Out composer Joseph Thalken wades into new waters via his collaboration with the Bruce Wood Dance Project
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
You could call Joseph Thalken a late bloomer. Take for instance: He didn’t compose his first piece, which he dubbed “Late Autumn Leaf,” until he was already six years old! His first Latin mass didn’t come until he was pushing double digits.
Yeah, you could call him a late bloomer… but you’d be dead wrong.
Except in this instance: After decades as a professional composer, musician, conductor, arranger and accompanist, Thalken waited until now to compose his first work specifically as a dance piece.
There, I knew we could find a chink in his musical armor.
The world premiere of Thalken’s latest work will take place alongside the premiere of the choreography if was written to highlight when the Bruce Wood Dance Project opens its latest production, Journeys, June 16 and 17. And Thalken couldn’t be more excited.
It began when he accompanied and arranged the dance troupe’s Mistletoe Magic fundraiser in 2015. He was staying with Larry Lane, who has performed with the company and is a big supporter of its mission.
“I said to Larry, with a lot of chutzpah in my voice, ‘They should really commission me to write a piece!’ I was half jokingly, but only half — I so enjoyed working with them,”Thalken recounts from his Harlem apartment. Somewhat to his surprise, Lane passed along the idea to Gayle Halperin, who runs BWDP. “Gayle, she really went to town with this. She got us a TACA grant through the Donna Wilhelm Fund, and we started working on it at the beginning of 2016.”
That’s a huge ramp-up for the dance, called Chasing Home, which explores issues elated to the refugee crisis and, in a broader sense, the search for home.
The idea behind the work originated with Albert Drake, a principal dancer and artistic associate with BWDP. “We wanted to approach the refugee crisis not in a documentarian kind of way, but using his medium of dance and my medium of music to create a new piece altogether,” Thalken says. “We spent a lot of time talking about the form it would take, mapping out different structures.”
It was a collaborative experience unlike any he’d attempted before.
“My background is as a classical musician, and it felt like something I would like to pursue,” Thalken says. “We got a form in place and began working on themes that would deal with each section. Albert would weigh in, then I’d send in bigger chunks of music.” In all, he estimates he composed 23 minutes of original music.
Estimates, because as of now, he still has not seen the final version of the dance, nor performed the music with an orchestra. That process will come together in the lead-up to opening night. (Thalken will be conducting the Dallas Chamber Symphony in the piece.)
“I did see a run-through [a few weeks ago], and it’s fascinating. The world of modern dance is so different than the musical theater world. It’s someone not against the music, but in a parallel universe to it. It creates its own beautiful poetry. Yet I’m so honored to be working with them. As a composer, it is great to have your work so respected.”
Thalken — a self-identified “music nerd” — has studied music scores all his life, and traveled the world working in a variety of disciplines. Music “has always been part of me somehow. I was reading notes in kindergarten before I could read the letters on the same page,” he says. After concluding his studies, he became disillusioned with musical theater and spent five years in Europe coaching, conducting opera and arranging. He occupies much of his time as an in-demand accompanist for Broadway and recording artists. But it’s as a composer that he feels most at home … and why he welcomed this opportunity.
“I have not written a commission dance piece before — a piece that, in my mind, would be danced to. It has been interesting, like taking a leap into the unknown. A lot of my work is in theater, working with a lyricist who has specific things he or she wants to say [in the lyrics]. In this piece, I would think of these scenes and tap into the emotional quality we talked about. Because there’s not a lyric to say what we want to, I come up with instrumental themes. You write music that feels right in a general sense — it’s more painting with broad strokes, maybe taking a few more musical flights of fancy in the hope that Albert would go with it,” he laughs.
That was usually — if not always — the case. Drake had his own ideas, and the work itself had to been tailored for the company. Thalken initially composed the piece for a larger group of musicians, but had to change midstream to accommodate a smaller combo.
Still, as someone who spends much of his career behind the piano, he welcomed the chance to open it up for a richer sound. “I love working with instruments that can do more than a piano can do,” he says. “I think in terms of the color an instrument can [impart]. It’s not as if the flute is always associated with one particular aspect, but I try to utilize the color of the instruments to enhance what happens emotionally — something turbulent, for instance, has a lot of percussion, something more lyrical might be [expressed with] a solo instrument.”
The political content of Chasing Home resonates with Thalken personally — not only was one of his piano teachers a refugee from the Nazis, he wants to honor the concept of home. (The concert is presented in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee in Dallas.)
“For many of us, home is about safety, belonging to a family or community, a place to find solace and familiarity and comfort,” Thalken says. “When you begin to imagine what it must be like for the untold thousands of men, women and children who have had their homes and livliehoods violently wrenched away from them, it is overwhelming. When you see it happening today, month after month, you wonder what you can do to make it better. So the theme of home, of losing it, of trying desperately to find some remnant of it, it speaks to me.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 09, 2017.