An interview with Ray Lindsey

by Sylvia Villa

Ray Lindsey has played for dance companies all over the United States, including Kansas City Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and currently Pennsylvania Ballet. Besides piano, he also plays mBira, violin, xylophone, guitar, and various other instruments. His styles range from classical to blues, to jazz to African to other world music.

Has your experience as a dance accompanist benefitted your music making and compositional skills?

Yes, definitely. One thing is that it has made me more conscious of rhythm and accents, especially as they relate to dancers. Previously, I was more focused on harmonic and melodic ideas.

Did you have much knowledge or experience of dance before becoming a dance accompanist and composer for dance?

Not really. I played in a rock band when i was a teenager (electric guitar) and we played for school dances, but I never was very aware of professional dance until I played for Kansas City Ballet.

What attracted you to working in the dance realm as a music practitioner?

To be honest, I did it for the money. I was playing clubs in Kansas City, which isn’t the most stable income, and I was always looking for extra income through teaching lessons, etc. I didn’t have a piano at home and I used to go over to the Kansas City Conservatory of Music to practice. They had a bunch of practice rooms that they never locked. There I met a Brazilian pianist, Francisco Renno, who was doing the same thing. He is an amazing pianist who has won international piano competitions. He is now the pianist for Miami City Ballet, but at that time he was KC Ballet’s accompanist. His approach to ballet accompanying was basically to improvise, and he was amazing at it. He could improvise in a very classical style, whereas my improvising was more jazz and blues
flavoured. He also exposed me to much good Brazilian music and also to Astor Piazzolla. He basically got me a job at Kansas City Ballet just from his recommendation. I thought this would be a perfect supplementary job, because I could play improvised music and get paid for it. I was put right into playing for company and school classes, and must have been terrible, because I had no idea what I was doing! But little by little I picked up the basics.

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

I spent a short time in Ghana, and it was there that I saw the symbiotic relationship between music and dance. In many African languages, there are no separate words for music and dance, and the musicians watch and respond as the dancers delineate aspects of the drum rhythms. So the dancing definitely influences how the music goes. I experience this when playing class. I feel inspired when the dancers are getting into it and it makes me play better, and with more energy. And sometimes I feel like I need to give the dancers a boost when they are tired, so I might choose a song that I know they will respond to.

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

I think so. Music just for listening can be anything. In my opinion, music for dance has to have a basic mood that makes you feel like moving, enough variation to keep it interesting and challenging, and have some emotional content. A rhythmic pulse and a sense of building and growing also contribute to successful dance music. Although, theoretically, you can dance to anything, even silence, some music is undeniably more “danceable”.

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

I just work with them in a back-and-forth. Usually I give them rough sketches of ideas until we hit on something for each section. I like that because it gives me ideas that I wouldn’t have had. And sometimes the choreographer will really like something that I didn’t think was anything worth keeping.

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?)

I would say to be flexible and open to what the choreographer wants. Communicate back and forth so that you won’t waste hours on something that you are not going to use. And be able to take criticism.

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

I think music can make or break a dance performance. The audience is reacting to both the music and the dancing. The music, if it is good, can stand on its’ own. But if you take away the music from the dance, it might no longer make sense.

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?

Right now it’s the worst I’ve ever seen. After 9/11, grants for the arts dried up. Now, the arts in the U.S. are totally marginalized and are viewed with suspicion by the right-wing administration and his followers. Maybe some very authentic art can grow out of this situation, that is my hope.

Thank You!