Transcription, Recomposition and Reimagining

Transcription, Recomposition and Reimagining

I wrote a little on what my idea of Good Music is in a recent post about Nina Simone.  That idea is at the center of what this blog is about.  Another notion I expressed in the “About” page of Good Music Speaks, is the thought that the musical experience is ultimately a three part process between the composer, performer and listener.  The composer obviously gives birth to the musical idea, taking their conception and constructing it into material for a performer to use.  Sometimes that is a written score, but not always.  The performer takes that material and adds a layer of interpretation.  Tempo, phrasing, shading of color and emphasis are all things worked out in performance.  The performer adds a great deal, which is why I can own several different performances of the same piece of music, and it is not crazy, no matter what the CFO may think.  🙂

The listener brings their own baggage to the music, and this greatly  affects how the performance is received.  Imagine a lovely song.  For some it is just lovely, but for another person, it could be something their mother used to sing when they were a child.  Maybe it was a song from a movie you saw on a date when you had your first kiss.  Or from a children’s movie that your toddler has watched 87 times in a row, and wants to see it again but it’s going to make you nauseated to hear it one more time. Those associations that a listener may have are often completely outside anything presented by the composer or performer.

Which brings us to today’s topic.  There sometimes is a fourth interloper in this process, sometimes welcome and sometimes not.  That is when another person comes along and transcribes, recomposes or reimagines the composer’s work into something else.  I hope to offer three examples of where this musical metamorphosis was successful.  You will have to listen and make up your own mind.

bach_colThe first music that came to mind was the Toccata and Fugue in d minor by J.S. Bach.  Bach’s music has been a favorite source for persons looking to transcribe something for another musical instrument.  Bach was a master church organist, and the famous Toccata was written for a large pipe organ.  Counterpoint, Baroque ornamentation, precision and music that is unmistakably Bach are all on display.

Bach, Toccata and Fugue in d minor

stokowskiLeopold Stokowski was a great conductor, and he created a famous orchestral transcription of this work.  In so doing, he added a great deal of his own aesthetic to the music.  The transcribed music is now for a large orchestra, and is ultimately layered with drama, pathos, emotion, rubato (fluctuations in speed), and energy that is more indicative of Romantic era music written 150 years after Bach.  All the notes are there, but the Toccata has been reborn into something related, but different.  To my ears, this is transcription.

Bach/Stokowski, Toccata and Fugue in d minor

tchaikovskyIn my mind, recomposition is a more radical process.  The source material is readily apparent, but has been more thoroughly reworked.  The best example I can think of is when Duke Ellington took music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet, and recomposed it into his own Nutcracker suite.  The Tchaikovsky is a holiday favorite that I am sure is familiar to almost everyone.  If not, the holidays are right around the corner, so your chance is not far off.  Here is the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, as found in the original ballet.

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”

DukeEllingtonThen Duke gets his hands on things.  The result clearly borrows much from Tchaikovsky, but is now owned by Mr. Ellington.  It is now a joint composition by the two men, and which one gets more credit is hard to say.

Ellington, Nutcracker Suite, “Dance of the Sugar Rum Cherry”

igorIt seems that I can hardly finish a blog post without referencing The Bad Plus, and here I go again.  These guys recently tackled one of my favorite masterpieces of twentieth century music when they put out their own version of The Rite of Spring.  I have written about Stravinsky’s most famous work on this blog before.  I really wasn’t sure how it was going to translate from a large orchestra to a trio of piano, bass and drums.  The process to get from Stravinsky to the Bad Plus is one I would have to label “reimagining”.  So many of the notes are still there, but it is the primal spirit of the original that comes through in the new version more than anything.  The essence is intact, in spite of all that has been metamorphosized.

Here is one example.

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Sacrificial Dance”

RiteThe sheer guts it took The Bad Plus to even touch this iconic work speaks volumes about their fearless character.  The fact that their whole version is a great musical success says a lot about the talent, musicianship and intellect that these three possess.  I have to admit I was reluctant to try this album out when it was first released.  The Rite of Spring is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, and I couldn’t imagine liking anything that changed it.  I was clearly wrong, as I have  been listening to The Bad Plus version all week.  Here is the same excerpt from above, reimagined.

The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring, “Sacrificial Dance”

This version is still primal and jarring, uneven and raw like the original.  In addition, now the music gets downright funky at about   2:30  in the video.  I don’t know if Igor ever got truly James Brown funky in his life, but here in this album his Rite of Spring does in places.  I may have to use this version for my annual first day of Spring celebratory blasting of the Rite to my whole neighborhood.  Look out Detroit!



The Firebird

“The world is full of magical things,

Patiently waiting

For our senses to grow sharper”

– W.B Yeats


benu_boatAnother ancient myth that appears in many cultures deals with a magical Firebird.  One of the earliest versions may be the story of the Egyptian Benu bird.  The Heliopolis creation myth says the Benu bird created itself from a fire which burned at the top of the sacred Persea tree,  and brought life and light to the world.  The Greeks may have appropriated aspects of this story for the Bird of Phoenix in Greek mythology.

Greek Phoenix seal

Greek Phoenix seal

Here, the Phoenix is a symbol of rebirth, consecration, renewal and resurrection as it rises from the fire and ashes of its predecessor, to be born anew.  There are analogues of these tales in Persia, China, Japan, India, Turkey, Tibet and I’m sure elsewhere.

The Russian legend of the Firebird is what Igor Stravinsky was asked to use as inspiration for ballet music for the Ballets Russes.  Diaghilev called upon the then unknown composer, to create something new for his dance troupe.  Igor delivered, and the collaboration of Stravinsky, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes was to continue and give us such masterpieces of modern music as Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps.

LegendThe storyline of the ballet is actually a bit of a mashup of the mythical Firebird story and a Russian legend of an evil, immortal, magician named Kashchei.  In the ballet, a prince named Ivan goes to a magical land of Kashchei the Immortal, where he finds all sorts of magical creatures.  In the gardens, he temporarily captures the magical Firebird, releasing it in exchange for a promise of its help.  (This is a very important point.  Do not try to hold on to a Firebird, or keep it rooted or caged.  All birds, Firebirds included, need to be free to soar to the heights of their potential.  Plus, you may get burned.)

Prince Ivan proceeds to have some conflicts with Kashchei, and things get very tense in the magical realm.  Kashchei sends his magical creatures to dispatch with Ivan, but the Firebird comes to help as promised, and bewitches the creatures to do an Infernal Dance.  Stravinsky writes some great music for this.

Stravinsky, Firebird, Infernal Dance.

The Firebird tells Ivan that the secret to Kashchei’s immortality is that his soul is contained in some magic egg.  Armed with this knowledge, Ivan defeats his rival by breaking the egg, and all the creatures, real and magical, trapped in Kashchei’s mystical land are set free.  Which is what they wanted in the first place.

Although this Russian version that Stravinsky was assigned doesn’t have the overt themes of rebirth that most Phoenix legends have, I think the final hymn of the ballet was written with conscious thought to the resurrection theme.  Take a listen and see what you think.

Stravinsky, Firebird, Final Hymn

An interesting note about trying to study the music to the Firebird.  The score itself has gone through several versions and rebirths of its own.  First, there is the original ballet score, from which Stravinsky extracted a concert suite.  Years later, he reorchestrated much of the music into another concert suite.  Part of this had to do with the fact that it was written before the 1923 copyright laws, and was originally published in Russia, where those laws were not enforced.  Several times in his career, Stravinsky would revise works and republish them in countries that respected copyrights.  When listening to the Firebird and trying to follow the written score, you have to be careful to know you have the correct rebirth in hand.

There you have it.  Keep your senses sharp and be on the lookout for magical things.  Above all, if you run into a Bird of Phoenix be sure to let it be free.

Igor’s Asymmetry Racket

The last post was about the scandalous uproar at the ballet premiere of The Rite of Spring.  The riot at opening night of The Rite is one of the most famous stories in music.  On February 18, 1914 the music was played in its first concert performance (music only, no dance).  This orchestra premiere (nine months after the ballet) was well received and got wonderful reviews from the beginning.


The Rite of Spring is one of those unavoidable pieces of music for any musician living in the last hundred years.  Love it or hate it, one has to somehow come to terms with it.  The Rite of Spring has a subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”.The structure of the piece is in two halves, with each half containing several scenes.  The first half is titled  “The Adoration of the Earth” and the second “The Sacrifice”.  The “storyline” is loosely about bronze-age rituals in pagan Russia. The second half concludes with a virgin (The Chosen One) dancing herself to death as a sacrifice to bring the tribe prosperity.  This is all not terribly accurate, historically speaking.  Joseph Kerman called it “dubious anthropology, but great theater”.  I would agree.

The earthy rhythms of the music are supposed to bring an element of “primitivism” to the tribal scenes. Stravinsky layers his musical material one on top of another.  He takes one bit of music with uneven rhythms and accents, then adds a layer of new material of a different length onto it. By adding more layers and repeating material of different lengths, the musical elements are always combining in different ways.  They don’t line up the same way every time. The resulting cacophony was lovingly termed “Igor’s asymmetry racket” by composer Harold Shapero. One of the best demonstrations of Stravinsky’s technique of combining music into polyrhythms is in a lecture by Leonard Bernstein.  Lenny gave this talk in 1973 at Harvard as part of the Charles Eliot Norton lecture series.  Below is a link to a 10 minute excerpt from that lecture series.

Leonard Bernstein speaking about The Rite of Spring

The video is an orchestra performance by the New England Conservatory . (Email readers click here)

Michael Tilson Thomas also did an hour long episode of the PBS program “Keeping Score” all about The Rite of Spring.  It is well worth the time to watch.

Keeping Score – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring