Updated: Feb 26, 2020
This update is a beefy one! The official name of this piece Portrait and a Dream, which is the name of one of Jackson's paintings. You may notice that many of the movements here are named after his paintings. Here I'll lay out the whole piece as it's sketched out at the moment. Obviously this is tentative and parts of the piece have a will of their own when the process is further along, but the piece has been more or less taking this shape. The work is in three main sections...
ACT 1 - The West/New York
ACT 2 - Springs
ACT 3 - Downfall
Below is a synopsis of each act and section. Some I even have a little Midi mock-up. Some audio is just a BASIC working kernel of what it will become and others are more fleshed out. The sections I talked about last time I'll touch upon again so this all lives on one post.
The whole piece starts with the vague notion of the car accident. The little crotales you hear and other auxiliary percussion will be part of the stage set and are operated with little motors. The set will vaguely resemble a destroyed car.
After the violent and bombastic overture, there is a moment where the people in "chatter" and gossip about the car crash, Pollock's art, and his reckless lifestyle.
The music and text remains active for a while but it all slowly calms down to reveal Jackson's monologue, which is just Jackson painting quietly and thoughtfully while he narrates about his process.
Straight forward, no extra chatter. For this part I'm using Pollock's speech from the Hans Namuth film that he made in 1951. I'm also using sand, water, and other little sounds in the orchestration. I'm hoping to stage this with and an edited film of the original as well as having our Pollock (a tenor) painting on stage.
Going West is a catchall for Jackson's early life, the influence of the Mexican realists, the American West, and his time with his teacher Tom Benton. The sounds are like a primordial soup that's beginning to take shape while the text is audio from the recorded interviews. The effect is more like a kaleidoscope of information than it is the telling of a narrative. And that goes for almost all of the piece.
Man with Knife
This section covers Pollock's move to New York City, his meeting Lee Krasner, and the influences from the surrealists, Jung, and other European artists (like Picasso and Miro).
Male and Female
This movement is about how Lee and Jackson met. It climaxes with a commission from Peggy Guggenheim to paint the work that launched his career, Mural.
During the Mural section Lee Krasner will sing (with little text) an extravagant vocalise with the orchestra. This might be the first time in the piece where a singer sings. Pollock may sing after the monologue, but so far the music hasn't called for it, we'll see what happens. The above MIDI is just some percussive elements in the movement.
I Am Nature
This scene is the most like a traditional opera scene. There's a famous confrontation, which may or may not be true, between Hans Hofmann (Lee Kranser's teacher) and Jackson. Hofmann enters Jackson's studio to check out his work, and on seeing no evidence of still life set ups or models the dialog went as follows...
Jackson: If you work from within, you create an image larger than a landscape.
Hans: Do you work from nature? You should work from nature.
Jackson: I am nature!
Hans: “Ah, but if you work from inside you will repeat yourself.
There are several retellings of this story by Lee and they all vary. The way that this plays out in the music is that I have the scene repeat over and over with slight variation in the way the libretto is written. The scene is one of heightened intensity and it closes the act with a prophetic warning from Hofmann.
Sounds in the Grass
The opening of act two begins with a delicate Ravel-like texture of swirling notes. Soon after the scene showcases interview excerpts that explore Pollock's good nature, his love of children and animals, his generous friendships, his marriage to Lee, his art, but also hints at his darker side. Drinking, violence, etc. The initial move out to Springs marks Jackson's happiest and most productive years of his life. When he first moved out to Springs he was sober. He seemed to have finally gotten back in touch with his surroundings. His first series of paintings he did out here, Accabonac Creek and Sounds in the Grass series, are works that are colorful, wild, free, magical, and just full of joy. They are works that are concerned with expressing the human experience of sensations. With paintings like Eyes in the Heat, Shimmering Substance, and Water Bird. With this movement I really want to focus on this positive and bright side of Pollock, which I feel is very much neglected or even unknown to some.
This movement showcases frenzied excitement and explores what fame, recognition, and critical acclaim do for Jackson (hint: it's not very good in the end).
This section explores Pollock's most famous technique, "all-over" drip painting. Although, throughout the course of the piece the audience will see how he came to this technique slowly over time and there was never an "Aha!" moment.
Hans Namuth Film Shoot (No. 29)
With the spotlight on Jackson's painting, a film maker named Hans Namuth comes to make a short film about Jackson and his process. As Jackson paints for the camera Namuth continues to bark directions at Jackson, and he keeps asking him to do it again, and again, and again. This whole process infuriated Jackson. He felt insincere about who he is and what he was doing. He felt like a parody of himself.
This scene transitions into Jackson's aria, The Deep, which uses text from Moby Dick, Chapter 132: The Symphony.
After days of filming (and years of being sober) Jackson finally snaps at Hans Namuth. At the celebration Thanksgiving dinner on the night of the conclusion of the filming, Jackson pulls out a bottle of liquor and aggressively confronts Namuth. The event led to Jackson turning up the table and storming out of the house. From this point forward in Jackson's life he starts to go down a dark road.
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
This section functions as a more traditional aria. The opera picks up where it left off but opens up with a very brittle, very sparse, almost toy like sound. The baritone (unspecified male) sings parts of Walt Whitman's Pioneers! O pioneers!. The poem expresses a great optimism, while Pollock's lived experience as a "pioneer" is much different. I hope by this point in the opera I can reveal that the Pollock that we think we know is not so much a brave pioneer with some manifest destiny to conquer the art world, but instead Jackson is more like a naive child, a quasi myth created by Lee, critics, and the art world. Like a scared and sensitive little boy, both with the positives and negatives aspects, Jackson is like a force of nature.
Black & White
The music picks up similarly to where Pioneers! O pioneers! left off. More subdued compared to Act 2, but something is definitely off. His first big show after the Namuth shoot is a show featuring a new body of work, his Black & White paintings. These paintings see a return to figuration. Buyers don't want these paintings since they don't resemble the paintings of the infamous abstract drip painter and (some) critics pan the show for it's seemingly backwards direction. This, tied in to Jackson's return to drinking, and the continued success of his artist colleagues and Lee, make Jackson begin to feel even more like a phony. In this movement Jackson sings only hums and syllables, no words.
This section covers Jackson & Lee's estrangement and the authenticity of Jack's painting "Blue Poles". This movement was originally planned to be is a totally musical movement, with no singing and no interviews, but as I continued writing I realized that the music I was writing was more appropriate for the next movement.
To a Violent Grave
This section will focus on all of the forces bringing Jackson down. Drinking, his affair with Ruth Kligman, violence, and most importantly his fall from fame and inability to paint. Critics continue to turn away from him and he feels that he has hit an artistic dead end. The music doesn't depict a literal car crash and but it suggests that this is a life spiraling out of control and this is the end. I find it interesting that the few paintings that he did at this time look to his past. Like with the black & white paintings he lets the figure come back into them. And the ones that don't have figuration are similar to the ones that he painted when he first moved out to Springs. Maybe that's what I should think more about while writing this section?
As To a Violent Grave settles down, there is an interlude that uses the last of the recorded audio interviews. This movement marks the conclusion of the recorded audio interviews.
This final movement functions like a lament sung by Lee Krasner. The text is from Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, which was Lee's favorite poem. In fact, she loved the poem so much that before she even knew Jackson she painted a stanza from the poem on the wall in her bedroom...
To whom should I hire myself out?
What beast must I adore?
What holy image is attacked: What hearts shall I break?
What lie must I maintain? In what blood tread?
And that's how the piece is developing at the moment! I've prioritized my time actually writing the piece over making time for this blog so please forgive the sparse updates.
I've tried really hard to be as accurate as possible to the source material and not put my own spin on this story and his body of work. The biggest problem is that there is so much conflicting information and interpretation. I think once anyone starts to be reductive when recanting someone's life in a derivative work or biography they inevitably create a narrative that's not completely true, and I'd say it's usually to satisfy the ego of the one that's recanting. As the opera will touch upon, this even happened during Pollock's life! As this continues I hope to totally obliterate some of my own wishes for this piece. With that I think I need to go back into my cave and keep banging it out.