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Playing on the Edge - The Incredibly Adventurous Impromptus of Robert Swerdlow

interview Sep 13, 2019
Photo (from left to right): Danielle Lee-Hogervorst, Robert Swerdlow, Yawen

~ Written by Danielle Lee-Hogervorst, Outreach Coordinator at Ballegro Player, Alumni of Arts Umbrella’s Graduate Program

If you have ever had a live pianist accompany a ballet class, you are lucky. If your pianist was Robert Swerdlow, you would have been accompanied by a legend. Robert Swerdlow is a low-key, but highly successful pianist and a widely adored member of the artistic community.  Not only has he accompanied ballet and contemporary classes for 62 years (he is currently 82 and still plays without missing a note!) for legends including Martha Graham, José Limón and Merce Cunningham, but he has also written musicals, including Justine, which played off-Broadway. He is a composer, lyricist, producer, and director. AND I found out he was the inventor of the 4-track 16mm multi-lingual film projector!

A man of talent and ease in everything he attempts, Robert has lived a life full of adventures, including writing children’s fables and escorting Jane Fonda to a wedding!  Raised in Montréal, he quickly began chasing musical pursuits and started travelling around the world, from Vienna and Tokyo, to New York City, Toronto (where he wrote the music for The Playing Fields performed by The National Ballet School of Canada) and Vancouver (where he played at Ballet BC and Arts Umbrella).

Yawen and I had the great privilege of talking to him in person in Montréal and we hope this interview does this eclectic man justice. His stories and way of living life will make you wish you could be him for even just one, adventure-filled day.

I am wondering where and how your curiosity for the arts began?

Honestly? I was never curious. I took piano lessons as a young boy and became a very good concert pianist.  When I was 13 or 14 years old, I quit because [practising] was too much work. To be a concert pianist, you have to keep a close eye on your physical activities.  I couldn’t play most team sports, however I could run and swim as the risk of injury to my hands was much lower. This was also around the time I discovered girls! 

I was studying at the Conservatoire with the Phil Cohen, a famous piano teacher, and I was constantly being told I was at a level where I could have been a concert pianist, however this is not what I wanted.  Going home in the evenings and practising was not for me.

When I was 17, I was hired by Elsie Salomons to play for her ballet classes, and that is when my career as a ballet accompanist began.

I always preferred improvising and playing actively within the arts community than to sit at home playing Mozart, Bach or Chopin.  I found classical music quite boring to play. Whenever I would be instructed to play the music, I would use it as a basic structure, and improvise around it!

Currently, I am the senior accompanist at the École de Danse Contemporaine de Montréal as well as Les Studios; and, at Nutcracker time, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. I am very grateful for our continued relationship; I believe in them and they all believe in me!

How did you learn to improvise?

I learned to improvise by learning how to not make mistakes. For one of my final exams, I had spent two weeks trying to memorize this Bach Partita.  I went into the exam, so nervous and not wanting to make any mistakes! As I played the piece, any time I thought I would make a mistake, I would start improvising!  After I finished playing, I looked reluctantly at my examiner, who was sitting in the front row of the church with a big smile on his face. He said, “Well, it was half Bach and half Swerdlow, but it was very well done,” and I got 100% on my exam!  I was never a good student, not even in high school. In fact, I never finished high school. I couldn’t stand anything formal. 

“I like things just exploding minute by minute, day by day!”

How did you decide to go to the Conservatoire?

It was not exactly a choice for me.  My piano teacher, Philip Cohen was my uncle, so it was in the family.  My father was first violinist at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, my mother was a mandolinist in the Ukraine Mandolin Band in Winnipeg, and my grandfather was a famous Jewish actor.  So my whole family was educated in music and the arts.

Where did you go after Montreal?

I received a scholarship to further my studies in music, so I went to Vienna to “study composition”.  I only went to a few classes. I was playing for some teachers there, and then was asked to create a score for a ballet.  It ended up being performed 40 times at festivals throughout Austria!

That is amazing, congratulations! How did you find inspiration for this composition?

I used a French Canadian theme as a basis, and I combined it with a Viennese Folk song, mixing the two together and adding my own flavours and spices to it.

I think this is exactly why your music in class is so alive! You never repeat yourself… I wish I could see inside of your brain!  Most accompanists play stereotypical classical songs out of a syllabus. The repetition becomes very uninspiring for both the pianist and the dancers.  You are completely different from this “typical” method!

When I was young and just beginning my career as an accompanist, I didn’t know what I was doing.  I wasn’t approaching it methodologically. I was just looking at the girls and the teacher. When the teacher would smile, I would know they were enjoying the music I was creating, and this inspired me to continue on this improvisational and much more exciting path. 

One question I am so curious about, is: in the 62 years that you have been playing as an accompanist for ballet classes around the world, were there ever teachers who did not approve of or enjoy your improvisational style?

Never.  Not once.  When I was in New York, I was playing classes for all of the big-named choreographers and companies, including American Ballet Theatre, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, and José Limón.  Working in New York I got to see how many accompanists from around the world would play. What I found was that I started to react to the New York point-of-view of what a ballet class should be, which is much different to what you see here in Montreal.  In New York, the teachers would walk into the room, and with one word, the dancers would be on their feet ready for plies. And without another word, they would look at me and assume I would know exactly what to play. Of course I didn’t! I was 23 years old!  But I have a vivid memory of a Russian teacher I played for. After the first exercise was over, the dancers and teacher looked at me and started clapping. In his mind, if the dancers liked me, then they would like him as well, because I was “his” accompanist!

I was not introduced to the typical teacher who would say, “can you play this style of song at this tempo?” I found out by trial and error - and instinct - and this improvisational style was felt and loved, even by Merce Cunningham!

Amazing! Usually when I (Yawen) play for classes, I get different requests from different teachers.  Some asking constantly for ‘heavier’ music, others ‘lighter’. But with you, the teachers just let you do as you want!

Well I know most of them, I am acquainted with their style and have a sense of what they like. As soon as I have played the introduction to the song, I can see the sense of ease and security in the dancers through the music I have provided, which the teachers can see as well.

Is it true you also worked in the advertising agency?

I joined the National Film Board in Montreal because being a ballet accompanist was unfortunately not going to pay the bills.  I was supposed to be “next in line” to head one of the upcoming films, but the company gave it to a girl who had been working there for 1⁄4 of the time I had been there.  So I quit.

I then went to an advertising agency, and they were intrigued by my work, so I began writing the score for Coca Cola commercials, Nestle's Quick, and more! 

Out of all of the different paths your life has taken you on, from composing and accompanying to writing a Broadway musical, what has been your favourite practice?

I don’t think I have one. I floated around a lot.  I have never enjoyed staying in one place for too long.  

“And I never took anything too seriously, and I think this trait shows in my music.”

If I had stayed with the advertising agency, I could have retired at an early age! But staying there for many years was not intriguing to me.

However, one thing I am still very much interested in is art.  When I was 23 or 24 years old, back when spray-painted canvases were a big deal, I decided to try it for myself, but on cardboard.  I took the pieces I had made down to an art gallery, and they wanted to give me an exhibit! I had to create 10 pieces but had to do so on canvas.  She gave me this long list of criteria, which I was not into. I was just having fun! So I left my spray-painted pieces of cardboard there and never went back.

I always enjoyed art and sculpting.  I have been thinking that once I retire, I would love to have an art studio and create some avant-garde work based off of my life stories.

My whole life has been “half-accomplishing things,” or accomplishing things to a point where I was good enough to satisfy a few people, and then move on.  I have never been trapped into what they call “excellence.” Excellence is something that changes every week and every day, and I was never seeking fame or fortune, or looking to create “the world’s best new musical!”  I would become curious in something, like barbecuing, for instance, make a few patties, then hand the spatula back over and move on to learning something new! This kept it exciting and interesting for me.

You have played for many different types of classes: classical ballet, José Limón, Martha Graham, teachers who are instructing the class to “pick gum up off of the floor.”  Did you have a favourite kind of class you liked to play for? 

For me, it wasn’t so much the class as it was the teacher that would speak to me.  Merce Cunningham was wonderful to play for because he was dramatic all of the time!  This would inspire me to be Merce at the piano!

Does your “playing style” change depending on if you are playing for ABT versus young children?

Not really.  But I do get inspired differently.  When classical companies do grand allegro and do these huge, beautiful leaps, it inspires me to play in this “grandioso” fashion for my enjoyment but also to further inspire the dancers.

When I play for schools, I like to keep the music lighthearted and fun.

If I can feel the energy of the class is low, I will help the teacher by creating music that will get the class inspired.

What is your thought process when you are sitting at the piano and the teacher says, “AND”? Did you ever have moments when you have no clue what to play?

Never.  Something would always come to me.

My thought process is: who is in the class? Who is the teacher? How many people are here?  How loud do I need to be to meet or boost their energy level? How many notes should I play to help them?

I started by improvising, so this is just how I worked!  I would invent things that worked - by trial and exploration.

Do you ever repeat songs?

Occasionally.  But only if the textures and the sounds work and I can sense that the class is actually hearing what I am playing.  Usually, however, I will take themes from songs I do know and improvise around them.

What, if ever, do you do when you are feeling stuck or uninspired?

I honestly don’t ever get to that place.  I have written about 10 musicals and over 100 ballet scores.  And anything I have ever done, I have done faster than anybody I have known and forgotten it just as quickly.

I would sometimes take a simple tune like “Happy Birthday,” extract the rhythmical aspects of it to create lyrics, and then improvise a score with this tune playing in the back of my head.

Do you have any tips for up-and-coming artists?

Be polite and open. Be in the moment and don’t take yourself too seriously.  And, most importantly, don’t put up with things you do not believe in.

Ballegro is thrilled to be collaborating with Robert this Fall to have his music exclusively recorded for the Ballegro Music Library.  We look forward to having his inspirational music available to you in a few months!


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