MAKING SENSE OUT OF THE NOISE: Dance Accompanists Speak of Beauty and Truth

By Irene Hsiao


Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on SF Weekly’s Exhibitionist on April 10, 2015 and is reprinted in In Dance with their permission.

AN ATMOSPHERIC OOZE overlaid with an intricate rhythm and the vivid interjection of a West African kora. A baroque ornament nestled within a dubstep pulse. Ambient haze cut through by the bright hue of a Japanese sho. Dancers getting sweaty on the fl oor. It isn’t late night at the club, but 10 a.m. at the dance studio, where concerts are being played live every morning by some of the most fascinating experimental musicians in the city. Albert Mathias, Daniel Berkman, and Ben Juodvalkis are among the many musicians who play live for dance classes at ODC, LINES, and other studios, delivering not Chopin or Tchaikovsky but a steady stream of never-before experienced music devised on the spot using acoustic instruments and electronics. Coming from diverse backgrounds and fi lling an unusual niche, these artists create new work daily and share perspectives on the joy and consequences of making art in a city that grows increasingly inhospitable to the brave few that make their home here.

On beginnings:

ALBERT MATHIAS: I started in musical theater. I sang in the choir and played cello, then decided I wanted to be a drum set player. I was in a band for 10 years as a kid. We’d rehearse all the time and play one or two shows a year in Chicago. And then I went to the Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin. It’s classical North Indian music. I was obsessed with him as a kid and came out here to study with him, and eventually I wound up at Cal Arts, studying with his accompanist.

DANIEL BERKMAN: My grandparents were musicians, and my parents are musicians. My grandparents on my father’s side were cofounders of the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, My mother’s father was a banjo player and guitar player, so that’s where I get my string chops. I’m an amalgamation of piano and theory on my father’s side and traveling bard/musician
with a guitar slung on your shoulder. So I’m a mix of those things, an academic snob and a gypsy. I grew up with a piano in the house and classical music and discovered rock and roll on my own. It was my first love.

BEN JUODVALKIS: I grew up in a house that had a piano, and I’d play it ever since I could reach it. After awhile, my parents decided it would be better for everyone if I got lessons, so I had piano lessons since I was 9. When I was a teenager, I rebelled and played drums. Joined the high school marching band, wore the outfit—as nerdy as it gets. I had to leave piano behind there—the classical arts fi eld can wear you down, but in college, I was able to reconnect with it on my own terms and fall back in love with it. I got a music degree from UCSC, 2005.

On playing for dance class:
AM: It’s almost like giving the room a hug. If I push too hard rhythmically, people will get hurt. I’ve had people slam into each other, have epileptic seizures in class — it was prompted by the energy in the room, which I’m majorly contributing to. The electronic version uses any kind of instrument, any kind of software, mixes and mingles with any kind of aesthetics, I don’t care if it’s drum and bass or dub step or hip hop. There are so many possibilities with electronic — my whole thing is to turn their brains off, do this Sufi thing where there’s enough going on that the critical brain can’t track it, you have to just experience it.

Instead of starting from scratch every time, I’ve developed a session that has all the dynamics I would need. I can go to my library and grab specific flavors if I need them. I’ll use that document for a year, and I’ll just keep reinventing, reinventing. It’s all about twisting, putting something backwards, dragging it into a sampler, playing something with the keys, using my voice, or using my phone as a tone generator. There’s so much room, and all we’re talking about is low frequency to high frequency, or in its basic form just boom and bap.

DB: I enjoy that the process elicits so many thoughts and feelings. The core thing for me is being able to communicate and tell some kind of story without playing something you already know. It’s a test, a challenge. If someone gives me a tempo, I can give them beauty, darkness, sexuality, sensuality—I can give them something else they can work with as they’re dancing. I can give them context. It challenges me to try things and try to get better at trying things. It challenges me to tell a story as I’m trying things.

I also feel I’m educating. I remember, years ago, I was really into Japanese gagaku. I had this fantasy of having a sho, a mouth organ, a key instrument in gagaku, when I was working for San Francisco, for the kids, I’d play some of these sounds that I’d play on my HandSonic that sounded like gagaku. No one knew what it was. I would be replicating the drum sounds, the pipa sounds, the sho sounds using electronic instruments. It’s a language. Very few people know the full range of it — West African to jazz to Indian — I bring all these elements in and look around to see if anyone notices. I want to share this thing that I’m obsessed with, that’s inspiring me.

BJ: There are different radiuses of movement. The full 18” around from the center of your body in plies. Bigger turns, jumps, different sizes of movements — I try to notice that and reference that in the music. A lot of it’s intuitive. Ultimately, I try to transcend what’s in the room, turn it from an exercise into something beautiful.

Accompanist plays for dance class
Photo by Annie Kloppenberg

I started bringing in electronic elements to make loops and expand textures and bring in percussive elements. I’m an urban, mobile professional, so I can’t be carrying a whole drum set — I really seriously dove into building an instrument for myself. I started with a pedal looper — I’d play sounds off my laptop and record it into that thing. I realized it made more sense to keep it all in the laptop, so I adapted existing musical software, and it grew. I had this big metal case that was 50 pounds, which now I’ve consolidated down to a backpack. By now it’s an instrument I’m just as good at as piano or drums. I built it for dance classes, but once I started getting commissions to compose, I just used the same instrument. I can do the same thing that I used for a beginning youth class and then go to LINES ballet rehearsal and make their piece from that. It expanded way farther than I initially planned.

On the practice:

AM: It’s almost a show. I take it that seriously. It’s never boring to me. I go into it and make myself come up with something new. Instead of thinking in my own studio on my own time I can come up with some brilliant concept I can then implement on people, I have to have an idea of the types of things that can work — slow it down, stretch it out so people can hear it and feel it.

DB: I consider class my laboratory. I don’t practice at home. I practice in class. I do class every day, and I have to be on. I can bring an instrument that I don’t know how to play at all, and as long as I’m on the clock, I have to play it in tempo, on pitch, start and end at the right time, and have it sound musical — just talking about it excites me.

Starting with noises is fun. Sensations. Putting your hands on something. It’s a noise before it’s made sense of. Noise could be a major chord. First, it’s a noise, which I think of positively, retaining a sense of awe and mystery.

BJ: It’s shaped me a lot and broadened my ideas of what music is and what can be effective tremendously. Having to work under such pressure and so quickly has helped silence my critic, which says, “oh, this isn’t clever enough,” or “what does this mean?” or “what would Beethoven think of this?” That critic and self-consciousness can go away because there’s so much going on and so much feedback that I don’t have to think about it. I have to be so fast in dance class, just throw it down, so I designed my system — no one else can work that quickly. I can be just another voice in the room — the choreographer works on the dancers, and I work on this. That’s the best.

On the joys and challenges facing artists:

AM: I appreciate that I came to dance because I have to get up in the morning — I have a class. I started touring with dance companies early on, so I was able to see a different side, not just the “rock star.” I got signed when I was really young — Bjork’s label signed me when I was 23, we toured
Europe, and I thought I was going to be famous. I got signed twice in my 20s, and once you got there, historically you were good, you know what I mean? But I think it’s better the way it turned out, because I still play music every day. When I was a kid, I wished I would just play music all the time — I don’t think I understood what that would mean. I think I was looking at it like KISS or whoever was super famous at the time, but the truth is, I got what I wished for. I’m still on the path. And this path can continue.

It used to be cheaper to live here. When I moved here it was three hundred bucks for a room — and that still felt expensive — but I could pay my rent with accompaniment. It used to be a little more freaky here. A lot of people left in the late 90s. The fi rst dotcom boom looked like this, and some of us stayed, and in three years the bubble busted and things kind of went back to normal — well, they stopped getting worse. Right now things are really hard. I don’t know what people do in their early 20s anymore. I’m 43. I have work, I know people, I have a career. I was signed a number of times. I had a number of bands. I’ve done OK. But I look at the struggle I faced, trying to find my voice, trying to create opportunities for myself, and I could cry. It’s tough for people now. The type of person who can survive right now is super Type A, super organized, maybe from money, maybe smart enough to monetize what they’re doing, less introspective and experimental. I’m not the weirdest one out there, but I’ve been able to experiment until I was blue in the face, until I found my edges and found my voice, and I don’t know how much that’s happening anymore for younger artists.

Accompanist playing
Photo by metroactive

People say, oh, you get to do what you love. And it’s like, yeah. But I gave up everything to do it. I don’t have children. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a home. I don’t have any retirement. On some level, there’s a real reality check around this. Most of what we have, we created for ourselves, but it could disappear tomorrow. It’s important that people know that at some point, there’s no way out. I have this work history, most people look at and they’re like, “I don’t know what this means.” It’s extraordinary, but that’s the paradox. I sort of live with that, and I happily live with that because I chose it, I really did.

DB: I’m attracted to things of a unique and rare nature, that only happen once in a lifetime, that are unexplainable, mysterious, fleeting, magical, mystical. I don’t know how else to put it. What happens in my mind in dance class? It’s revelational: gagaku: ancient Japanese court music. The world needs to hear it, one time only, here — in dance class, gagaku! A theremin! Viola da gamba! They’re all revelations. Unique. Happenings. I can make them happen now. A dance class is a happening. How can I make it more unique and mysterious than just playing the bongo and a piano. I am seeking the next musical revelational, experiential high. I had an upbringing in music, in art — it’s in my blood. It hasn’t been a choice for me. I got the bug and I could never get rid of it. I found a passion in it. It’s a passion that goes beyond the physical realm. It gets into spirit, the unseeable, the unknowable. For me music is mysterious. It’s magical. It’s so real, even though you can’t touch it. You experience it in the moment. There are so many different ways to experience it, there are so many ways it hasn’t been experienced yet. It’s the greatest gift in the universe.

BJ: I exist totally out of any music industry. The whole conversation of what matters in pop music or classical music has completely bypassed me. No one in classical music knows what I’m doing at all, so I’ve been able to learn and create my identity without any sort of judgment. It’s a totally different world. No music critic from the paper is judging me.

My part of it is to make people feel beautiful and remind them that there’s meaning. I’m a servant, but I’m lucky to be a cool one. That keeps me grateful and hopefully humble. I worry about financial instability, and I worry more about losing inspiration. Honestly, what I do is disposable. I write a score, it’s performed four times, and then it’s gone. I’ve been lucky, some of them have toured all over the world. But most of them don’t. But I think I’m really honing my skills for something that may serve me when I make something that will stand the test of time.

There’s the artist mantra about making it for yourself, but I really doubt that it’s true, because you’re using it to connect with people. It’s the best way that I know to communicate and relate to people. A musician can turn a normal moment into something you care about. It’s just an experience. It goes away. You have to do it again.


IRENE HSIAO has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, SF Weekly, Bay Area Reporter, and others, and currently dances with Kinetech Arts and Lenora Lee Dance. Her book of photography and text, Letter from Taipei, was published in 2014.