Listening like a dancer: Toronto composers on collaborating with choreographers


Composing music for contemporary dance is a fairly unique challenge, as this kind of dance is defined by distinct intuitive qualities that can sometimes be more “felt” by audiences than logically understood. As a trained musician, it could be difficult to create the sonic half of a moving target, but a number of leading local composers are finding fruitful ways to collaborate with companies like Toronto Dance Theatre. 

The Glass Fields Project, which recently completed a series of performances in Toronto, presents Christopher House’s 1984 masterwork Glass Houses alongside five new 10-minute dance compositions. Ann Southam wrote the music for the original work, and this composition laid the groundwork for a whole new group of Toronto composers to create something new.

Composer Sarah Shugarman originally studied dance, so her choice to work closely with dance comes as no surprise. When she came to the Glass Fields Projects to collaborate with choreographer Jasmyn Fyffe, she was in her element. 

In Shugarman’s view, the relationship between music and contemporary dance has changed over the past 30 years, when music and dance were more closely aligned. “The questions you might ask yourself when composing for dance now really come down to how the music can best serve the dance – by supporting it, contrasting it and evoking what you don’t see.”

She explains the collaborative nature of composing for dance makes it different than composing for concerts or scoring a film.

“I’ve worked with choreographers where we go into the studio together and improvise and I record what I’m playing,” she says. “Then I share those recordings with them and they go off and create new work in response – and I take the improvisation home and start to develop it. It’s a bit of a domino effect.” 

For her work with Fyffe, Shugarman created a few different possibilities and attended some of the rehearsals to see what was working and where she could refine things to align with Fyffe’s vision.

Her composition on this project makes reference to the note patterns that Ann Southam used in Glass Houses. “In the final work, the sound itself rolls in and rolls out and serves to hold the space that the dance moves through.”

The creative process was somewhat similar for composer Jonathan Adjemian, who collaborated with choreographer Amanda Acorn on The Glass Fields Project. A classically trained pianist who also works in electronic music, Adjemian quickly acclimated to the creative tone of the piece Acorn was creating. 

“I knew that Amanda likes pretty immersive sound,” he says. “The work we’ve done in the past has been pretty drone-based, so I had a sense that she would be looking for something along those lines.”

While Adjemian works as a solo artist and with various collaborators in other disciplines, he notes that working with dancers is a particularly unique pleasure. “Dancers listen in a way that other people don’t. There’s an openness to experimentation and a looseness.”

He says that a composer can approach contemporary dancers and choreographers with a wide variety of sounds and sonic structures that they’ll listen to in a way that both accompanies their creative expressions and informs how it might change shape.

That makes the composer’s role a much more vital one in contemporary dance, Adjemian says this aspect of collaborating is in tune with other disciplines too. 

“There are a lot of things aesthetically involved in contemporary dance that are involved in a lot of contemporary arts across the board,” he says. “There’s an interest in process and the unrepeatable, and an interest in finding a less hierarchical way of working within a situation where you still have defined roles as choreographer, musician or dancer.”

But unlike many other art forms, contemporary dance exists as an ephemeral live experience and changes each time it’s performed. The only way to hear the compositions as they were intended is to experience them in live performances as part of each creative vision.


Visit the Toronto Dance Theatre Digital Residency to learn more about an exciting new season of contemporary dance!



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