An Interview with Lance Garger

by Sylvia Villa

Lance Garger is extremely active as a Percussionist/Composer/Accompanist/Music Educator. His eminent teachers include Mor Thiam of Senegal (Katherine Dunham) and Rich O’Donnell (St. Louis Symphony Orchestra). He holds a BA in Music and an MM in Composition. He is currently an Adjunct Faculty Accompanist at Webster University and the Drummer/Vocalist with the progressive rock band Ars Nova in St. Louis.

How did you get into writing music for dance? What attracted you to writing for this particular art form?

I was hired as an Accompanist at a local University. Soon, I was asked to compose two original pieces for the Faculty Dance Concert.

I had been interested in branching out from the performance styles of Rock, Jazz and Classical, styles which I adored, and still do.  I wanted to compose for dance and theater.  The ephemeral aspect of these disciplines was intriguing.  The commissions from the above-mentioned pieces were also attractive.

Did you have much knowledge or experience of dance before you composed music for a dance-related project?

I knew only a bit.  I danced in a variety show in high school, and I dated a ballerina in college.

What sort of research do you do in order to prepare for a project? Do you have a particular method?

Particular to composing for dance is the consideration of the human element.  Other than possible intellectual, historical or thematic elements requiring research that come into play, the music must fulfill the expectations, structure and qualitative palette of the choreographer (hence, of the dance itself.)  Rhythm, form, structure, length, thematic statements, instrumentation, foreground, background, signposts (cues), lighting, auspices, venue, live musician(s)/recorded music (or both), and many other factors must be considered.

Though the music is an expression of the composer’s input and under their aegis, the essentially supportive role of dance music must be kept in mind, unless the choreographer/director requires a purely musical passage.

The actual method of composing may vary according to the needs of the choreographer, the dance itself or the whim and fancy of the composer, who does not lose sight of the structural integrity of the music and dance. I have found that having the choreographer get acquainted with various rhythms/sonorities/instrument combinations can be helpful in broadening and defining the qualitative palette to be explored.  I would also ask “What do you hear, here?”; “What do you like/not like?”; “What is the emotional quality of this section of the music/dance?”  Offering plenty of ideas, motifs, and suggestions can really support the choreographer’s choices.  

Be ready to come up with a lot, and to not use very much of it. The parts they do like and keep provide impetus for further development, hence collaboration is mutually achieved.

Describe what the relationship between music and dance means to you.

Music and Dance are very close.  Both are ephemeral expressions of human beauty.  The essence of the perception of rhythm implies motion.  The body in motion can imply and inspire rhythm and quality.  The tradition of the unity of music and dance is thousands of years old.  Music and dance are a way of life.  What I have learned about Art from dance and dancers, I cherish.  As a full-time Percussionist/Composer/Accompanist, music and dance means: a great gig!

Passion and dedication are so apparent in dancers. Their striving for beauty is totally inspirational.
Their respect for and love of music is so pleasing to the muse.
Playing and writing for dancers is so very rewarding!

Do you think that writing music for dance requires a different approach compared to writing music for a different art form?

The supportive, propelling power that dance music provides is idiosyncratic. There is a unity of ideas, qualities and themes that reflects the choreographer/composer interchanges. This is also present in composing incidental music for theatre (director/composer.)

Most other forms of music exhibit less external impetus, except that which it imposes on itself.  A song may be about a story or event, and may have a singular political or emotional theme.  An instrumental piece may recall a heroic landscape, etc.  Or, what is considered absolute music may be relatively free of any external association and rely solely on its own presentation for structural integrity and perceptivity.

How do you navigate a working relationship with a choreographer and/or dance company?

I try to be forceful, friendly, flexible, fun, filter-free, followable, following, feeling, frisky and financially fit. 

What advice would you give a composer looking to write music for dance? (What would have helped you when you were starting out or working on your first project?)

Watch a lot of dance, different styles, like Ballet, Modern, Jazz, African, Latin, Flamenco, Mid-Eastern, Contemporary, etc.   To be associated with a style, immersion and familiarity are paramount.  Ideally one would try to secure a position as Accompanist with an established institution or dance company.  Exposure to the dance and the exigencies of dance music may compel one to write or at least be known in dance circles as one who could or does write dance music.

How would you describe the role of music within a dance production? Does this change depending on the nature of the project?

The music should be able to stand on its own and to provide a unifying, supportive role within the dance project.  This can vary if the choreographer is looking for a polar opposite of what is happening on stage, i.e. dancers moving very slowly while the music is fast, etc.  Note: the music does not have to embody or imitate what the dancers are doing.  The true collaboration occurs when the structures of the music and dance interact to form a third beautiful thing: the piece, especially in live performance.

Do you have any opinions on the current state of the ballet and dance industry and how that affects the creation of new music for dance?

Unfortunately, the current cultural and financial state of most dance companies encourages the use of pre-recorded music found on the Internet, or on a personal CD. Many times, even at the University and professional level, music is used without the permission of the composer/performer. This is actually in violation of existing copyright laws. (“Everybody does it”). This practice keeps a lot of good writers and players out of work. A healthier cultural environment could be encouraged by more companies and institutions commissioning original music for their dance pieces. Who knows? A company may find someone who actually writes some nice dance music and who will work for cheap.

For a while.  

Lance’s music, performance and arrangements of other works can be heard at at: