The idea to create a work based on the Picasso painting Three Dancers was first conceived by Anthony Wilkinson, director of the International Wimbledon Music Festival. In 2013 I was asked by Piers Lane to compose the piece as a co-commission between the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, International Wimbledon Music Festival, Dancenorth, Sitka Summer Music Festival, El Paso Pro Musica and the Northwest Bach Festival. During composing process I collaborated (per Skype) with choreographer Didy Veldman for the London-based Rambert dance company whereas another choreographer will create the stage work for Dancenorth later on. The piece will be performed in 2015/16 in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Its world premiere is going to be at the AFCM in Townsville in August.
In approaching the piece I was aware of the fact that it will exist both as a concert piece and a theatre work. Serving those two purposes affects many of the choices a composer needs to make. Things like how much time there will be between sections, if any, how much diversity of mood you can work with and how many instruments you can use for both mediums.
Writing a work based on a painting also throws up other questions such as whether to take a narrative approach in depicting the characters contained on the canvas, or simply to be inspired by the powerful visual image and let the music flow from your own impression. In writing this piece, I think I have taken both paths to a certain extent. The painting itself is so arresting that I found myself composing the very first time I looked at it at length, but at the same time, delving into the history and fascinating world of these people brought me to an immediate and close empathy with the main characters. I began choosing notes and motives for each of them, so distinct and vivid from each other were they.
In the painting Three Dancers, Picasso depicts a triangle of characters drawn together through love, sex and death. The painting explores the psychological torment of unrequited love and the violence that can be inherent in desire and the complex tension and indeed tragedy that may erupt.
The first character is Carlos Casagemus, Picasso's close friend who shot himself in 1901. He appears in the centre of the painting in a crucifix-like position as if sacrificed on the altar of love. Carlos shot himself in the head having just shot at Germaine Gargallo, depicted to his right in the painting. She had spurned his amorous advances which had quickly built to obsession. Germaine was an artist's model and a seamstress and the future wife of Ramon Pichot, another good friend of Picasso. Ramon himself died whilst on a trip in 1925. This happened just before Picasso began the painting.
In my piece, also titled Three Dancers, the tension between the would-be lovers flows throughout. As characters in the music I have often placed them side by side, this means the melodies or motives that represent them move in a parallel fashion rather than blending. Their particular notes often stretch up and down, sometimes as glissandi, but rarely connect with each other.
I've also made some reference to Picasso himself through some suggestions of the spanish idiom using primitive rhythms and short, decorative musical twists. I have sometimes made things slip slightly out of phase, creating a more surreal, dream state of mind. The spanish influence is not overt, but rather concealed somewhat within the fabric of the music and structure in much the same way as Picasso concealed his own references in many of his paintings. For example his wife at the time was the dancer Olga Khokhlova and there are many critics who believe that the dark silhouette on the far right of Three Dancers is a portrayal of her. The relationship between them was fracturing and Picasso already had an eye to his next mistress. In assigning notes to all of these five characters (Casagemus, Gargallo, Pichot, Picasso, Khokhlova), I created a series of clusters which form a central role in my work. The clusters represent often discord, sometimes accord, and always the poles of chaos and logic and the tension in-between. They may build to a more climactic and harmonious synergy, but there is always an uneasiness and fragility about both the relationship between each material as well as the journey it travels.
"A riveting work ... Terrific virtuosity is demanded of every player, though there are no spotlighted star turns. Rather Kats-Chernin combines the sounds of the instruments in novel and striking ways, creating composite tones that she uses to explore the powerful implications of Picasso’s painting. At one point, for example, [the] accordion playing is blended with ghostly high harmonics from [the] violin to create an effect both beautiful and sinister. This is in keeping with the back-story of the painting, which involves a love triangle leading to murder-suicide. The Three Dancers is characterized by a stylistic fingerprint that appears in the opening bars: an insistent rhythmic figure repeated metronomically, upon which the composer superimposes slow, fragmentary phrases that strain toward, but never quite achieve, the form of melody. The presence of the accordion immediately suggests the cafes of Paris, over which the dolorous voice of the double-bass introduces a note of dark lyricism. The piece is full of such complex moments; in fact, it is comprised of them. Its dominant tone is one of grim anxiety, but the flashes of gaiety and tenderness prevent even a hint of monotony." (Larry Lapidus, The Spokesman-Review, 25 Feb 2017)