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    Jonathan Melville Pratt in Jonathan Pratt
    Photo by portrait by Pieter Schoolwerth
    Jonathan Melville Pratt

    Music that Moves People

    Jonathan Pratt makes dance and music feel like one


    This is not a dance review, strictly speaking. The music Jonathan Pratt has been composing for dance over the past several years is quick becoming an integral part of the dances it appears in, though, so it seems fitting to include an interview/profile here, before dance performance season ramps up again. Three recent commissioned compositions stand out.

    Joyce Theater, Juilliard, DTW, Jacob's Pillow, ...

    Score: "Thirteen."

    "Runaway," the dance home run Pratt and Larry Keigwin hit for a Juilliard senior show 2 years ago, launched both of them into a higher level of prominence the way "Caught" did quite a while back for David Parsons. Pratt's subtle, driving score has a haunting quality, like a WWII ghost submarine recorded on screechpinging electronics. A polyrhythm of 2 over 3 adds tension and oddness, and human breathing adds a sense of danger or flight. The relentless bedrock pulse drives dancers around a square runway, on which Keigwin uses humor and young dancers to spoof runway shows or people showing off. The result is mesmerizing.

    Score: "Motor."

    In "Motor," Brian Brooks called on Pratt to create an evening-length soundtrack to explore the concept of perpetual motion. The soundtrack here has many of the same elements, with the addition of more musical elements, especially guitar. Dynamically, this soundtrack goes even further, but the metronomic pulse never dies. Over 80 minutes, the tempo very gradually rises, an unobtrusive way to keep energy building.

    Score: "Two Way Dream."

    The score Pratt wrote for Camille A. Brown's "City of Rain" adds strings, voice and an emotionally powerful journey from dark to light. This 14-minute piece feels cinematic, even epic. Though it is a close collaboration between Pratt and Brown, there really is a two-way dream and a story behind the music, something Pratt often uses to give emotional depth to what he composes.

    Pratt's music has subtle, surprising, depth, even when elements like drum and bass beats or mashed-up snippets of music initially seem familiar. There is a journey in each piece, sonically and often emotionally. It is no surprise that Pratt wishes to score a feature film and has worked extensively with music for theater, notably a stint at Juilliard composing music for Brian Miertes, who staged the entire 10-play cycle of Euripides' work over 3 years, all with original music by Pratt, 60 songs in total.

    Singing, in fact, is one of many surprising pieces of Pratt's training and background, and the one that first got him noticed by his family at about age 3, when he says he would sing popular songs note for note after hearing them a few times. His first instrument was piano, possibly inspired by a piano master grandmother, and then came drums. As Pratt tells it, a bunch of kids wanted to make a band but no one knew how to play drums, so he sat down and discovered he could play a convincing beat immediately. By 8th grade, he was in a punk band that opened a show for Offspring. Hearing his drumming on "Form and Filament" for Gomachi, a fusion band he formed, makes these stories plausible. In this drumming, as in his compositions, intricacy and cleanliness go hand in hand, with exquisite timing.

    Ninety minutes goes by quickly speaking with Pratt; his brain seems to run a little faster than most, and he is endlessly articulate. He credits and refers to many people that inspire and shape him, but the person he says "saved my life" is the grandmother considered a "queen of the arts" in the South, who introduced the arts to Duke University and helped in the creation of the American Dance Festival. She is the one who got him through doors and on his way again after a psychic breakdown in high school left him with the epiphany that he needed to create music but also largely disconnected from a standard educational path.

    Not having traditional training in any one thing, Pratt figured he "at least knew opera," so he entered and graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts as an opera major. Huh? Like sitting down at the drums or singing at three, the music supports the story; opera clips on his web site,, are impressive. Along the way at NCSA, Pratt began accompanying dance classes, filling in and eventually taking over for John Wilson, another teacher he credits for inspiration and opportunity. This full-time job watching and improvising music for dance expanded his idea palette and connected him to dance.

    Somehow, Pratt also managed to perform in a school big band and a youth symphony, both experiences he credits with teaching him about arrangement and instrumentation. He began dabbling with writing music for dance and film, mostly without a computer, sometimes collaborating with film student Austin Donahue, who did have Logic software and a Mac.

    Upon moving to NYC, after first getting some lumps living with "gutter punks," Pratt credits another relative, 2nd cousin Mimi Garrard, with opening large swaths of inspiration, contact and opportunity to him. Garrard herself was a pioneer, after dancing with Alwin Nikolais, with collaborators such as Max Matthews (Max/MSP for music techies) and Sam Roberts, in bringing electronic musical and video experimentation into dance. Garrard first took him to see Battleworks, where he met Larry Keigwin, which led to Runaway and the future.

    Other than incorporating stories, visions and dreams into his music, Pratt loves to use Fibonacci numbers and golden ratios or sections. As when he uses literally hundreds of tracks or sonic layers to make one piece of music, Pratt manages to incorporate everything unobtrusively, leaving only a sensory experience that feels right and feeds the dance onstage. His next proposed venture may well be a time-lapse video with a mix of visual-generated and composed sound. The initial clip is compelling already. He just finished composing the music for a Kate Spade web ad. He has fingers in so many pies, there is no telling when or where one may first experience the music of Jonathan Melville Pratt. If you find yourself being fully absorbed by the next Camille A. Brown or Brian Brooks show, though, check the music credit.

    AUGUST 29, 2011

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