A Pas de Deux is the apex dance of a ballet, in which the lead female and male dancers come together to show off their technical skill and expressive capabilities. When I was first given the opportunity to play in the pit orchestra with my university’s ballet company, I found myself completely enamored with the whole experience. The drama of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and the theatrical elements of the performance were things I had yet to encounter in my career. I appreciated the campiness and humor of ballet, something I realized I had been yearning for in my usual practice of serious symphonic works; I listened to recordings of the entire ballet on repeat well after the semester ended.
It was around the same time that I discovered my love for ballet that I also began arranging music. Though I was pursuing a degree in violin performance, I was going through a phase of burnout with classical music. Having played in jazz combos, when the time came to organize my recitals, I would program as little solo classical music as I could get away with. I would instead end up devoting all of my time and energy to arranging klezmer and tango tunes with parts for all of my friends.
Though grad school saw me becoming more serious about violin, I never lost my love for collaborating in styles outside of the classical realm. When COVID canceled all of my concerts, I started playing duos with talented jazz guitarist Max Case. We would occasionally read through repertoire such as Paganini’s sonatas, and I was fascinated by the way Max’s instincts as an improviser would sneak into the through-composed music we were reading. He offered a fresh perspective to the music I had become so burnt out on.
It was my frequent collaboration with Case that became the spark that inspired this project. Occasionally I would take a classical piece and turn it into a “chart,” with the chord changes written out over the melody; I oftentimes preferred his voice-leading choices over the composers’! In this process, I discovered that Tchakovsky’s harmonic writing uncannily resembles many jazz standards, and I consequently resolved to explore this relationship further.
While my original vision for the album was a simple showcase of selections from Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, the project began to morph into a concept album. Ballet music proved to be too grandiose for violin and acoustic guitar only; besides, it would be a shame not to highlight Case’s capabilities on electric guitar. Feeling that my initial draft of the iconic Waltz from Sleeping Beauty was trite, I decided to lean more heavily into the language of jazz, particularly in the vein of John Coltrane’s waltz style (a la My Favorite Things). I realized at that point I would need to employ the talents of my boyfriend and versatile pianist, Angelo Monroy, who along with the orchestral qualities of the piano, brought his skills as an improviser as well as his innate understanding of classical sensibilities.
This malleability and playfulness was exactly why I fell in love with ballet in the first place. The injection of new instruments and styles was what allowed me to weave my own narrative into the album; just as ballets are filled with humans transforming into swans and nutcrackers turning into princes, there was nothing holding me back from turning an acoustic guitar into an electric one, or transforming an intimate and weepy acoustic duet into a frenetic jazz waltz. Tchaikovsky’s music is so generous that its integrity remains intact regardless of what medium it’s played in; I feel grateful to have found my own voice in it.
– Sarah Coyl