Tinny Dancer 

Meet Leslie Stuck, postmodernist ballet-choreographing studio tech geek.

Back in the mid-'80s, three seemingly incompatible passions drove Leslie Stuck: postmodern theory, music studio technology, and ballet.

Stuck, a brainy 28-year-old recently arrived in San Francisco from his native Alaska, hoped that at least one passion might yield a career. "They were like three worlds that had no connection to each other," the now-fifty-year-old says in his Oakland apartment. "In a typical day, I'd wake up, read some [French Structuralist theorist] Roland Barthes, go take a dance class, and then go to Hyde Street Studios -- where I was working as an engineer -- and record some punk band."

In 1985, he even worked on the Dead Kennedys single "Too Drunk to Fuck," with his ballet slippers presumably tucked somewhere well out of sight.

Then one day Stuck got a call from the San Francisco Ballet, which had commissioned a piece from boundary-pushing Frankfurt-based choreographer William Forsythe and needed a local studio for his music composer to use. Stuck got the gig for Hyde Street, outfitting it with a drum machine and a sampler -- rare tools at the time, even rarer for use in ballet. Forsythe was known for introducing unusual music into classical ballet, so Stuck incorporated the new technology to add some daringness to the project.

"So here I was, working with Forsythe, who is definitely a postmodern artist, and we were in the studio making music for dance," he remembers. "All three components of my life suddenly came together."

From that moment on, Stuck's passions for high technology, ballet, and big ideas would become hopelessly entangled. Today he is a composer working in a highly specialized niche: using advanced computer programs to generate music for ballet choreographers. But get that image of fairy princesses pirouetting to delicate symphony melodies out of your mind. Stuck's compositions -- commissioned over the last seventeen years by the Tokyo Ballet, New York City Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet, and others -- often sound more like the products of gremlins trapped in an orchestra pit. Horns whinny. Piano keys are tapped absentmindedly. Pounded-on metal pots provide percussion. Adhesive tape is ripped loudly from a surface. Lots of things crash.

Stuck's compositions -- all originally intended to accompany live dance performance -- appeared on CD for the first time last year, in a six-piece retrospective titled Pas. One question constantly dogs the casual listener: What could the dancers possibly be doing to this?

In this way, Stuck explains, the audience becomes the choreographer: "I tell people that the best way to experience the music is to close your eyes and imagine dancers performing it, or to dance to it yourself."

Neither approach is easy -- Stuck says he likes to make choreographers stretch when visualizing routines for his music, so novices are likely to strain their imaginations when pushing pretend bodies into motion over Pas. Complicating matters even more, Stuck recorded some of these pieces during a period when he was "exploring this idea of total polyrhythm," he says. "Basically, there's no way to listen to the music and tell where the bars and measures are." Indeed, a scattershot, anarchic feeling permeates much of his work, and as with a postmodernist essay or painting, often the order the listener finds in it is self-imposed.

Stuck likes to insert moments of confusion into his work, a concept he inherited from Barthes, whom he mentions often when talking about his music. "He talks about where the pleasure of art comes from," Stuck explains. "You're looking at a piece of art -- say you're reading a text -- and you're going along, you've got it figured out, and you're enjoying the structure of it, and all of a sudden the rules change. And for a moment you're lost. For that moment, you're feeling pleasure. I try to get to that point too, so I often have multiple points of departure, which choreographers like because it allows them to take their performance in different directions."

There's a jarring shift like this in the Pas track "Soothing the Enemy," a piece Stuck composed for prominent San Francisco choreographer Alonzo King in 2000. It opens pensively, with a plucked cello sounding at sluggish intervals, before the piece eases into a sort of loose duet between the strings and some computer-modulated percussion. Then the calm is abruptly shattered by the dramatic crashing of metal against metal, the pace jumping from meandering to harried in a sudden burst.

Stuck was able to conduct such experiments in polyrhythm and structural disjunction through the use of a particular software environment called Max, which has a cultish following among academic computer musicians and fringy techno artists like Autechre. A massive leap beyond the capabilities of traditional electronic music gear like samplers, synthesizers, and sequencers, Max is perhaps the nerdiest way to make music on the market. Stuck, for instance, created algorithms with it that composed sections of music according to rules he defined, and he says some of the parts that sound like humans fooling around with cellos and pianos are "really just Max clunking through specific instructions." Sometimes he would take chunks of music generated by Max, keep them intact, and work out the transitions between them to form a song. The computer really becomes a collaborator.

Ironically, despite Max' obscurist geek overtones, Stuck would've had a much harder time finding a label to release his music without it -- Stuck is a marketer's worst nightmare, in that whenever he feels a piece is inching too close to a recognizable genre, he diverts it into yet more obscurity. But Cycling '74, the SF-based company that sells Max, has its own imprint for showcasing musicians who use its software. So Pas is packaged by Cycling '74 and marketed very much to the Max insider community, which can be a tad alienating for everyone else. Take a sentence from Stuck's Pas liner notes: "Using the Feigenbaum recursive quadratic equation to generate chaos, I tweaked the data for maximum attractor density and most even distribution, thus permitting classic weighted decision-making." Pas might as well include its own Calculus 413 final.

What's unfortunate about this presentation is that Stuck's music could potentially prove accessible to a much larger audience -- although he uses computers and abstract equations as his medium, his compositions always have a human warmth at their core. Stuck deliberately keeps them messy and playful because, as he puts it, "those abstract equations don't mean a thing if they ain't got that swing."

This mentality saves him from the navel-gazing cul-de-sac many experimental electronic musicians sputter into, seemingly more fascinated with the features of their gadgets than the quality of the music that emerges from them. As a lifelong dancer, Stuck never lets his explorations wander beyond the scale of the human body: His first concern is always making that body move.

SF's Alonzo King, a choreographer the Los Angeles Times has called a "shooting star," has collaborated with Stuck frequently over the last four years, and he maintains that Stuck's total commitment to dancing is what distinguishes him as a composer. During the time the two worked together, Stuck took classes at King's dance studio, "which I loved, because for Les, the music and the dance really became the same for him," King says. "So often when you look at primary cultures, musicians will put down their instruments and get up and dance, and dancers will sit down and play an instrument, which to me is the ideal. Very few composers have his same dedication to putting their music into motion themselves."

Still, Stuck has found that his main instrument, the computer, has certain handicaps when trying to evoke something as fluid and imprecise as human movement. "If you're going to use technology at all, you have to really work at getting fluent at it, or else it's turning you into a machine," he says. "When I first started using computers to make music, it just all sounded way too machinelike. Often you can end up with something that's perfect but not quite energetic."

In an attempt to smooth the interface between the soft human body and the hard motherboard, Stuck began working with what he calls "awkward controllers": sensors dancers can wear that feed data into his computer. This way, a dancer can control some aspect of the music with her body, like using her arm to change the tempo. The best piece of hardware Stuck found arrived through a research and development project he scored with Yamaha, which had created something called the Miburi: a wireless, fairly comfortable shirt that had bend sensors in the elbows, hands, and shoulders. "Dancers could just pop it on and improv, and I could sit back and receive data, analyze it, and make choices," he says.

"Go," offered on Pas, is a live recording taken from the Kanagawa Festival in Japan, featuring a dancer using a Miburi while Stuck manipulates the information in real time. Imagine a Javanese gamelan performance playing through a flurry of static and digital interference. It's startling how much kinesthetic energy is conveyed with such a small palette of sounds: Just a few chimes and a virtual moan or two whip up a conceptual windstorm.

Such music, freer-form than even most experimental electronica, would reach only very small audiences if limited to home consumption. But because Stuck works in the medium of contemporary ballet, he is insulated from having to shape his music to the tastes of the CD-buying market. He has a captive audience, one receptive to risky ideas.

"It's a pretty wonderful place to have your music listened to," Stuck admits. "Typically, when people have a CD they leave it running in the background when they're having a conversation. In a performance, they're all sitting there quiet, and most of the time you can tweak the sound system exactly how you want it, and they're paying total attention to it. It's pretty nice. It's not mass marketing or anything, but there's so much wonderful and strange music out there, and so many people putting out their own CDs, that I feel lucky to have any kind of career." The icing is that he found one that fuses all three of his passions at once.


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