Original animation and music for dance on a painting by Elizabeth Osborne for Jeanne Ruddy Dance
Jeanne and I met at a Five Counties Arts Fund reception for grant recipients at the end of 2006. Each artist spoke about their work and Jeanne approached me after hearing that I was a composer to ask if I knew how to incorporate sampled sounds into a musical score. She was already developing the choreography for “Oceans 1-Wetlands” and wanted to use some actual sounds from the wetlands. I began coming to rehearsals but soon realized that I didn’t have the sort of visual memory necessary in order to match the choreography with newly composed music. I began to videotape the rehearsals and had three months to finish the ￼work. The process was both scary and exhilarating at the same time. Since the dancers already knew the movement, the moment they heard the music for the first time determined whether or not the music “worked.” In addition, Jeanne had some spoken parts in the piece which I decided to put through a reverb unit to add layers that worked with the background music. When I saw the dress rehearsal with Jeffrey Wirsing’s costumes and Peter Jakubowski’s lighting, I knew I had found great collaborative partners! I realized the tremendous amount of work Jeanne had done with the dancers over 8 years to create movements that were precise, elegant and an extension of her training with Martha Graham. I am still amazed by the commitment of each dancer to their art and fitness and to Jeanne’s vision.
For the 2008 season, Jeanne decided to rework her piece, “Breathless,” which was inspired by a Theodore Dreiser novel. We worked on the piece in the manner that we did before. I scored to completed choreography captured by a video camera. This was a tough work to score because the theme of violence toward women was difficult to live with every day. However, I took my lead from Jeanne’s choreography and luckily, she had found a balance between the subtle and violent interactions of the three couples. This piece was on a program with guest choreographer, Susanne Linke and the 8 performances were virtually sold-out.
After the 2008 season, Jeanne asked if I would be interested in creating a score based on Joseph Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet. Since it was one of the first string quartets I studied as a music student, I was excited when given the opportunity to pay homage to my classical training as well as interpret this masterpiece through the lens of my current musical language. Since the musical score was created before the dance, I had new pressures of getting each movement completed on a timetable we set up beforehand. However, I remember laughing many times at the variations I made of the Haydn and the material felt joyous to me. This piece was considerably lighter than “Breathless” and was paired on a program with a piece by guest choreographer, Martha Clarke.
Original animation for dance on painting by Elizabeth Osborne for Jeanne Ruddy Dance. (Music by Ellen Fishman added later.)
Ellen Fishman-Johnson and Michael Heller have ahistory of collaboration since their first meeting at the Yaddo Artist Colony in 1990. Their first collaboration was Heteroglossia (1991) for Tape . They earned an invitation to perform Heteroglossia at the 1991 International Computer Music Conference in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the work has had many other performances. Their second collaboration was Freedom, after all? (1992) for Soprano, Stings, Percussion and Computer (9 performers). This piece featured two real-time processing effects written specifically for this piece. It was premiered at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1992. Their largest collaborative undertaking to date was Benjamin, a multimedia opera (1998-2000). This opera was based on the life and tragic suicide of Walter Benjamin and featured singers, a six piece ensemble and pre-recorded sound. It was selected for presentation by the Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2000 and was performed for four nights at the Old First Reform in Old City, Philadelphia. Their first Internet movie, After Montale, was created in 2002 and featured a an original musical score that accompanied the paced visual presentation of the poem. In 2006, they began working on This Art Burning for a November performance. The words for this work, especially the phrase “live neither in blacks nor whites” and its title, “This Art Burning,” come from a poem entitled “Autobiographia.” The poem had caught Ellen’s attention as she was thinking of the music she would write. The basis of the piece, repetition and insistent phrasing, required a language of psychic exploration and clarity that the singer could clearly articulate.
Out of Pure Sound is a four movement work by Ellen Fishman-Johnson that features a solo violinist, video and poetry by Michael Heller. This last movement, performed by violinist, Leah Kim is based on the poem An Interpellation. This was part of a performance on the 2010 Philly Fringe Festival and was partially supported by a grant from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum. The poem appears in Eschaton which is published by Talisman House Publishers, 2009.