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Mark Morris on Lou Harrison, Léo Delibes and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

by Mary Ellen Hunt

August 25, 2003 -- San Francisco, CA

"Every dance ever is because of the music,"  Mark Morris declares, ending his statement with a tone that implies "full-stop."

Morris is famous for the delight he takes in music of all kinds, from Handel to Osvaldo Golijov to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. On the eve of his company's West Coast tour, I sat down with Morris to chat about his catholic tastes in music and in particular about his close association with the warm-yet-gruff California composer Lou Harrison, who died earlier this year.  

Tell me about the mixed rep program in honor of Lou Harrison. It's going to include your solo, "Serenade?"

I say "Sere-nayde," (laughs) But I call Balanchine's piece "Sere-nayde."  So did he.   It was "Sere-nayde for Strings" by Tchaikovsky.   It wasn't "Sere-nahde." It's not French!

Anyway.   My "Serenade" is the most recent piece I've choreographed besides the Bartok ["All Fours," which premieres at Cal Performances on September 12] and I started it the day after Lou died.  I was working on it -- it was  the next dance I was going to do, and then he died... 

Lou, what about Lou?   He was such a doll.   He was a great, darling, fabulous guy.

Harrison is one of the few, maybe the only person, from whom you've commissioned music (for "Rhymes with Silver," which premiered in 1997 in Berkeley).  What was it like working with him on that project?

It was great.  First of all, I had done five or six or seven pieces to his music.   Including one here at San Francisco Ballet called "Pacific."  And I loved him.  I wanted to do a piece, I wanted to commission a piece for my pianist and the cellist, Yo Yo Ma.  

He'd seen a lot of my work.  I did my first piece to his music in Seattle and I first met him in probably 1986, so I'd known him for a long time.  We were friends and I would visit him when I was here, which was quite a bit.

So I was visiting him once, it was at his house, and I was kind of skirting the subject -- kind of twitching. And he said "What do you want? What do you want from me?"  

I said, "I'd love to ask you to write a piece of music."

Well, he interviewed me. (Morris begins a rapid-fire mock reconstruction of the conversation):

"What's the instrumentation?"  
I said, "I don't know, you decide, you're the composer."
"Is there a text?"
"I don't know. Let's talk about it."
"Do you choreograph it first and then I write the music, or do I write the music and you choreograph?"
"Well, if you want I'll make something up, and then you write music to it, but I've never done anything that way."
And he said, "No, okay... don't do that.   I'll write the music... Does it have to go on tour?"
"Uh,ˇyes, it'd be good."
"How long is it? "
"I don't know, you make it up."

All of these questions!  I said, "It could be eight harps and a boys choir and percussion if you want! Or it can be cello solo, or it can be anything."   He's like, "Hmm... okay ... alright -- I'll write a piece for you, but don't ask me about it."

And so I left and then two weeks later, I got loads of music in the mail.   Scores -- you know, handwritten out by him -- called "MM1," for me, "Mark Morris 1," "Mark Morris 2," "Mark Morris 3."  And he kept sending music for weeks. Months.

All the repeat schemes were up to me.  He left a lot of decisions up to me, because I had always removed movements of music in order to make a dance, or changed tempi. So, he was like, "Okay... fine."   I wanted something for dance, and the thing he sent me was in kit form, where it's a rhythm series that can be played any number of times, or repeated, or omitted -- combined in any way, like an A-B-C-D system of music for piano with one for percussion or cello.   They all fit together and I could combine them in any way I wanted.   So it could be zero -- I could leave it out completely -- or it could be like a 48-hour piece of music! Or it could be repeated over and over and over, just one tune.

So, basically, he's saying, "Here. Here's your music. Put it together yourself."   

I'm like, "Thanks, Lou." (he laughs)

That was a few years ago and it's a beautiful, beautiful piece of music. [My ballet] was called "Rhymes with Silver" because that was [Lou's] middle name.   Maybe it was his mother's maiden name or something, I don't remember.   But his middle name was Silver and you know, nothing rhymes with silver. The [music] has been recorded recently -- the way I made it up, but you don't have to.  He wrote a few commissions after that, but not a lot.    So that's that story.   That was a ball.

I wanted to ask about your piece to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.   It's such an unusual choice of music.

It is not! (indignantly)  You know Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys? You know Western Swing music?   It's unbelievably great music.   I've always loved country and western music and southern music, and Texas swing.  I've loved legit country music forever.  I had this huge crush on the Carter family.   I worshipped the Carter family.  

And Bob Wills' music-- this particular recording -- is why I made up this dance.   It's the last recording session that they did before he died.   He died, like, the next day.   This was in the early 70's and they were all very old.   They'd been playing together since the thirties and forties and so it's these guys who can read each other's minds.   It was the last session -- there was this guest musician who was a young and fabulous Merle Haggard -- with Bob Wills still yelling and hooting.  He was very old and in a wheelchair and they played these songs that they didn't even have to think about.   It had such a fabulous rhythm and swing -- four old guys playing this wonderful old music freshly, and then he died and that was it. There were no more recordings.  

I loved the particular way of his playing, which is why I don't have a cover band.   I could have a band play it, it's possible, but I wanted these particular recordings, that's why that's the only [piece on the program] to recorded music. It's music I love, and so I made a dance to it.

Now, you're here working on "Sylvia" for the San Francisco Ballet. How did you come to choose a Léo Delibes ballet? It seems like an odd choice.

Why? You’ve said that about everything. You ask me if this music is unusual, and I say, "Why?"

Oh, I think they’re all fabulous, but I think one wouldn’t immediately think that it would make a Mark Morris ballet.

Oh, good. Oh well, that’s good. I was like, "What am I supposed to choreograph to, Arvo Pärt, like everybody else does?" (he chuckles)

Having done four or five pieces for [the San Francisco Ballet], Helgi asked me to do a full-length, which is a wonderful compliment. I didn’t want to do a pastiche. I didn’t want to do like three Stravinskys, or a cut-and-paste of something. So I chose "Sylvia" because it’s an unbelievably good score that no one knows. There are a couple of tunes that people know. It’s not done very often, but it’s a fantastic piece of music. It’s great. And I had never seen a production of it in my life. So I’m not basing it on anything. I’m completely making it up from nothing.

There’s a story of course. I mean the libretto’s in the music, and I’m telling it like it is. It’s a mythological story instead of a Romantic tragedy story. There’s no sort of magic romance like a lot of the ballets blanc of the 19th century. So, it’s about powerful women instead of expired virgins --they’re virgins, but it’s by choice, not by death. They weren’t jilted, they chose it. They’re nymphs of Diana, hunter women.

Is the only criteria for choosing a piece of music that you have to love it?

No, there are a million criteria.  

What are your top criteria?

I have to like it.   And it has to be good, meaning it has to stand up under scrutiny and analysis and repetition.   And there has to be something surprising and interesting and appealing about it.  It could be anything. Something like a wrong chord that's fabulous, or something that's a bar too long or too short, or the repetition is unusual.   It has to grab me.   It doesn't have to grab anybody else, but it has to grab me, and I have to be able to live with it for long periods of time.

And that's it. That's a lot.  

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