92. Music and Motion – An Interview with Percussionist and Composer Mel Mobley
On Tuesday, December 5, Nachtmusik von BrainSurge welcomes Mel Mobley and Tina Mullone—the duo M2 (m squared)—for an exciting concert engaging with the realms of both music and dance. I recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Mobley who not only contributes to M2 his talents as percussionist but also his skills as composer. Dr. Mobley shared with me his insights on several of the dimensions of Tuesday’s program, and it is these insights which I offer here.
How long have you and Tina Mullone been collaborating as M2? Can you describe your typical approach toward working together? M2 was formed in 2014 and first performed at the Modern Festival in Fort Worth, Texas. The method of collaboration has evolved over the last three years and takes different forms at different times. We usually start with a concrete theme or idea. I then begin to generate sound ideas and Tina begins to create movement ideas. There is a give-and-take as we begin to share our individual ideas and use those to inspire our further creations. The piece then gradually takes shape as we begin to combine those things that we think work together. The final edits are usually done as a team. The music is mainly my purview and the dance is Tina’s. Rather than suggest ideas to the other, we often ask each other questions about the product to further refine how they work in tandem.
How does your collaboration produce things that, separately, neither of you would be able to accomplish? In other words, how would you say your collaboration has strengthened your artistic product? My belief is that music and dance are both abstract art forms. Taken separately, they can provoke emotion, reaction, introspection, etc. However, put together they have a stronger power to communicate. In the modern arts, the general audience often feels cut off as if there is something that they are not “getting.” When you have two different elements (three for pieces with video), there are more connections that can be made and the audience is more ready to contemplate what might otherwise seem quite foreign to them.
How do you conceive that music, dance, and often video convey messages, social or otherwise, despite their abstract natures? I believe that all true art is something that affects the perspective of the human condition. Tina uses visual movement and I use sonic movement that reflects a certain idea to us. The combination of these things has a stronger audience impact in my mind. Audiences want to make a connection. With multiple artistic platforms, they are more able to see how artists are connecting ideas and how that might relate to them or to a concept that they already have opinions about.
Similarly, how is narrative conveyed through these media? Are parts of the narrative told exclusively through music and other parts through dance, or do these media reinforce each other? The combination of the two art forms allows for a much more specific narrative than either could on their own. In addition, they can say opposing things at times creating moments of tension and release. It is possible for a viewer to lose the thread of the narrative by one artist but be able to then pick it up with the other artist whether that is the intention or not.
There is a line in the description of M2 which reads, “each performer is a ‘sound artist’ and a ‘movement artist.’” How do these two art forms, music and dance, interact, and what do you as artists do to facilitate their fusion? With the way we create, we try to make each individual element tied to the thematic underpinning of the piece. Thus, the music and dance reflect individual perspectives on the same thing and, therefore, reflect each other to some degree. There are times when the music has generated movement ideas and times when dance has generated sonic ideas. When a dancer dances alone, there is sound and, when a percussionist performs, there is movement. We accentuate this idea by making the percussionist “dance” and the dancer “play” at various times. Sometimes this is obvious and sometimes it is not.
Are percussion instruments specially suited to this sort of collaboration? How have you used your abilities as a percussionist to craft these artworks? Percussion is extremely well-suited for this sort of collaboration, or perhaps our collaboration grew out of the possibilities available with percussion. First, regardless of dance, percussion is a visually striking performance medium. Second, it is possible for a non-percussionist to learn quickly how to make a good sound on a percussion instrument. So this allows the dancer to perform on the instruments as well as the percussionist. The biggest challenge for both of us is how to integrate the other person into our own art form. Tina finds movements that are possible for a non-trained dancer and I find sound ideas suited to a non-trained musician. In this way we cross over to the other world of art.
Also, how do live elements (percussion, dance) interact with fixed media (video, electronic music) in your collaborations? Our initial intent with our first duo collaboration, Love and Violence in America (2014), was to blur the line between live and recorded media. For this piece, the bulk of the electronic sound came from recordings of my compositions. A large part of the video came from excerpts of Tina’s previous dance performances as well. In this way, we were able to juxtapose our own live performance on top of recorded performance of our works. In subsequent works, we use the video for various things—backdrop, atmosphere, thematic declaration, etc. The electronic audio allows for a richer sound palette and the ability to have both performers move without generating their own accompaniment.
There is so much in your collaborations that is new. Would it be inappropriate of me to ask how you envision what you do is also related to the traditions of these art forms, even as recently as say the collaborations of composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham? We are both very steeped in the traditions of our art and pull elements from multiple historical sources. We are both very big fans of John Cage and Merce Cunningham but work in a very different way than the Cage/Cunningham collaborations. Our collaboration has been one of growth for both of us. We have similar aesthetic tendencies but extremely different creation methodologies and have learned how to combine those through trial and error. The length of the collaboration has led to the ability to generate things that will work for each other with less pre-composition discussion. The current state of dance and music is a very exciting one because the combining of multiple styles is possible. It is possible for Tina to use movements from ballet and African dance right next to each other, just as it is possible for me to use a 12-tone system and a jazz formula on top of each other (which actually happens in Perspectives).
I also want to ask you about a few of your pieces specifically. For instance, how is social commentary conveyed in Love and Violence in America? Is there one message or is there room for interpretation? How should we as listeners interpret the musical quotation of Simple Gifts at this piece’s end? Many of our pieces include social commentary, but all require the audience to make their own interpretations of what is produced on the stage and what the piece means to them. We do not have a single “message” or an agenda. Our sincere hope is that by generating sounds and images in certain ways we can cause reflection and introspection. Hopefully, we can challenge the viewer to think of things in a new way. Love and Violence in America is a good example. Our intent was to reflect on the thin line between love and violence that we see play out in society all too frequently. The final quotation was something that was available from an earlier recording of one of my pieces (that quoted the Simple Gifts melody). It should have a different effect on each individual. I know it has a different meaning to both Tina and me.
In Babel, how did the addition of videographer John Michael Caldwell affect your collaboration? Our collaboration with John Michael was quite interesting. We discussed our thoughts about the thematic content—the beginning and meaning of language. We asked for a completely abstract video that would give backdrop to that theme. In this piece the three elements were composed largely separately based on thematic content. As we created things (choreography, music, video imagery), we shared it with the other collaborators. So in the end you have a collage of three people’s concept of a theme that has gradually been shaped into a whole throughout the creation process.
How will the version of Babel performed at Nachtmusik von BrainSurge differ from the original staged at University of Louisiana Monroe? The piece was initially written and performed for ULM student percussionists and dancers. We were so happy with the outcome that we wanted to find a way to recreate the piece with our own duo. We have been able to do that for three of the five movements. The first movement has become largely digital media alone. Movements four and five use choreography and live music. However, at Nachtmusik, movement four will only contain live music as the dance is not possible given the limitations of the flooring in the venue. Movement five has been quite a challenge as it is meant to tie the thematic piece together. It is the one time where both performers do a lot of movement and a lot of playing.
Is there anything else you would like to comment on about this performance? We look forward to our Nachtmusik performance although we have had to adjust most of the pieces to work in the space provided. The non-dance flooring and smaller area makes it a challenge but we believe we have kept the integrity of the pieces intact. We will not be able to do Love and Violence in America, and In Convenience has been shortened. Both include physical movements that could not be safely initiated on the type of flooring available. The performance will contain the premiere of our new version of Babel and only the second performance of our newest piece Perspectives. We hope the audience will leave with a new appreciation for art, music, and dance, and have a new perspective on many of the social topics we address. We will talk a little about several of the pieces before we perform them and will be happy to answer any questions after the performance.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.