Dancer and choreographer Mark Morris
Mark Morris. Photo: Klaus Kurup

From August 24 to 27, at the Mostly Mozart festival, the American choreographer Mark Morris will present a series of dances to music by the festival’s namesake; on September 8, he’ll show work set to Lou Harrison and Erik Satie at Texas State University. Speaking of Lou Harrison: call the Mark Morris Dance Center on a Thursday morning, and you may find yourself listening to his music while on hold. It could also be Schubert. “Whatever it is, it’s usually good,” Morris said.    

VAN: Have you ever wished you were a composer, or tried to compose?

Mark Morris: Yes, very briefly, when I was a teenager. I wrote music without knowing that I couldn’t, which was kind of perfect. I wrote a few things for a couple dances, and also for friends; I had a lot of musician friends as a teenager. I wrote for cello and piano a little bit, and famously, or infamously, I wrote a little quartet for two flutes and two clarinets. And I was stupid about concert pitch, so the clarinets were in the wrong key. It was just like a little canon, it was an adorable quartet, but they were off by a major second. And I liked it better! It was a stupid mistake, it was like, Oh, of course, I knew that. But then I wrote it out and it was so dissonant and fabulous. I learned my lesson [laughs].

What music is on your mind right now?

I’m in the middle of a big project right now, working with an arrangement of some very traditional, important music from Azerbaijan. It’s a project with mugham singers and instrumentalists, and the Silk Road Ensemble. Along with my company, we’re doing a version of the opera “Layla and Majnun” [by Uzeyir Hajibeyov]. I’m immersed in music from Central Asia. Of course, it’s hard, because they’re singing in Azeri, and there’s a lot of improvisation. I’m kind of occupied by decoding that right now.

I just started a piece for the fall, working with string quartets from Terry Riley. He’s an old friend, and I love his music, but I’d never done a dance to it. As far as listening: I listen to a lot of things all the time.

When you choose music to choreograph to, does it need to have a recognizable rhythm, or can it be a mass of sound, a texture?

It can be whatever I want! I very rarely look for music that was written to be danced to, with a few exceptions. I’m drawn to music that doesn’t obviously and immediately say, “Dance to this.” A lot of music written for dance specifically is terrible, with the exception of all Baroque music, and some other major composers—Stravinsky was pretty good, Tchaikovsky was pretty good. But I also use a lot of vocal music. And almost all of that hasn’t been written to be danced to, except in the operatic situation.

I’m drawn to music that’s rhythmic generally. It’s like this piece I’m working on, which is quite improvised. Then within a specific, historic structure, you can decode the improvisation, in relation to key change, tempo, and leading in and out of things. It’s like very free recitative. I have to choreograph it in a different way than I would otherwise.     

I don’t just work with live music exclusively in performance, I also only work with a real musician in rehearsal. My music director, who’s a very fine keyboard player, can point out structural things to me that I missed. He trained as an organist, so he can read giant scores at one glance. Right now I’m working on these string quartets, and he’s playing rehearsal. We find rhythm within stuff that seems like it isn’t rhythmic, or turning points in music that’s more atmospheric.

But I like hard music. One thing I’m proud of is that people hear music at my concerts that they’ve never heard before. And not just commissions. Because I don’t work with recordings, I’m not a slave to whatever you can buy online.   

Mark Morris · Photo Amber Star Merkens
Mark Morris · Photo Amber Star Merkens

You’ve been a conductor. Thinking about the difference between an orchestra rehearsal and a dance rehearsal, I feel like dance is more involved. Does that correspond to your experience?

I’m glad you said that, because that’s absolutely true. I work with my own musicians principally, the Mark Morris Dance Group music ensemble, which ranges from piano to orchestra and chorus, who are hired, but it’s a roster of people whom I work with quite frequently. Before I was conducting even, I always ran music rehearsals. I’m very much involved in the musical life of my company. We do something which is seen as a luxury, but for me it’s a full necessity: before we go out on tour, we have a music rehearsal here at my studio, so I can work with the dancers and the musicians simultaneously.

My music director works on the music in advance, having played the rehearsals, for me to know basically what I need—which is never outlandish. I would say that most choreographers really have a tin ear, and learn music from a recording. You have to reproduce whatever record they liked, which drives me nuts. I don’t do that, so sometimes musicians are surprised that I take something as fast or as slow as it’s written. There’s a lot of homogenizing of tempo and evening of rhythm when you have one minute to rehearse for a dance show.  

Notoriously, the big ballet companies have a tradition of changing the tempo entirely within a piece of music to suit whatever dance is happening there. I don’t like that. I set the tempi based on the score, and my knowledge of it, and that’s what the dance becomes. Then we rehearse a bit more than if you were just jobbing a piece and sight-reading. I can tell sight-reading a mile away. It’s like, Wow, you didn’t know there was a page turn? [laughs]

As a choreographer, does it bother you when musicians give away surprises in the music with their gestures?

It’s a very bad problem, for me, with two kinds of musicians. One is the group leader, in chamber music, who does these big sniffs with the upbeat. It’s not even in tempo and it’s not even breathing, it’s giving a cue by sniffing. It’s like, Stop it! I can’t stand it. I want to not know when you’re going to start. If it’s on a downbeat or a rest—that should be a mystery.

The other thing is singers, at least American singers, who are so concerned with making a gorgeous noise that, first of all, it’s very difficult to understand them. And I can also hear the high, hard stuff coming. They mark through a Handel Aria in order to get to the gigantic cadenza that they’ve been practicing forever. It has no spontaneity, no surprise. I just don’t like that. I love the surprise of a sudden quietness, or a rest that’s a little bit too long. These are small things that make it much more alive than singing by rote, or sight-reading blind. [Sarcastically]: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

So dancers usually have shorter careers than musicians…

…and that’s very often a good thing. There are musicians in orchestras who can’t play anymore and send in their students to sight-read for them. This is terrible, I’m trashing them, but there are people rumored to be in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra who come in and don’t play. Make a fabulous salary, they’re tenured, and just don’t have the chops anymore. It’s very hard to get rid of them.   

I’ve been in situations where I didn’t use a piano on purpose, because the pianist supplied by whatever ballet company didn’t have the chops. Instead of saying that I refuse to work with him or her, I would use a different piece of music. Not with my company, but other gigs.

Playing in an orchestra is very hard, so sometimes if you make it 40 years playing the viola, it’s not as exciting as it once was. Musicians say that; I’m not just trashing musicians, I know it. It’s not just carpal tunnel syndrome, it’s a lot of stuff. Like boredom. That’s also a repertory problem, because in the U.S. we play a lot less new music than we should, in the big institutions.

How is your creative process different when you’re working on an opera, say, which is a very collaborative genre?

First of all, now I will only choreograph opera that I also direct. I don’t like being a hired hand. I want to be responsible for the whole thing, so it has some sort of holism and continuity. I did quite a few long ago with my good friend Peter Sellars, and I still kind of advise him, and we still work together occasionally. But all the stuff I’ve done since has been me directing and choreographing both. You have to blame me for the whole thing.

I’m on the music staff at Tanglewood, I coach singers and musicians. I teach the percussionists how to play castanets, actual castanets, instead of those stupid orchestra ones. I also do a very important service, which is I teach composers and soloists how to make a bow. Mostly composers, because they always look so ashamed of what they wrote, even if it’s really good. I teach them to go shake the concertmaster’s hand, don’t be embarrassed, look around. Nobody teaches that. It’s like, who’s that taking a bow, I never saw her before [laughs]. It’s about presence and body awareness.

I’m all for memorizing stuff too. I really like a string quartet to see everybody’s part, I like them to stand up when they play. I lend a different set of eyes and ears to the way conservatory is teaching people how to be: obedient, professional orchestra players.

Mark Morris Dance Group, “Mozart Dances”

One of the most common complaints about opera directors is that they don’t know how to read the score…

…this is a terrible anecdote, but it’s true. There’s a director whom I know and I like, who showed up to do something at a big opera company, a theater director—and that’s fine, they can do good stuff—but who was directing it from the CD notes. And he didn’t have Italian—you have to have restaurant Italian if you’re going to direct an opera, right? He didn’t know the story except for the synopsis in the CD, the one that he had. It’s like, Oh, da capo means you have to do it again? That kind of thing. Do the action I told you, but twice as long. That’s why there’s so much slow motion in opera these days [laughs].

Of course, that’s not true in Berlin, where everybody is a crazy director. I was at Bayreuth a couple of years ago for that terrible Frank what’s-his-name Ringsicle [rhymes with Popsicle] that he did. There wasn’t a scene without a blowjob and cocaine. There was a fog machine producing horrible, burning oil. The music was fabulous, but it’s a terrible theater, I never want to go there again, it’s so uncomfortable.

The composer Lou Harrison, who was a close friend of yours, lived a kind of radical, artistic queerness. In the meantime, gay rights in America have made enormous progress; yet there have been complaints that a certain outsider culture is getting lost. What do you think?  

Lou was just honest. He was a darling friend, very volatile, complicated guy emotionally. There were a bunch of queer composers in his whole generation, John Cage, who was a very good friend of his, and a lot of people, like Virgil Thompson, whom I adore. It wasn’t revealed that Barber, and Menotti, were full-on queers, and that’s fine.    

There was some study about gamelan music being secret gay code. From McPhee and Britten and those days. Well, it’s so not. Maybe “world music” was originally a queer thing, with Henry Cowell, whom I worship. He had a difficult time and wrote so much fabulous music. People don’t like it because it’s so tuneful and evident. He was writing for every possible ensemble, whoever was in prison who could play the tuba or the ukulele.

As Lou said, it was an opening of a world of music. It was quite radical in the 1930s and ‘40s. Harry Partch, of course, was a queer, and a drunk, who wrote crazy, radical, surprising music, that I still love.

Next year would have been Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday, so I’m going to do sort of a Harrison immersion festival. I’m probably going to bring back a lot of my Harrison dances and do a big new one.

“Piece en Concert” · Photo Courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group
“Piece en Concert” · Photo Courtesy of the Mark Morris Dance Group

Have you ever choreographed a dance to Harry Partch’s music?

I’ve done three pieces to Partch’s music, from way back, before it was recorded. I did “Castor and Pollox,” I did “Barstow,” and I did the “Studies on Ancient Greek Scales.” I know his work very deeply.

It’s hard with the instruments, but they had that group [Ensemble MusikFabrik] come from Deutschland, doing “Delusion of the Fury.” I couldn’t believe how great it was. It’s always done kind of quaint and sarcastic. They had the money, and the wherewithal, and the interest to build the instruments, and they played the shit out of it. I had a dinner date with my friend John Luther Adams, who doesn’t like a lot of music, of course. He’s a crazy, fabulous guy, I love his music. And he was like, “Have you heard any great music?” And I was like, I saw the greatest concert in years, and he said, “Was it the Harry Partch show?” Also my friend Paul Simon, in his album, used a lot of Harry Partch instruments, that I think he discovered through me—I hope, to take credit for it.

A bunch of the instruments live at the University of Washington, where there’s one lone doctoral candidate who worked with Danlee [Mitchell]. All the instruments are there, and I toured them, and he played some, but I’m worried that every five years some smarty-pants grad student will write one piece pretending to know how the tuning system works, and it’ll just be a sad museum thing. I’m actually trying to do a big Harry Partch piece in the future.

Have you read his book?

Genesis of a Music? Of course. The first half is fabulous and cranky and mean, and then it goes into ratios, and that’s when I put it down and fall asleep. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.