ALIAS, Nashville Ballet Collaboration Promises Energy, Intimacy

Behind the Scenes with ALIAS’ Matt Walker and Nashville Ballet’s Paul VasterlingThis May 17-19, ALIAS Chamber Ensemble will take to the stage with the Nashville Ballet and Watkins College of Art, Design & Film for the Ballet’s annual Emergence effort. (Click here to buy tickets from the Nashville Ballet) We recently sat down with ALIAS cellist and composer Matt Walker and Nashville Ballet Artistic Director Paul Vasterling to learn more.

Q: How did the ALIAS-Nashville Ballet collaboration come to be?

Matt Walker, cello

MW: ALIAS’ Artistic Director, Zen Bowers, had been talking with Paul for several years about some sort of collaboration – one that put to use some of the interesting and unusual music ALIAS has been performing over the years. When the Ballet began planning for its 2012 Emergence series, it seemed like the time had come.

Paul Vasterling

PV: Yes! There was quite a long time between first talking of this and finally doing it… The time was finally right!

Q: Was a composition by Matt a part of the original plan?

MW: When Paul met with us to discuss the collaboration, Zen and I were throwing a lot of different ideas at him – various composers and pieces. We wanted the programming to look like an ALIAS concert, embracing our eclecticism and innovation. When we suggested doing one of my pieces as part of the program, Paul seemed to sort of light up. Then I suggested that I might write something new specifically for the Ballet, and that was the idea that took root.

PV: I’d attended a number of ALIAS concerts and was familiar with Matt’s music. I was intrigued by his influences and thought it would be interesting to work with him on a piece from the ground up.

Q: How have you worked together to develop this project? Give us a sense of your process.

MW: I had taken a bit of time to think about what sort of piece I’d like to write, and then Paul and I met to talk about the length, instrumentation, mood, shape and so on. I knew it would be something with a jazz element to it, but we also wanted to incorporate something ancient or mysterious…maybe explore combining and alternating different time periods. After a lot of wine and cheese, and after solving many philosophical riddles, we arrived at a vague idea of how the piece would be shaped and how it could work with dancers. A subsequent meeting saw me playing a few melodies and rhythmic figures on my cello to give Paul an idea of how the piece was shaping up. Because I composed the piece for specific members of ALIAS, the instrumentation is odd – clarinet, English horn, viola and cello – but the dark richness of all these instruments makes for a really nice blend of sounds.

A short version of the piece was premiered at the July 2011 Arts & Flowers event, and we later recorded the full version for the Ballet to practice with over the course of this season.

I must add that Paul was very kind to tell me that I should write as if I were writing chamber music that could stand on its own, rather than dance music. I can imagine other ballet masters being far less liberating in this circumstance.

PV: All true! One thing that Matt didn’t touch on is that we are also collaborating with fine arts students from Watkins, who will provide visual elements, video – perhaps sculpture – for each piece.  I think that most music can be danced to, and after experiencing a few of Matt’s pieces I knew a new piece by him would have something to inspire us. I think all the elements should be interesting on their own, but will be doubly (or triply) interesting and surprising all together!

Q: What barriers/challenges have you faced in getting this project moving – and keeping it moving?

MW: Surprisingly, there are none that I can think of. I was very inspired by the whole idea, so my piece has been completed since last summer. And the Ballet has been fantastic to work with at every step – very enthusiastic and highly organized. Sandy Obodzinski (the Ballet’s Director of Development) has been ALIAS’ contact there, and she is a civic treasure.

PV: We love Sandy, too! The only challenge has really been to keep all these collaborators together. Four pieces, four composers (albeit one long gone), four sets of musicians (as each piece has different instrumentation) and four visual artists. It’s crazy!

Q: What has surprised you most about this project?

MW: Hmm…

PV: That remains to be seen. The combinations of all three art forms should bring unexpected surprises that I’m looking forward to experiencing.

Q: What can audiences expect come performance night?

MW: A great program of really interesting music, with brand new choreography from four different ballet masters. The four pieces are VERY different, and could easily find themselves together on an ALIAS program. (Each piece other than mine, in fact, has been performed by ALIAS on past concerts.) Audiences who don’t yet know ALIAS will meet a really fantastic and dedicated ensemble of musicians doing what they love.

PV: The performances are at our studio theater and will be really intimate. Imagine these rock star ALIAS musicians – along with our rock star dancers – in all new and fresh work, in very close proximity. You will definitely feel the energy!

Q: Will you each please suggest something our audience members can look for and listen for?

MW: My piece will include a short bit of improvisation from each of the musicians – and therefore also from the dancers! Musically, the variety of musical style from one piece to the next is remarkable. Three of the pieces are written by American composers within the last couple of decades. The fourth is a charming little violin sonata by one of the Baroque masters of the 17th century; it has animal sounds built in to the music. Listen for them!

(Click here to buy tickets from the Nashville Ballet)