The Triumph of Sisyphus
About this work:
The Triumph of Sisyphus is a ballet without a narrative, based on the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of Ludwig Wittgenstein. It would be impossible to articulate concisely the content of Wittgenstein’s work, and it is hardly sufficient to say that it is primarily concerned with language, thought, logic, and the thinker’s relationship to them.
The influences of the Tractatus on The Triumph of Sisyphus are largely structural. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein wrote seven aphoristic statements that are each modified extensively (excepting the seventh) by sub-statements in a quasi-logical manner. The musical material, in response to Wittgenstein, is divided into several “aphoristic” cells, which are subsequently modified within a “variational hierarchy.” Many compositional processes were ruled by a given region’s temporary faux-logical nexus, which is in turn subsumed by the faux-logical needs of the work in its entirety. These “logical needs” are like those of a language; that is, they are not logical at all, but are merely sets of elaborately constructed rules that make a degree of sense within the system.
I invoked the name of Sisyphus in the title because the mythological Sisyphus can, in a way, act as a bridge between the audience and Wittgenstein’s thought. The Triumph of Sisyphus is not programmatically related to the Sisyphus myth; there is not a boulder prop that a Sisyphus dancer must roll up a hill and watch as it tumbles down. Sisyphus is a character whose actions are an obvious metaphor for all things cyclic and endless; from life and death to the queries of the philosopher. The fact that Sisyphus can never “finish” his daily battle is not a reason for despair. His victory is in his willed perseverance; the process is more important than its termination. For the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the assertions of the philosopher are largely unfounded. Wittgenstein was aware that the pitfalls of language are indiscriminate in their application, and ultimately inescapable; yet he still chose to write the Tractatus. Despite Wittgenstein’s eventual change in attitude, the Tractatus is a compelling philosophical work against philosophy. Even in the shadow of assured failure, Wittgenstein recognized the value of effort.
The Triumph of Sisyphus is comprised of four parts, forming a single continuous movement. Part I is divided into fifteen sections, with the primary musical material for the piece encapsulated in the first “cell” presented. The subsequent cells are essentially variations of the first. A different process governed the composition of Part II. Seven musical chunks (of material introduced in Part I) are arranged in a “building-block” manner, with each idea having an opportunity to dominate the concerns of the septet. Part II concludes with a miniature piano cadenza.
A double glissando at the end of the cadenza propels the music forward into Part III, a scherzo-like section rooted on a piano “vamp” that is never repeated. A degree of control is transferred to the performers in Part III. At multiple points in this section, the performers may choose to play different lines of music at will from a number of possibilities. Every decision has an important effect on the other musicians; they may be forced to come in at a different point in time, or respond to another’s choice by playing sympathetically chosen dynamics. Not counting the dynamic variations that could be chosen, there are nearly three thousand possible combinations of the musical lines.
Control returns to the composer in the final section of the piece. Part IV continues the cell-variation process initiated in Part I. The Triumph of Sisyphus ends with a variation of the work’s main cell, which is simply another moment in the cycle.
Year composed: 2002
Ensemble type: Chamber or Jazz Ensemble, Without Voice:Other Combinations, 6-9 players
Instrumentation: 1 Flute, 1 Clarinet, 2 Percussion (General), 1 Piano, 1 Violin, 1 Cello
Instrumentation notes: Fl./Picc., Cl./Bs.Cl., 2 percussion (Mar. & Vib.), pno, vln, vlc