Tchaikovsky Recomposed

by Emma Dutton

Tchaikovsky Recomposed was made possible by the Berkofsky Arts Award.

Tchaikovsky Recomposed


Tchaikovsky Recomposed explores the relationship between reconfiguration and recognition by abstracting and restructuring material from Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, Swan Lake (1876), Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892).

Performances and reinterpretations of Tchaikovsky’s ballets have been ubiquitous on programmes since the second half of the twentieth century, and the music continues to permeate into wider culture through film, television and advertising. In his essay ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’ (1938) the philosopher and composer Theodor Adorno theorises about the effects of radio and other mass media on the commodification and standardisation of music. Adorno argues that overexposure to accepted classics wears away their musical tension, leading to inattentive ‘atomistic’ or ‘quotation’ listening. Instead of grasping the work as a whole, listeners focus on disconnected individual elements, namely melody. For Adorno, arrangements, orchestrations and adaptations tend to destroy the structural unity of a work by extracting only isolated popular passages, which he describes as ‘debris’.

Tchaikovsky Recomposed builds on my compositional interests concerning musical manifestations of decay, the inherent relationship between deconstruction and reconstruction, and modes of musical borrowing. Adorno’s somewhat dated critique informed my initial ideas, and elicited broader, more ontological questions regarding the relationship between the whole and its parts. For instance, what is the effect if one takes this ‘debris’ and hangs it on a new structure? Where is the attention drawn when multiple quotations are presented simultaneously? Does recontextualisation naturally create a kind of tension, inviting comparison with other versions and thus promoting attentive listening? How much alteration or manipulation must a quotation undergo before it is unrecognisable? How do extra-musical affiliations relate to the unity of a compositional structure? Tchaikovsky Recomposed is essentially the result of a musical exploration of these questions.

Studies have indicated that pitch and temporal structures are the most identifiable characteristics of a piece of music, suggesting that the tendency towards quotation listening is related to how music is stored and accessed in long term memory. In order to test the relationship between reconfiguration and recognition, samples and melodic fragments from Tchaikovsky’s ballets are placed within new structures, and are subject to increasing modifications (without completely being completely obscured). Whilst ‘Swan Lake’ is an arrangement of samples, the organisation of melodic fragments in ‘Bound Upon a Spinning Wheel’ and ‘Drosselmeier’s Clock’ is influenced by motifs found in the narratives that the librettos are derived from. These motifs provided a springboard for contemporary dancers to set improvisational tasks and fixed movement sequences. The decision to present a contemporary dance performance with improvisational aspects was to add another degree of separation from the original, and free the dance from preset dramatic or musical structures.

Please share your responses to the work or any of the above questions by emailing Emma Dutton