Saving a dance

Larry Siegel presents a musical portrait of Dudley Laufman, icon of modern contra

PUTNEY — Local composer Larry Siegel has written a new work about one of the seminal figures in the modern contradance movement, Dudley Laufman.

Next Stage, the Monadnock Folklore Society, and the Brattleboro Music Center present Keith Murphy as Laufman in the world premiere of The Dancingmaster of Canterbury.

A unique combination of music, dance, and storytelling, the work is a musical portrait of Laufman, a legendary contradance caller who almost single-handedly provides the link between the old days of rural contradancing in the hamlets of New England, and the vibrant network of dances taking place every week throughout the U.S. and beyond.

The words sung in the piece come, verbatim, from an interview conducted with Laufman by composer Siegel, the latest of his acclaimed “Verbatim Projects.”

The character “Dudley” is played by the great traditional musician Keith Murphy. Becky Tracy on violin and Siegel on piano provide the musical accompaniment. Mary DesRosiers, a dancing master in her own right, has created original choreography performed by a group of traditional dancers from the Monadnock region of New Hampshire.

Performances are set for Saturday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m. at the Peterborough, N.H., Town Hall and Sunday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m., at Next Stage, in Putney. Tickets are available at for $20; the cost is $24 at the door.

Wearing many hats, Siegel composed, played in, directed, and produced The Dancingmaster of Canterbury. A classically-trained musician who has lived in Westmoreland, N.H., for the past 30 years, Siegel says, “Frankly, I wish I could give the producing to someone else, since it is so much mundane work, such as organizing schedules, finding venues, and bookings.”

Jack of all trades

Siegel is a composer, conductor, theater artist, scholar, and performer. He received his Doctorate in Music Theory and Composition from Brandeis University in 1988. He was a fellow in composition at the Tanglewood Music Center and three times a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. His musical works have won awards from the McKnight Foundation, the New England Foundation for the Arts, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and many others.

Although much of his work has been done right here in Southern Vermont, Siegel's works have been shown locally, nationally, and in one case, internationally.

One of his most acclaimed works, Kaddish, is an oratorio with a libretto drawn from the testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust. Kaddish was commissioned by the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, where it debuted in 2008.

Following its world premiere by VocalEssence in Minnesota in 2008, Kaddish was performed by the Houston Symphony in 2010, and by the Jerusalem Symphony at Yad Vashem on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem in 2011, as well as on college campuses nationally.

“I consider my job (although I am self-employed) is to produce work similar to Kaddish and The Dancingmaster of Canterbury,” Siegel explained to The Commons. “By that I mean I take text verbatim from words by actual people whom I have interviewed, and I then set it to music and performance. You might say that this is a genre all to myself.”

For over 25 years, Siegel has led his own unique Verbatim Project, which he describes at his website,, as “a series of projects, each one unique, but each one based on a common process: using the words that people have spoken, the stories they have told, setting them to music, and presenting them to the public.”

The artist's process

Keith Murphy elaborates.

“Larry interviews living people and then uses the transcript of the interview as the basis of a music piece. All the words in the work come from the interview. Larry edits the interview, and the finished work includes some sung and some spoken words, but even for those, music is played in the background.”

Exactly how long does it take Siegel to create a verbatim piece like The Dancingmaster of Canterbury?

“If I worked dedicatedly on a piece like the one on Laufman, it might take four or five months to create. But like in most of my pieces, I worked on and off for much longer. These are labored gestation. The original interview with Dudley took place back in 2010.”

Siegel says he writes the music to the interviews.

In some cases, as he writes on his website, he “works with the musical ideas of participants to help them flesh out their ideas. And he serves as theatrical director for the production, facilitating what are often large groups of people in organizing their collected words into a script, and then the rehearsals, where he tirelessly coaches a cast of young and old (and in between), people of diverse backgrounds, some of whom have never appeared on stage before.”

Siegel says sometimes his verbatim pieces end up being something resembling a town pageant.

“I come into the town and get community members involved in making music to create a public work,” Siegel explains.

Siegel explains the process of what he does in creating his verbatim works.

“From the actual words of one person or more, I create a small scale opera, although it is nothing like Verdi or Wagner,” he says. ”Rather, I use an eclectic musical palette. I have wide-ranging musical interests, which are reflected in the works I create. I consider musical genre as much a musical element as harmony and melody.

“I embrace the music within different genres, and I try to make them go together seamlessly so you don't notice the differences,” Siegel says. “You could even say that this very eclecticism is the footprint of all my music.

“By and large, you will find a tendency in my music towards lyricism and accessibility. I am pretty good with a tune. While there may even be found some dissonance of which people often characterize contemporary music, it's used in context to make it accessible.”

Blending genres

Several years ago Siegel created Perception: Portrait of Tony Barrand, a verbatim work on an academic and musician residing in Brattleboro, who also is a well-known performer of traditional song and dance.

“In my piece on Tony, I used both traditional music and classical, reflecting the man himself,” Siegel explains. “In his career as a scholar, Barrand studied human perception. He also was involved in performances of traditional English folk music. Perception merged rollicking traditional music and other music that was more like contemporary classical.”

Murphy continues, “Larry's piece on Tony Barrand brought from New York an opera singer as the voice of Tony. However, he was backed up by a small group of five local men singing traditional music, of which I was a member. Larry is a composer who has written various serious large scale works about the folk scene.”

Siegel adds, “My use of traditional music revamped has made some critics compare my music to Aaron Copland. My words have been compared to Stephen Sondheim, which I take as a great compliment. My lyrics borrow from what I learned from Sondheim. He is master of the lyric for he writes words that flow so naturally that they sound like talking.”

Siegel says there is a common theme in most of his verbatim works: elders in their field and what has motivated them throughout their lives.

“In a work like The Dancingmaster of Canterbury, I take one character, Dudley Laufman, and try to find his essence and from that to make some points about his life,” Siegel says.

“Laufman was the man who brought contradancing to a new era,” elaborates Murphy. “He remains the connection between the old dance callers and musicians and the newer ones in the 1960s.

The Dancingmaster of Canterbury explores Laufman's role in contradancing by examining the personal portrait of the man. This places him in context, and explains how he came to do what he does. The piece is not only about this work as a caller, but Laufman's image of himself.”

Embracing a simpler style

Early in his life Laufman went on summer trips in New Hampshire where he met older men in the countryside from the contra movement whom he found to be rugged and individualistic.

“Laufman saw who they were as part and parcel of what became the contra tradition,” continues Murphy. “Dudley wanted to copy his life on those old guys, but he found it complicated in his personal life. Laufman wanted to hold onto living rustic ways, but his partners were not always on board with this thinking.”

Murphy thinks that, by the end of The Dancingmaster of Canterbury, we see Dudley as an older person who envisions himself a bit separate from modern contradancing, which has taken some forms he doesn't embrace.

“New dancers do not always want to perform treasured old dances, and many aspects of modern contradance strike Laufman as too flashy, such an ostentatious twirling,” Murphy explains. “He wants to hold onto a simpler style. The contra movement has moved on, and Laufman feels forgotten.”

Murphy believes it is important to remember that while Seigel's verbatim works are based on real people, they aren't documentaries in the Ken Burns sense of the word. “His opera/cabarets are transformed into a work of art,” he says.

Consequently, Murphy in The Dancingmaster of Canterbury doesn't try to do an impersonation of Laufman, whom he has met but doesn't know well.

“I think Dudley's words speak well for themselves,” Murphy says.

Murphy was delighted to collaborate with Siegel. “I think Larry has done a beautiful job with this work,” Murphy says. “His music illuminates the text. This project was a pleasure to be part of.”

The admiration is mutual.

“Murphy, Tracy, and DesRosiers are fine artists and great people, and that helped to make the project a success,” Siegel says.

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