Roger Trefousse’s Musical Portraits: Scoring the Life of Jackson Pollock


A Conversation with Helen A. Harrison

Composer Roger Trefousse.

Composer Roger Trefousse.

The composer Roger Tréfousse has written film scores, operas, musicals, symphonic works, chamber music, and incidental music for many theatrical works, among them Kenneth Koch’s “1000 Avant-Garde Plays” and Joe Pintauro’s “The Raft of the Medusa.” His television credits include “The Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns” for CBS, and “Jackson Pollock: Portrait,” for PBS. He and his wife Kathleen, a writer, have lived in Sag Harbor since 1991.

How did you approach your musical portrait of Pollock? Were you trying to portray the artist, or the art?

I thought the music should reflect the paintings in some way. If you’re trying to conceptualize musically what the paintings are, you’re also dealing with the artist himself. I think you see lyrical beauty, and then there’s all this manic energy, so in a way I think that’s connected to who he was. But I didn’t think that much about it. I didn’t know much about Pollock as a person when I started the film. What I did first was to look as much as possible at the paintings. The first things I wrote were fairly dissonant. Amanda [Pope, the film’s producer] wanted to emphasize the lyrical side, so I came up with something for the opening that was more expressive in an optimistic way, much warmer in tone.

What instruments did you use?

The orchestration was for eight instruments: a woodwind quartet, cello, bass, piano and percussion. I felt it needed a lot of contrast, because there’s a lot of contrast in Pollock’s work, quite a range.

There’s a sensuous quality, too, the weaving in and out of forms, the linear complexity, for example in Autumn Rhythm, which actually has a musical term in the title. Could that be a jumping off point for you?

I looked at the works rather than thinking about the titles.

The English critic Walter Pater famously said, “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” In a way, your score was aspiring to the condition of art by taking something visual and expressing it in musical terms.

You could say that, but if you’re trying to translate something visual into something musical it can’t be too literal. I was trying somehow to conjure up the energy that I felt in Pollock’s paintings. And I think it works, because even though the music is quite attractive, it has the seeds of darkness in it as well. When the film gets to where he’s beginning to fall apart and you have those interesting, strange black and white paintings, the music—the flute solo, the piano—that’s more the way I started writing. I was glad to get that in.

Because of Pollock’s insistence that he and his work are one, perhaps you were making a portrait of the artist by default.

I think that’s true, especially in Pollock’s case.

Have you done other musical portraits?

Virgil Thompson did a lot of them, and he had a certain way of doing it. He would sit and talk to the people and sketch. I experimented with that, and I did do a few portraits of friends, but I didn’t do it in that way. I did it at home, just thinking about the people. It’s difficult to portray a person, versus writing something that evokes their work. In the few portraits I’ve done, I tried to bring out one aspect of each person. I did one of Lucien Goldschmidt, who had a rare book and print shop behind the Metropolitan Museum. He was a family friend, and I wrote a little waltz for his 80th birthday [in 1992]. I think it does capture some of his elegance and sophistication. But there’s a lot more to him, as a person. If I did it now, I think I would attack it almost like a Cubist portrait. I would put a lot of different elements together and not make it so coherent. I might use improvisation, which I’ve started to use more anyway.

How would improvisation fit into portraiture?

I suppose that would be more the way Virgil worked, being around the person and seeing what came out and using that as raw material. I’ve always improvised a lot, as a way of getting myself going, but I’m now starting to think about it more as actual material, especially with all the electronic resources available.

Who else have you portrayed?

I did one of Daniel Surak, who’s a painter. When my friend Eric Valinsky’s son was born, I did a portrait of him as somebody new coming into the world. I did one of Perdita Schaffner, whom I knew from out here. One New Year’s Eve, she and I sat at the piano and sang some Kurt Weill songs, so I tried to conjure up a portrait of that experience, a little bit in the style of Kurt Weill. That captured perhaps one aspect of who Perdita was, and certainly a memory of a moment, but now I think of a portrait as something much more complicated. If you could do it at all, it would be much more complex.

Would it be more of a full-blown memoir or biography?

You couldn’t do a biography of someone in music, but you could do something that was more like that. I might do more of those things, too, if it just came to me. At one point I thought, that would be great, I could be the musical portrait painter and that’s how I could make my living. People could commission me. So if anybody wants to, they’re welcome to do so. But I don’t think it’s very viable. If somebody asked me to write their portrait, I wouldn’t choose to do it if I didn’t like the person.

When a portrait painter is commissioned, the subject usually wants to be flattered, and it’s obvious if they are not. In a musical portrait, how would you know?

The portraits of Lucien Goldschmidt and my friend’s little son are very pretty and lyrical. You wouldn’t think, oh, that music really makes those people sound horrible. The third one of that group, all of which are waltzes, is of Daniel, who was a very complicated person. That piece starts out lyrically and goes pretty far off track, and then comes back. I don’t think Daniel minded, but indeed you wouldn’t consider it an entirely flattering portrait.

A lot of everybody’s music is portraiture. If you’re writing a violin concerto for a particular violinist, in a sense you’re really taking that person into account. So the piece would come out very differently if it were written for somebody else. In the last years of her life, my piano teacher, Grete Sultan, had macular degeneration and couldn’t see very well. She asked me to write a piece for her, so I chose to write something where each hand plays separately, so she’d only have to look at one staff of music at a time and it would be more available to her. I’m very pleased with what I came up with. It’s called “Music for Grete,” and I think in some ways it is a portrait of Grete.

Because it’s tailored to her limitation?

That’s right, but also because it has a mystical quality. Grete was the most amazing pianist. She really transfigured everything she played, and I think something of that may have come into those pieces.

Have you ever done a self-portrait?

I wrote an opera called “Found Objects,” all done around a time when I spent a summer in Maine and was going back and forth. Some sections are set in Manhattan, some in Maine, and some on the Interstate, in a phantasmagoric sort of way, and I think of that opera as a sort of portrait of the inner journey of the traveler, whoever that is—I guess it’s me. But in a sense, all one’s music is a self-portrait. How could it not be?

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