiveness of their collaboration, the selection of works and ideas for their choreographic implementation.

David Rittershaus: Jacopo Godani, how do you select the music you integrate into your pieces? And how does that selection differ when the music is performed live by Ensemble Modern?

Jacopo Godani: The difficulty when you work with pre-composed music is to find the match that corresponds to the atmosphere, the rhythmical structure of the piece and the idea in your mind. I think the type of relationship we have with Ensemble Modern is very collaborative. For us, it’s really a great experience to have them in the studio to work together. That synergy creates a totally different connection between the dancers, the musicians and me.

Jagdish Mistry: I can only say »Yes, yes, yes« to that. For us as musicians, dance gives music a body, a grounding. We really look at the music differently, we have a different sense of timing, of rhythm, of weight and lightness when we have to alter our interpretation to accommodate a body. It takes the music to an ecstatic level, because now the music is no longer only in the sound and no longer only in the body, it’s in the meeting of the two.

DR: So there is a major difference between performing musical works in concert or performing them together with a dance company?

JM: Yes. We played Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 quite a few times without dance before we performed it together with the Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company for ›Metamorphers‹ in 2016. There’s a different sense of dramaturgy and interpretation. Usually the feeling is much more limited to our own physical perception of playing the instruments. When you play a piece with a body that has to dance and move to it, you have to expand your physical perception beyond your own movements, your own bodily tensions are placed within a different kind of flow; and that, of course, brings new insights into its rhythm.

DR: The musicians of Ensemble Modern come to the joint rehearsals with the experience of having already interpreted a piece, and you, Jacopo Godani, will certainly have some ideas in your mind as well. How do you balance those elements?

JG: Actually, we adapt to each other. It’s not fair to call it a compromise, because it’s more than that. It’s not like one of us sacrifices anything. Actually, we come together for a different purpose and we move towards a different goal. I think philosophically speaking, it serves a greater good in social terms to work together towards a common goal without being selfinvolved and believing too much in what’s going on in your head, but understanding that the most important thing is that two groups are coming together and working towards a different goal, with different perspectives.

DR: So it’s also about stepping back and letting the thing happen?

JG: Absolutely. Yes.

JM: Yes. I totally agree.

DR: Looking back, how did the first collaboration, in which Ensemble Modern performed Bartók’s String Quartet live for the choreography ›Metamorphers‹, work?

JM: First of all, the piece was Jacopo’s choice. We made a recording of it and sent it to Jacopo. He then organized the choreography around it, to the tempi that we were playing at that time. When we finally came together, we had started rehearsing it in a different way, we were doing different tempi, and Jacopo said, »Uh, that’s not like the recording«, and we thought: »Right, exactly, it’s not like the recording. We have added different aspects to it.« That was when Jacopo’s input fed our interpretation and we realized that we couldn’t just play it like we did before. One has to live in the moment.

JG: Sometimes it’s just about the physical aspect. I like to go fast, but sometimes the body needs a certain amount of time to get from one point to the other. Thus, there are some things that the body cannot achieve by following the music. It’s like a real conversation. You have to really listen to each other.

JM: I would go even further. For me, this collaboration was a lesson. Glenn Gould used to say, »If you can’t conduct a piece, then organically it’s not working.« And that’s exactly what this collaboration was about for me. If you can’t really move to the music, if there’s not the right level of limb activity going into it, if you’re unable to illustrate it, it’s not working as an interpretation either. And that’s where I thought, »Right, this tells me something about Bartók’s piece itself.«

DR: In this regard, how do you deal with the high energy level that characterizes your choreographies?

JG: Bartók is a super-energetic piece. That’s one of the reasons I chose it. For me, it’s one of the »sexiest« pieces in the string quartet universe, because it’s classical modern music, but on the other hand, it goes beyond the composition, the melody is really interesting, it’s challenging, it’s complex and sophisticated. The structure of the music is incredible. But when you choose music for a piece, it needs to have not only a good musical structure so that you can choreograph it, it needs to create an atmosphere. If the atmosphere is too nice or cute, the only thing you can imagine is a little Romeo and Juliet on it. With Bartók it’s different, it’s really like the whole ...

JM: The whole world is there.

JM: Yes. And I want to do a new »Inszenierung« (staging) because the choreography is there, the music is there, but we need to find something like an upgrade for it.

DR: Will ›Metamorphers‹ be revised for the upcoming new collaboration that you tackle together this winter?

JG: Yes, yes, absolutely.

JM: ›Metamorphers‹ receives another metamorphosis.

JG: It will keep metamorphosing.

DR: Another piece for your new collaboration also has a morphosis in its name. What musical transformations does Johannes Schöllhorn’s ›Anamorphoses‹ undergo?

JM: ›Anamorphoses‹ is based on nine of the movements of Bach’s ›Art of the Fugue‹, which one might call an »asexual« work, as it’s not written for any particular instrumentation. Therefore, a great many versions of it exist. Johannes Schöllhorn has based his work directly on Bach’s music. He does not make cuts, he does not change the notes, he’s basically colouring it. He highlights lines in terms of doubling, he changes the octaves in which certain melodies appear and shortens chords, which were previously long. He actually changes the profile while keeping the template.

DR: Is this compositional approach of taking a phrase as a basis and then giving it different colours also a way in which you choreograph?

JG: Sometimes, yes. I start working on a basic phrase, just to have a common language. It’s easier when people have access to a »database« of work and material. If you then start to work on a phrase, everybody knows the vocabulary and you can immediately start to play with it in the compositional process. The best thing is to reach such a level of communication with the dancers that whenever you introduce something new, they can pick it up really quickly. It gives more spontaneity to the process as well.

DR: Does the concept of counterpoint play a role in your way of composing your choreographies?

JG: I definitely do not want to stick to a tiny set of rules of how to compose. I’m looking for freedom of expression. I’m not inspired by these kinds of preexisting and preformatted ways of composing. I’m trying to break free of all these boundaries.

DR: We’ve been speaking about giving the music a body. What physical qualities do you see in this piece?

JM: Generally, I don’t know any Bach music that does not dance. Even the slow pieces all emerge from dance, even the ones that don’t have a dance movement as their template, that are not based on it. This kind of music comes from the earth; it comes from the body.

DR: Will the Ensemble Modern musicians be integrated into the scenery?

JG: Yes, that’s the whole purpose of live music. On stage we have to see how far from each other they can be in order to listen to each other, what formation they can achieve and if we can switch positions or not, and things like that.

DR: The musical pieces call for very different instrumentations, ranging from four to something like twenty musicians.

JG: Yes, very different colours.

JM: Exactly. They are three very different colours and consequently, people’s perception of the music also changes. I think for listeners and viewers, the music changes completely because they see it living. When one sees it performed live by musicians alone, of course one is involved in how the musicians move and how they produce that sound. But when one sees it as dance, there’s less of a withdrawal into oneself, and more a process of growing into something else, something beyond just your own imagination, but definitely something which enriches your imagination.

DR: Do you have choreographic ideas at this point, or is it still too early?

JG: No ideas yet. No, because I’m also trying to push myself towards a different language as well. I need to really dive into the atmosphere of the music before I can think about it. It’s mostly stage ideas I’m working on now, because that’s what really takes a long time to prepare.

DR: You try to challenge yourself in the selection of music, but do you also set yourself new goals in terms of visual language or movement qualities?

JG: Absolutely. I still can’t imagine trying to get anywhere completely different in looks and atmosphere, but I don’t know. I’m thinking about it, but it’s not that I want to lose myself. On the other hand, I want to be as different as possible. I have to see where I go when I push myself.

JM: What he just said will continue right up to the day of the performance and beyond. I’ve been on tour with him and there have been many times where on the day of the concert we had a sound rehearsal together and afterwards he started to rehearse again, tightening the dancers up, making loose ends really come together. He might notice that things have gone differently over three performances. So he has to bring it together again and rethink. It’s a real lesson for us musicians – not to be satisfied with your interpretation, and to always ask: »What happens next?«

DR: You’re challenging each other, and it’s something you appreciate?
JM: Of course. As somebody once said: if you’re not moving forward, that’s a step backward.

DR: Thank you both very much.