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The Music of the NDTC
by Marjorie Whylie
On celebrating an earlier milestone in the life of the National Dance Theatre Company, I expressed the thought that a visit to the Little Theatre by a blind patron on any performance night would be as enjoyable as it would be for a sighted member of the audience. The reason for this is the enormous variety of music that is used by choreographers in the creative process, and the presentations from the repertoire of the NDTC Singers.
The Singers have always been an integral part of performances, presenting suites of songs which have taken a searching look at the music of the Caribbean, including that of our Spanish-speaking and Francophone neighbours. In Jamaica a great deal of research is undertaken into the songs which accompany and energize work, social activity, socio-religious observance and the music of religion, be it orthodox Christian, African derived, or creole creations. The ever-changing scene of popular music is also a source of material and energy, and the ‘classics’ of these idioms are presented in arrangements which show respect for the genre, and for those whose creative output has stood the test of time.
An understanding of the melodic contours, harmonic language and rhythmic complexity of these forms have also led to original compositions heard mostly in the Easter morning presentations, created in an effort to establish new traditions, while remaining true to the spirit and soul of worship. By happy coincidence, many of our Singers are senior choristers, cantors and choirmasters, assuring us that this music finds its way into the established churches.
Yet, the Singers are best known as a ‘choral orchestra’, adding broad harmonies, rhythmic chant and traditional songs to the sound of the small group of musicians that form the NDTC orchestra. Always in the orchestra pit, at the ready to play national anthems, overtures, and instrumental interludes, the orchestra is often employed in the creative process of choreographers, providing rhythmic impulses, sound collages and music which expresses mood and style reflected in the movement sequences.
NDTC Singers in Traditional Songs of the Caribbean
Choreographers work in interesting ways, making the process of composition an often daunting task. Some complete a dance work by using counts (note here that a dancer counts in the way that is often counter to the musician) and a kind of ‘dance-speak’ which suggests duration, texture and intensity. All of this has to be translated by the composer. Yet others use already existing recorded music, which may then be augmented by sequences on the drums and percussion to highlight sections which lack the necessary Jamaican feel. The choreographer may also use recorded music as a kind of working score, then requiring the composer to create original music, guided by the pulse, impulses, dynamics and mood of the ‘working’ music. The mixture of the recorded and the live often runs to the insertion of whole live sections, and an ultimate return to the recorded. NDTC’s music is full of surprises, some soothing, others so contrasting as to make the listener sit up and take notice. It is not unusual for music heard first at an NDTC performance to find its way to the airwaves and into the personal collections of those with catholic tastes. In the early years, the music of the Impressionists was introduced, as was the avant-garde, in later years the sounds of the synthesizer and the electronic modes, followed by the music of Southern Africa and Brazil, but the music of the classical masters has been used with equal aplomb — from the Baroque to the Romantic to Musique Concrete, with more than passing obeisance to the masters of Jazz, from Ellingtonian odyssies to Brubeck, Don Shirley and the jazz fusion of world musics.