Philip Feeney paints a musical portrait for Milwaukee Ballet’s ‘Dorian Gray’

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Milwaukee Ballet fans have enjoyed the music of Philip Feeney since frequent collaborator Michael Pink became the ballet’s artistic director in 2002. From Peter Pan and Dracula to Esmeralda and Mirror, Mirror, the English composer’s musical stamp and unique complexities have underscored Pink’s original ballets. 

The pair has collaborated again with Dorian Gray, based on the Oscar Wilde novel about a hedonistic narcissist and his ultimate undoing. For this production, Milwaukee Ballet will take to a more intimate stage at the historic Pabst Theatre. 

Pink in the past has depended on Feeney’s music to help bring his ballets to life and give them multiple levels of emotional texture. The composer’s latest work, he says, is no different.

“Philip has a real empathy, with the idea of writing a music score that creates a sound world and successfully tells the story,” says Pink, who collaborates with the London-based composer via Skype, FaceTime and other technologies. “His musical structures are very thoughtful and highly intelligent. There’s a lot more to the score than meets the ear.”

WiG caught up with Feeney in his London studio while he put the finishing touches on Dorian Gray

How long have you been collaborating with Michael Pink?

I started working with Michael at the Central School of Ballet (in London) in the 1980s. He’d just finished dancing with the London Festival Ballet and was starting a career as a choreographer. Together, we created the graduate group of Ballet Central, taking young dancers in a minibus touring around the U.K., and composing and choreographing new works expressly for them. In those days, I genuinely created the music in the studio at the same time as Michael was choreographing. That’s something that doesn’t come up so often in a professional context, but it still makes for a creative environment.

Which of the ballets that you’ve composed for Michael is your favorite?

I’m afraid I don’t really do favorites. I think the range is exciting and all the works have a different approach, dictated to by their subject matter. 

I do have a fond memory of the score for Esmeralda, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame as it was known as over here. The colorfulness and vividness of the Victor Hugo plot line was perfect for a vibrant musical depiction, and worked well. It was also written quickly — unfortunately the case with most of my work, as I’m quite incompetent at time management — in the months following the death of my mother. I’m not sure about the correlation, but I think, paradoxically, it had something to do with the fluency of composition.

How does ballet music differ in style, structure and purpose from other classical compositions?

Those three things — style, structure and purpose — in a narrative composition are determined by the choreographer’s designs and intentions. This is the case even with style. I am particularly eclectic and a magpie in such matters, but all composers working with dance will adapt their style so the music is capable of driving the choreography. The important thing is that the musical structure, while fitting the choreography, must be musically coherent. Otherwise, it sounds a mess and will not be able to serve the choreography.

What differentiates Michael Pink’s ballets from other choreographers’ works for whom you’ve composed the scores? 

The scores I do with Michael are narrative scores, which is a form I’m at home with. It is where a composed score comes into its own, allowing the choreographer much greater scope and control of plot and dynamic.

Having worked with Michael Pink now for nearly 30 years, it’s a bit like coming home. There are so many shortcuts that come from collaborating a lot that save a great deal of time in not going down blind alleys. There is trust involved, whereby I know if Michael doesn’t like the music I’ve done, then it won’t work for the ballet. But conversely he will trust me if say, “No, no, Michael, it’s going to work,” even if he’s initially unconvinced.

What aspects of the source material do you take into consideration when composing a ballet? 

The source material for each ballet is different and is established by the demands of the narrative. In Dorian Gray, we have two extraneous musical sources that are used to generate the rest of the musical material.

The first came from an idea from Michael. He saw Dorian as somehow associated with the music of Chopin. I have used the B flat minor mazurka (a Polish folk dance composed by Chopin) that, for me, really works for the piece. It is not only harmonically chromatic and tortured, but it has an intense melancholy and an intimacy suggestive of a late Victorian gaslight world.

The other source was the recording of a young choirboy, Headly O’Brien, giving a beautiful sense of innocence that is ultimately corrupted and becomes revealed in the picture (of Dorian Gray that ages instead of Gray himself). I wrote two short unaccompanied “Lilac Songs,” using words from Walt Whitman’s elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which (O‘Brien) recorded in the basement of Central School of Ballet in London. These become a crucial part of the thematic material and, indeed, begin and end the work. But like the mazurka, they are never really heard in their entirety, almost as if they are a hidden painting beneath the painting itself. 

How does the music for Dorian Gray differ from your other scores for Michael, both musically and thematically?

As a chamber score, it’s the size in particular. The only other chamber score I wrote for Michael was his choreographic portrayal of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, a dark World War I piece for male dancers and 10 instruments. The scoring for Dorian Gray uses nine instruments supported by an electronic keyboard, metamorphosing from percussion to harp to celeste. With that, we’ve incorporated some fairly extensive audio material, which at the climax of the ballet stages a takeover and swamps the live musicians with a series of violent swells.

Michael asked for a very dark score — he often likes dark, but within that dark, there is usually some dance and life — where the atmosphere is intense, and a sense of the terrible necessity of the end is maintained throughout. 

All the instrumentalists, of course, are soloists, but two stand out. The alto sax starts the piece with a call, taken from the Chopin, and its sound is very much a voice of the piece. In the second act, the violin begins to take on the role of Dorian’s inner torment, and like the picture, is increasingly distorted and dissonant. There’s a kind of reference to the devil’s violin, nothing too exact, but it’s a useful allusion to give to the musician. 

Is it easier to compose music for a commonly known story such as Dorian Gray or Peter Pan? How do you avoid falling into stereotypical musical formats?

For whatever reason, ballet topics tend to be well-known warhorses. There is a challenge in retelling these stories of searching for a new angle and new portrayal. This pursuit will generally steer us clear of being too markedly stereotyped, because the departures from the original that characterize the production will offer scope for the musician and the choreographer to plant new trees, so to speak.

There, of course, is a balance, and the tone of the production will determine what references need to be made to commonly held preconceptions. The music for Dracula was (considered) to be quite filmic. Although that was never the intention, the way that the score subliminally manipulated the audience by creating a sense of disquiet is similar to the way film music works. 

I am very much in favor of breathing new life into old traditions. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be choosing traditional or well-known stories, if we are not going to add to what went before.

How do you know when a score is “finished?” What elements need to be present in order for that score to succeed?

To some extent scores are never finished! But it is in the nature of musical notation that when a score is completed, it then becomes “text” and, as such, etched in stone. In many ways the excitement of this project is that, by working with a high- performance chamber group, we can have more options and flexibility to make it work better. And I will welcome the input of the players in a way that’s less easy when the work is orchestral.

As to the question of success, I can, and I hope have, organized the score in such a way that it forms a structurally satisfying piece of work. However, these things are organic. The success of the music should probably be judged by how it works theatrically within the choreography and the production. 

ON STAGE 

The Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Michael Pink’s Dorian Gray, with music by Philip Feeney, takes the stage Feb. 12 to Feb. 14 and Feb. 19 to Feb. 21 at the Pabst Theatre, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $35 to $102 and can be ordered at 414-286-3663 or visit
milwaukeeballet.org.