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Tune Freedom

September 18th, 2016
contra, music  [html]

There are two common ways to handle the music for social dances:
  • Caller picks a dance, which has a tune.

  • Caller picks a dance, musicians pick a tune.

Well, really, it's a bit of a continuum:
  • In old time square dancing, the band plays something good and the caller calls to it.

  • In modern contra dance, the caller chooses a dance, tells the musicians what it's like, and they pick some music that will fit the dance reasonably well.

  • In Scottish Country dance, the caller chooses a dance, which specifies what tune to start and end with, and the musicians choose other tunes to play in between.

  • In English Country, traditional contra dance, and several other forms, the caller chooses a dance, which has a specific tune that the musicians are expected to play.

Each end of the continuum has something going for it. At the coordinated end, you get music that can fit the dances really well. If the dance has some fun twiddle a third of the way in, the music can as well. Over many evenings dancers can learn to associate the music tightly with the dance, helping them remember it and building memories of specific dances that reach across decades. At the uncoordinated end, it's a lot easier for new bands to get started. They can work up a few great sets, practice them for months, and know they'll get to play all their solid stuff regardless of what dances the caller chooses.

One problem with having the music tied to the dances is that it means the callers are picking the tunes, and callers are not always very good at this! Some callers are very musically aware, and when preparing for a gig choose dances that have tunes that are (a) good and (b) that the band they're working with will sound good playing, but this is hard and such callers are definitely a minority. Worse, the feedback loop is messed up. Organizers normally complete the feedback loop: they make a booking, see how that works out, then decide whether to invite them back. But in a dance form where the caller chooses the music, the organizers often aren't knowledgable enough to tell the difference between the music being good/bad because of the caller's dance (and hence tune) choices, or because of the band's musical ability.

This is what I think is behind the contra dance community having a much more lively musical culture than the ECD community. There is basically one ECD band that is a big draw, and they've been around for decades, while there are dozens of contra dance bands that people will specifically come out to hear if they see them on the schedule, many of which are relatively recent.

And I'll go farther: great music leads to high attendance leads to a thriving and healthy community. So we should prioritize arrangements that foster great music, even if this means giving up some on tune-dance connections.

(Dances with unusual-length parts make this somewhat tricky. Nearly all contra dances are 64 counts divided into four 16-count sections, so while not all tunes will sound great with all dances, if you pair a random tune with a random dance the mechanics still work out. On the other hand, if you always have specific tunes for specific dances then you can write a dance with however many counts you want as long as you find or write a tune to match. So if you have a kind of dance that hasn't historically allowed the musicians to pick tunes you do need to figure out (a) how much variation in count distributions you want to preserve and (b) how the callers and bands can communicate around this.)

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