Behind the Creative Process of Creating MADCO's 'Liquid Roads'

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

“Liquid Roads,” a MADCO dance performance inspired by the history of this city on the Mississippi, is coming to Touhill Performing Arts Center this weekend. The piece has been built from the ground up, always keeping in mind the onstage presence of the musicians playing the score for the dancers, which creates a unique give-and-take and gives the relationship of music and dance in a performance a dynamic twist. It also takes the tradition of music in St. Louis (as well as the history this town has with jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues) and its influences as inspiration for choreography and score.

Intrigued, I sat down with acclaimed STL musician and “Liquid Roads” composer Brian Casserly and MADCO artistic director Stacy West over a music-filled lunch to talk about the creative process—frustrations, blocks and all—of collaborating on a work like this.

photo by Steve Truesdell | courtesy MADCO

photo by Steve Truesdell | courtesy MADCO

On the collaborative process 

“The collaborative process, it’s so important because it isn’t them telling me, ‘Hey, I need this song here,'” says Casserly. “It’s back and forth. ‘I need this song here; what do you think about this one?’ ‘Oh, this is good, but if we do this, it brings out another idea.’ ‘Oh, I like this.’ It was a lot of back and forth and even though it was ‘no’ a lot of times, there was yes.”

“If we wouldn’t have been open to the collaboration—if dancers would have just picked this music—it wouldn’t even be close to what it is,” says West. “We do not get tired of this music. We’ve heard it hundreds of times … sometimes I put it on in my car and listen to it because I love it that much. This process has also made me not want to go into any process that’s not collaborative. I’ve always loved collaboration, but now I’m more committed to it than ever because I know it makes the project better. There’s no question about it.”

On breaking through creative blocks

“We wound up having this flow of things and constantly had key words every two songs,” Casserly says of the composing process. “I remember one of the parts in the show—it’s like right before ‘St. James’ Infirmary’ [a sad, bluesy piece]—and I had this idea for a song about how important it is that even though we move away from the place we’re born, we carry traditions with us. About how people you may not even know affect your traditions today—great-grandparents, great-uncles—people that came before still leave an imprint …

“I was trying to get this very complicated idea across, and I had basically a tune from my thoughts—I had a picture of past generations that are looking upon where you’re at … So I’m doing this song, and it’s one of the last songs, and it’s not really working—it’s wordy, and the ideas I’m trying to get across don’t seem like they can be translated. Music is eh, kind of OK, so I go to Gina. I said, ‘I’m doing this song, and it isn’t working. I gotta be honest, I’ve got to go a different direction or something—'”

“—and we’re getting close to the opening of the show,” West chimes in.

“She said, ‘Let’s go back to the notes, go back to the notes.’ She said that basically, this song is about hellos and goodbyes,” says Casserly. “And I said, ‘That’s it … I’ll call you back in 20 minutes.’ And I went inside, and I wrote the whole song in 20 minutes. I texted her the lyrics, and she said ‘That’s it.’ And it just all came out.”

“I think it’s one of our favorite songs in the show,” says West. “It’s beautiful.”

photo by Steve Truesdell | courtesy MADCO

photo by Steve Truesdell | courtesy MADCO

On making it work

“Little mistakes, things like that, you just go on,” says Casserly. “Everybody has their job— everyone has a very precise job—and you get to the point where you depend on them … You don’t worry about what they have to know. You worry about what you have to know. The important thing is to do what you have to do but then you also have to … get outside yourself because worrying about yourself is inside. To do the show it needs to be ‘out’.”

photo by Steve Truesdell | courtesy MADCO

photo by Steve Truesdell | courtesy MADCO

On getting out of your shell

“This whole process—when you’re talking about where you were at five years ago and where you thought you’d be—I never thought I’d be here, honestly.” says Casserly. “I’m more confident about my writing: When someone says an idea, I can pick out music, and I can understand and come up with a musical something to go along with an idea very quickly. I didn’t realize I had that talent. And when it comes to interpreting what someone says, an idea—when people say, ‘I see trains passing this way,’ [gestures], I’m hearing [hums], and I say, “This is what I think you’re saying.’ They’re like ‘Yes.'”

MADCO’s “Liquid Roads” runs at Touhill Nov. 13-14.

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