Megan Grace Beugger Discusses 'Liaison'

In Megan Grace Beugger's Liaison, a dancer is harnessed to a piano via wires that, when pulled, bow the strings inside the instrument. Thus, the physical movements of the dancer generate the sonic result. It is a visually and aurally striking work. Below is a video of Melanie Aceto performing Liaison at this year's June in Buffalo Festival. In addition, I asked Megan a few questions about how the work came together. Her responses reveal a fascinating process informed by multiple collaborations.

D.B. How long did it take to create the apparatus that connects the dancer to the piano? Did you work from a pre-conceived plan or was the process defined more by trial and error?

Megan Grace Beugger

Megan Grace Beugger

M.G.B. It was quite a long an intense process. From the initial conception, it probably took about 9 months to get a contraption that produced sound which resembled the final apparatus. After, there were a lot of adjustments made along the roughly one year it took to write the piece. I originally just thought of really long piano bows being tied to a dancer. When I tried that, parts of the piano (dampers and the frame bars) actually prevented any sound from occurring. So first, I just designed a simple device that was just a large wood block with a pole, which would be placed on top of the piano and pull the bows away from anything preventing them from resonating. This worked fine, and could be a useful tool for other pieces, which include intricate bowed piano, but it was rather limiting for this piece. It required two hands or body parts to operate one bow, which was off-putting because of the few amount of potential bows we could use, and the mandated scissors motion would get old really fast. From there, we wanted to have a contraption which would retract the strings, and we had to enlist tons of help from everyone we knew that had any sort of experience in designing mechanisms of any sort. We had three guys from the Center for the Arts at UB, who normally work on set design, Tom Tucker, Gary Casarella, and Tom Burke, architect Michael Rogers, and engineer John Roeseler, among others who worked extensively with us to come up with designs, problem solve, and physically build the contraption. It was extremely exciting to have so many people from such diverse fields actively and enthusiastically involved in making my idea for a piece with into a reality. Once the machine was built, we found problems as we began to work on it, which we consulted our friends for advice and help. The solution for one little problem would usually cause a trail of more, so we had to follow it to the end to get a final apparatus that would work.

D.B.To what degree is the gestural vocabulary in Liaison informed by your collaboration with Melanie Aceto?

M.G.B. It was extremely informed by my collaboration. Due to the nature of the piece, there is no possible separation of dance and music, so we had to write the entire thing together. Melanie would record improvisation sessions with the contraption, which was really helpful, and I’d bring pre-composed segments to rehearsals. The success rate of my pre-composed segments was much lower than I’d normally have composing music. Probably about 80-90% wouldn’t even be physically possible, and that is before you start to cut out what is boring, overdone, and ineffective. Melanie was much more likely to come up with gestures that were linear, rounded, gentle, and smooth, while I was much more likely to come up with gestures which were more choppy and harsh. Our collaboration allowed us to work with material that we would have never come up with on our own, which was really challenging but also rewarding. Additionally, our points of view about larger scale issues, such as form, were very different due to the different fields we were involved in, and it was really interesting for me to see how someone outside the music field thinks about the same concepts composers think about.

D.B. Is there a score for Liaison? If so, what does it look like and how did you come up with an appropriate notation?

M.G.B. Not yet, but one is in the works. As a composer, I always have worked in score, but dancers and choreographers use purely videos of performances in lieu of a score (giving an even stronger interpretive role to the first performers of a work). The piece clearly uses motion beyond that of an everyday person, and requires a skilled dancer. I’m sure there are a few musician/ dancers out there that have a relationship to written scores, but they are in the minority. Most dancers are very visual, and prefer that I show them how to do a movement instead of reading about it, and I prefer doing that too (given enough rehearsal time) as I get to really refine the movement and interpretation to fit with my visions for the piece. However, as this piece has consumed the last year and half of my doctoral studies, I’m hoping to create a score in order to include it in my doctoral portfolio, as well as be something that can open up more musicians to the work. The notation will be a mix of pictures depicting a motion and boxed text that describe sections where one specific motion is repeated until it is “maxed out.” Right now, the focus is on creating extremely detailed diagrams, which document the apparatus and its setup so it can be successfully recreated.

D.B. Given the physical setup of the piece, it makes sense that the pitch material is static. How did you decide upon the chosen pitch collection?

M.G.B. That was something that we experimented with and changed a lot as we wrote the piece. A lot of my choices regarding pitch for this piece were more about practicality than anything else. There were many pitch combinations that I was pleased with the sounds, but due to their placement in the piano they created some sort of technical issue (getting stuck, being hard to pull, twisting with other lines, or producing too much friction and snapping). I also wanted to pick a collection with enough timbral variety. After much trial and error we found a collection that worked great physically in the piano, and I was happy with the sound. The pitches are quasi based off the A spectral series, but there are a few pitches in there to throw it off and create dissonance.

D.B. The title of the piece, the striking image of a performer harnessed to a piano, the provocative ending gesture- all of these elements suggest a variety of possible sexual/political themes. Is this piece intended to explore a particular political idea?

M.G.B. Our goal was to create strong imagery, but not specific imagery. I think when you allow an audience member to connect with the piece by creating their own symbolisms, imageries, and meanings; the piece becomes more personal for them. Neither of us is interested in creating a linear story, however we were interested in creating characters. I often think of the piece more as a duo than a solo piece, where the piano/contraption is character too, and I was very interested in exploring the relationship between the piano/contraption and dancer. The dancer is in control of moving the bows that sound the piano strings, but the piano and contraption have more physical weight and mass, therefore the dancer must face the contraption’s resistance while being stuck in a confined space. This raises questions for me, such as what is strength and what/whom holds it.