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Making music that can dance

Composer Graham Reynolds is Austin's go-to music-maker for modern dance

Clare Croft
Graham Reynolds says music can be used in different roles.

I had a hard time finding Graham Reynolds in Rio Rita's. Finally, I heard him talking on a cell phone, seated in a dark corner of the East Side coffee house and bar, sipping espresso.

Heard but not easily seen — that's Reynolds' place in Austin's dance scene. You might not see the longhaired 39-year-old composer and musician in the theater, but you'll hear his work. Everywhere.

Reynolds is Austin's go-to music-maker for dance. This weekend's Big Range Dance Festival's Composer Challenge is the latest in his long string of collaborations with local choreographers, including high-profile creations for Ballet Austin and community-oriented choreographer Allison Orr.

Reynolds says dance falls in the middle of his creative spectrum, which ranges from composing chamber music to scoring films.

"Directly engaging people in the music is part of what you do with music composed for music's sake," he says. In contrast, "you might go to a movie and not even notice the music."

"Dance is almost in the middle between the two. You don't go to a ballet and not notice the music. But rather than shifting attention to the music itself, I'm trying to shift attention to other elements" when writing for dance, he says.

Reynolds received his first dance commissions in the late '90s from local choreographers such as Ellen Bartel — now the producer of Big Range — and Andrea Ariel. These collaborations were one slice of an expansive artistic repertory.

Since moving to Austin in 1993, Reynolds has worked with theater ensemble Rude Mechanicals (he's been a company member for six years), teamed with fellow composer and musician Peter Stopchinski as Golden Hornet Project, and composed scores for films such as Richard Linklater's

"A Scanner Darkly."

Reynolds usually works intimately with his collaborators, but the Composer Challenge is a bit different.

Bartel asked Reynolds to compose a piece that would work well for dance, then challenged two choreographers, Kendra Slack and Cristina Jesurun, to create distinct dances to Reynolds' score. The final products, along with four works created to compositions by Adam Sultan, Amalia Litsa and Aaron Dugan, premiere in Big Range tonight and Friday.

So how does a composer go about making music that will work for dance?

"I try to create some kind of arc while leaving room," says Reynolds. "I have to create spaces that sustain long enough for a choreographer to do something with them — but without staying too long in a space that's interesting musically but doesn't move the dance forward."

Reynolds' dance compositions gained greater visibility after Ballet Austin's 2008 "Cult of Color: Call to Color," an evening-length work choreographed by Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills and set in a visual world created by visual artist Trenton Doyle Hancock.

"\u2009'Cult of Color' was one of my favorite projects ever," says Reynolds. "I'm pretty intensely interested in visual art, but it's not an obvious medium for a music collaboration."

Based on Hancock's vision of a bifurcated world, divided between black and white and color, Reynolds built two musical palettes. He describes the black-and-white world as "mangled" and "distorted," the color world a bit more "old-fashioned."

Analogies about music's cinematic functions litter Reynolds' explanations of how he creates music for dance. The music for the colorful portions of "Cult of Color" was "old-fashioned" because he considered that work to be more like older films, in which the music follows the film's mood in a 1-to-1 ratio. If the film is sad, the music sounds sad. A more modern take would put the film's mood or story at odds with the music's tone — the case with the black-and-white world of "Cult of Color."

Although every project is different, Reynolds says, the first question is always the same: "The first thing you do every time is try to decide what the function is of the music in the piece or in the style."

Working with Orr on "The Trash Project," a dance spectacle featuring the employees and trucks of the City of Austin's Solid Waste Services Department, Reynolds helped frame moving trucks as dancing bodies.

"We wanted to choose instruments that could be juxtaposed against the trash trucks," he says. "We had the violin, the cello and the piano, instruments associated with elegance and sophistication. Putting them side by side with the trucks changes how you perceive the trash trucks."

Reynolds says another Orr project, "T is For: Two Hundred Two-Steppers on the Steps of the Texas Capitol, " pushed him more than any other. Reynolds might wear pearl-buttoned western shirts — his usual outfit and his coffee-drinking garb for the day — but it turned out he had a lot to learn about western music.

The dancers Orr recruited from local country and western dance floors forced Reynolds to change his initial plans.

"When we first started the country music project, I had pretty specific ideas about the music," says Reynolds. "I played some older western swing music for the dancers, and they didn't react to it at all. Some of them plain said they didn't like to dance to it. I had to watch them and watch (guitarist) Dale Watson and figure out what they connected to. I had to find a new starting point."

Reynolds plans to continue figuring out which should lead, the dance or the music, in the near future. He's also planning to begin work soon on a commission for choreographer Leslie Dworkin, which is scheduled to premiere in Philadelphia this fall. Keep an ear out for it.

Big Range Dance Festival: Composer Challenge

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, July 1 and Friday, July 2

Where: Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road

Tickets: $15 ($10 for students, seniors, children under 12)