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.
The 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
Leopold 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
In 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”
Then 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”
It 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”
The 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!