Apr '03 [Home]


Composing Staggerlee:  A Journal
by Paul Winston

I don't like the person who is committed to finishing this ballet.

. . .

I've been asked and am eager to write something substantive about my work these days, but constrained for time.

I'm playing in theatre productions, rehearsing for jazz gigs, writing poetry again, trying to get through The Palm at the End of the Mind and The Comedy of Errors, and jotting down notes from the recorded piano sketches I did for Staggerlee, my second, and last, ballet.

Because my life has come to doing everything when I can, I've chosen the course of keeping a journal for my editor. That way, when the scheduled issue opens its maw to receive this piece, I will need only roll out of bed, so to speak, and email the results.

* * *

Yes, I plan for Staggerlee to be my last ballet. Had I world enough and time, I would have liked to take a flier at Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose and Balzac's A Passion in the Desert. Perhaps if someone came up with the money for it/them, I could fit them in, but I think I know by this time what projects will elide with my life. So, after Staggerlee, I will go on to an operatic libretto for Bulgakov's The Heart Of A Dog.

Staggerlee is demanding more of a harmonic shift in my language than I had anticipated. I told my friends early on that it would be a work very different from Beauty and The Beast, that it would be an acute turn in the road, requiring after its completion a return to the more humanistic (if I can use that word to describe the general tenor of Beauty, both music and scenario). But, as always, the reality of the struggle is more demanding than its projection.

My Beauty is about family, loyalty, sacrifice; Staggerlee is about the choices which have to be made when the only two are anarchy or evil. I suppose humor must play a part in the work, but it is the comic pose displayed by Man in the sight of Men, a small saving grace. Truth be told, I don't like the person who is committed to finishing Staggerlee, but I confess my fear of artistic failure is greater than my apprehension of moral collapse.

* * *

Another reason Staggerlee is proving to be a real challenge, rather than a project in which I have a messianic (substitute "instinctive") belief, is a comment made to me years ago by Maurice Rosenthal (no longer with us) who was the Music Director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. When he heard some piano arrangements from a preliminary version of Staggerlee he commented:  "It should be more symphonic."

Of course, when someone says something definitive about your work, it can remain with you for years. This has been my reaction to Rosenthal's comment; since I finished Beauty five years ago, I have been on a personal crusade to make it fulfill itself.

The word, "symphony," is a loaded one at this particular time in musical history. Of all the 20th century composers who inspired me deeply, Stravinsky is the one actually wrote a four-movement symphony (Symphony in C). Of his other two mature "symphonies," one is in three movements and the other is tied to biblical texts and also has fewer than the traditional four movements (Symphony of Psalms). (I don't think we have to count the early Symphony in Eb which is rarely performed.) Webern wrote a symphony in two movements. Debussy, Berg, Bartók and Schoenberg never wrote anything nominally called a "symphony," although I have heard La Mer described as one—an appraisal I shall have to investigate.

All of the above however (and perhaps Debussy, too) used "sonata form" quite often. (One may call sonata form the "conceptual ground" of the symphony, and that may be applied to the concerto and chamber music as well.)

* * *

The fact that there is a jazz element to Staggerlee poses some interesting problems. The composers of the Second Viennese School—whose work I love—regarded the apparent freedom of jazz as a "false freedom" because it is inextricably tied to a four-beat meter. Only Berg incorporated it, and did so only when he wanted color for a nightclub scene, for example. Personally, although I love to play jazz (simply believing that if you can do something which you enjoy and is well-received by others, you should), I never believed that it could have the emotional and intellectual range (or cohesiveness, even in its most advanced examples) of a well-wrought classical piece.

The problem is in the preparation—just giving oneself the time to cogitate over one's material versus the impromptu quality of a jazz performance. A Bach organ piece, for example, may be wonderfully written and have an improvisatory quality to it, but not even Bach could improvise, say, his Italian concerto. On an artistic level, however, the act of making jazz ("Good jazz is not played, it's made.") is the act of making art. It's just a matter of how far (and how closely-knit) you want to evolve the development of your piece—and not in the formalist sense, of course (a danger which a jazz performer may very well encounter, too).

* * *

More and more, I see how deeply five years (the time which has elapsed since I finished Beauty) have changed the character of the composing experience for me. When I wrote my last work, I found great joy in pure study:  orchestration, counterpoint, form. This feeling has left me.

Orchestration, for example, is no longer a matter of posing lovely and harmless questions to myself—'Shall I stack the woodwinds or interlock them?' It may be that, with Staggerlee, I must resort to the Bartókian orchestrational modus, which (he said, and I paraphrase) is primarily a mechanical process of translating from one medium to another. But perhaps an investigation of Gershwin and Bernstein scores will clarify things.

The concept of using a small group of saxophones within the main orchestra (as Gershwin's orchestrator did) interests me. And Stravinsky certainly triumphed with this kind of concerto grosso idea in Pulcinella. (When old opera composers wanted to depict Hell they used nothing but wind instruments.)

And, with Beauty, I pretty much did anything I wanted to structurally (both in the informal and strict sense) because, as Debussy said:  "It may be in fact that I have taken on a task that is too much for me; there is no precedent, so I am obliged to invent new forms." I had this attitude when I was writing that work, and I must find a way to cope with the reactionary tendencies I feel now.

Then there's the matter of pride. I believe deeply in the biological parameters of artistic creation:  It's too easy to believe you're growing Apollonian when all you're doing is growing older.

So many questions! When I was teaching at a college in the city and one of the ladies in the office asked me how Beauty was going, I said, "I've got more questions than answers." "Good!" she replied. I must remember that.

* * *

Well, I've finished Comedy of Errors and am now into Titus Andronicus.

The jazz element of Staggerlee will be an interesting nut to crack. There are whole genres of jazz which arose in the Sixties and thereafter which I never explored because I never intended to include them in my playing. I never liked fusion jazz because I felt—much as I did about the rock 'n rollers who tried extended forms—that its practitioners never had (or pursued) exposure to long classical forms which might have informed their experiments more successfully.

The short-lived movement called "Third Stream Music," a benighted attempt to synthesize classical and jazz music as if they were equal profundities, always put me off. (Miles Davis compared "Third Stream Music" to the act of "looking at a naked woman whom one finds unattractive.") There is no democracy in Art, and the classical idiom must take precedence in Staggerlee for its (forgive me for this complacency) proven record in developing ideas in the widest and most cohesive fashion. Yet, Staggerlee must be very jazz-like in its retention of the vernacular.

* * *

Why the hiatus between my last entry and this one? I've been trying to come to terms with my latest reading of The Rite of Spring. It occurred to me that Staggerlee was exhibiting too much of my Russian ancestry, and that this is antithetical to my purpose:  Staggerlee cannot be a "continental" work except in an ancillary way. I've been veering away, then, from the "classical" idea and into a jazz "attitude" which, if I am successful, or lucky, will be perfectly "classical."

It's funny. I've talked interminably with friends about perception and its role in art. I must have looked pretty funny negotiating both sides of the fence—Winston as Russian, Winston as American—with the collective filter of "country" in the middle, trying to figure out who would perceive what rhythmic idea as 20th century Russian or 21st century American.

I think it's coming along, though.