In 1978 I was Resident Composer at the Sydney Dance Company. The main project for that year was the work "Poppy" which was to be the first full-length dance work composed, choreographed and designed by Australians.
The life and diverse work of French poet, dramatist, artist and cinematographer Jean Cocteau gives mountains of raw and referential material on which to base any number of "attributive" new works. He was a familiar of Nijinsky and Stravinsky at Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, for a time he was regarded as an honorary member of "Les Six" (including composers Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honneger) and was active in the foundation of the Dadaist movement.
The First Act of Poppy deals with principally biographical details of Cocteau's life (1889-1963). It starts with his experiences as a child with his mother and at school, moves on to his association through the chic of Parisian society with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, finishing at his association with and the subsequent death in 1923 of the outstanding teenage novelist Raymond Radiguet.
The Second Act is a kaleidoscope of themes, graphic images and notions that recur throughout his mature work and can often be seen as the reflection of real-life events represented in the First Act. It begins with his period in a detoxification clinic recovering from a life-long addiction to opium (hence the "Poppy") which coincides, biographically, with the death of Radiguet. Although Radiguet died of typhoid fever, Cocteau never escaped a sense of responsibility for his demise, and the figure of Death which prevails throughout the Second Act is seen not only as a poetic figure but also as Cocteau's own hovering conscience.
My responsibility in the First Act was not only to enhance and complement the action on stage, but also to paint a musical portrait of Cocteau's France at the turn of the century. The first scene (Childhood ) is thus accompanied by a haunting song using the simple and unpredictable harmonic world of Satie, while the last scene (Radiguet ) uses a more tortured, serial-atonal language. Although French composers didn't embrace serialism until well after 1923, it is used here both as an allegory of Freudian complexity as well as an overview of the gamut of Cocteau's musical experience.
The entire First Act then becomes a gradual musical evolution from Satie to Schoenberg. Scene 2 (Schoolroom ) is a pastiche of Milhaud woodwind style and Poulenc's open harmonies, Scene 3 (Cabaret ) employs the jerky rhythms of tango and jazz that were fashionable in Paris at the time, and Scene 6 (Rite of Spring ) is a musical satire of the horrendous opening night performance of Stravinsky's immortal dance score.
Two of the scenes present a more historical profile. Scene 4 is a night club appearance of the transvestite trapeze artist Barbette who only ever performed to the music of Wagner. The music here is an irreverent assemblage of Wagner themes into a most unlikely context, specficially designed for the trapeze. Scene 5 (Spectre de la Rose ) is a backstage view of Nijinsky's early ballet of the same name, and the music is simply a re-arrangement of the original orchestral score. Apart from exhaustive research into the life and work of Cocteau, I was therefore also required to minutely study the work of dozens of other composers in an attempt to capture the spirit of the time.
Much of Cocteau's work centres on the use of mirrors and theatrical effects (cinematic reverse motion, unusual photographic perspective and so on), these "mechanical" elements representing the "magical" in modern society. In the Second Act I therefore decided to use exclusively electronic music to reflect both mechanical and magical aspects of Cocteau's world-view.
With all of the technology of 1978 at my disposal, much of the Second Act was made using musique concréte techniques _ recording metallic sounds, synthesized timbres and Cocteau's own voice, then splicing, looping and overlaying onto a 4-track master tape to create an overall "aura" of unreality. The Second Act was remade in 1981, and although the opening and closing five minutes remain from the original concréte version, the bulk of the Act now consists largely of electronic sounds created on a variety of modular and commercial synthesizers overlayed onto a 16-track master tape.