Sunday, August 25, 2013

Imitation as Inspired Improve-ization

As I recall from the 30 seconds I just spent researching it, Plato believed that "art is imitation, and that's bad," and Aristotle believed that "art is imitation, and that's all right, even good." Well, I'm here to say that art is imitation, and that in some cases, the imitation creates something better than the original - in part because it fails as imitation.

Consider the third of Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances, a little set of six he pieces he wrote for piano.

Against a simple left hand drone, the right hand plays an exotic little melody which you can hear here (played by Bartók!) at the 1:23 mark:

As it happens, just yesterday on the radio I heard a performance of the composer's orchestration of these dances in which that melody is given to a piccolo, so one could reasonably speculate that Bartók thought of it as piped melody all along since it lies in such a high register on the piano. You can hear that version, starting around 1:55 here:

However, the radio performance I heard left me kind of cold because the version I really know and love is the violin/piano arrangement made by Zoltan Szekely - I've accompanied this version many times, including with my favorite home-grown violinist. Szekely has the violinist use artificial harmonics, presumably to imitate the glassy, pure sound of the piccolo or flute or pipe or whatever - but, of course, it doesn't really sound convincingly like any of those. What it sounds like (at 1:45) is eerie and haunting and odd and frail....and beautiful:

So, this pale imitation of a flute is by far my favorite way to hear this dance, even though the arrangement is just an imitation of the composer's orchestration. Imitation yields something new. Of course, personal bias plays a role, given that I've heard it most often this way, but I still think there's an argument that this is the most compelling version, and that's significantly because of its failings. It's a violin trying to sound like an orchestral flutist who presumably is trying to sound like a Romanian shepherd, and so it's a violin doing things the violin wasn't really even designed to do, using the artificial harmonics to take much of the body out of the sound and leave behind that ghostly trail.

Actually, I could easily imagine myself having made an argument on behalf of the piano version if that had been the one I'd known best, and though it's not my favorite here (the piano strikes me as too neutral), the truth is that, like most pianists, I have a very deep affection for all the ways in which the sound of a piano is weak and unevenly balanced and compromisingly tuned and poorly sustained. For all the great innovations that made the modern piano sound what it is, it is still a sonority sustained by smoke and mirrors, and we love it for its frailness, its vulnerability, its Walter Mitty-like attempts to imitate flutes and violins, horns and voices. We strive to make it sing with beautiful legato, but we don't really want it to do that perfectly. In fact, the bell-like tones of a Rhodes-style electric piano are the last thing most pianists want to hear when striking the keys to sing a Chopin nocturne. Modern synthesizer technology can fix a lot of the problems I've outlined, and many musical styles have taken advantage of that - but a "piano" can't be imitated; only the real thing fails in such a perfect way.

A favorite example is the piano opening of Strauss's incomparably perfect Morgen:

For some misguided reason (probably a singer who couldn't stand having to follow that perfect piano intro), Strauss decided to orchestrate this and give the halting, suspended piano melody to a sugary sweet violin and....well, here you go:

Sure, it's pretty, and if I didn't know the piano version, I might even love it, Pretty much every tune Chopin wrote falls into this category - tunes inspired by bel canto opera, but which sound most inspired when hammered on string.

There are many other ways to explore this question of imitation as improvement. I haven't yet played organ long enough to fall in love with all the bizarre organ stops that are supposedly trying to sound like flutes, and reeds, and trumpets, and violas, but apparently one can develop an actual affection for all of those imitations. I also was recently engaged in a Facebook discussion about computers composing music (inspired by this article), and when one commenter suggested that imitation can never replace inspiration, I openly wondered if inspiration might not sometimes result from mere imitation. Bach certainly got a lot of mileage out of copying Vivaldi. Or, to go in a different direction, one might note that, when going to see Shakespeare, we much prefer to see an imitation of someone being stabbed than the real thing.

But I'll leave those paths untaken and close with another bit of violin rep that's been on my mind. Daughter of MMmusing is now learning Ravel's great Tzigane, and we read it together for the first time last night. Here we have perhaps the most polished musical craftsman of all time creating a sort of imitation of a gypsy jam session (with the original piano part written for a piano that had an attachment designed to imitate the cimbalon!) - except, it's got some pretty meticulous stuff in there, and it's not really an invitation for the performers to unleash themselves with total abandon, at least not unless total abandon includes playing the tricky notes Ravel took the trouble to write down. Oh sure, there's still plenty of room for interpretive abandon, but as I've said about The Rite of Spring so many times, it's an imitation of the exotic/primitive that requires a very disciplined, high-culture brand of performance. That tension is at the heart of why music (and art) can be so compelling.

This isn't the place to argue whether such exotica is always better than the thing it's imitating (I heard one of the Liszt orchestral Hungarian Rhapsodies the other day and it kind of made me cringe), but I do think there's something extraordinarily satisfying about Ravel's fun-house imitation of the gypsy fiddler, even if it sounds no more like an authentic gypsy than Bartók/Szekely's violin sounds like a flute. The point is that the failure to imitate accurately may be the inspiration for something incomparably great.

UPDATE FROM YEARS LATER (11/12/14): I should have mentioned here that Jeremy Denk once complained that Tzigane is, in fact, too "clean":
Just the other day I was playing through Tzigane with Josh, in a rehearsal, and it was all a great deal of fun, and Josh sounded fabulous of course, and I was annoyed that I didn’t sound so fabulous in that annoying passage with the repeated notes … but I was thinking “it’s good, but it’s no Charles Ives.” Even the “dirty” gypsy notes in that piece sound clean, organized, shiny; everything is polished, glittering, sparkling, lush, perfectly voiced: sanitized? It smelt of PineSol, if PineSol were French. But not with Ives; he captures the Down & Dirty better than almost anyone. If he errs, he errs on the Dirty side; but his dirt is not vulgar, it is transcendental fertile earth with lots of terrific spiritual manure. Perhaps the hyper-cleanliness of Ravel is somewhat vulgar, in comparison with the honest, sprawling dirtiness of Ives? … at least that’s the way I feel. Bring on the hate mail!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Favorite Strings

I'm in preparation for what I hope will be an innovative September recital that will combine the traditional - performing composed music for people - and some kind of "twisted traditional" stuff that's appeared here on the blog. The latter will involve live versions of various MMmashups, but these two sides of me (the traditional, and the twisted traditional) came together last night, strangely and inevitably enough. The likely "traditional" repertoire for the recital will be Mendelssohn's wonderful D Minor Piano Trio, to be performed with my favorite strings, also known as my violinist daughter and cellist wife. The three of us debuted as "Montrieau" last September.

So, anyway, we sat down to read through the Mendelssohn last night, and as I started thinking through the music, a transitional thematic idea from the first movement passed through my head...and then segued unexpectedly (still in my head, of course) to something quite different. If you read this blog regularly, you'll not be surprised that I find this kind of thing fascinating. 

Once we'd finished playing, I ran upstairs and set myself the task of stitching the Mendelssohn together with this "other," and...well, that's really all there is to it. If you don't know the Mendelssohn, you can hear it here - the spot that linked my mind elsewhere begins in the violin just after the 2:25 mark, though you might want to start around the 2:00 mark to get more context:

And my new contribution to Western Civilization may be heard here:

I won't say much more other than to clarify that:
  1. Yes, I had to transpose one of the recordings up a 4th, which...adds something.
  2. As always seems to be the case with these incidental mashups, the two recordings seems to link up surprisingly well. I did not change the tempo of either one bit, and yet it almost sounds as if they were meant to go together.
  3. Almost.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Hardworking Rhythms

Last weekend at my daughter's camp, I heard live for the first time Louis Andriessen's Workers Union. It was quite an undertaking for a group of high schoolers more used to playing Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, etc. and though I wouldn't say I loved it, I did love the experience of hearing it. There is something a bit ironic about seeing a group of, let's admit it, pretty privileged kids acting out this populist message-music, but that doesn't mean it's not good for them. There's also something a bit heavy-handed about the way the political message is almost literally enacted by the musical conception, but that's a discussion for another time. I wish I had and could share video of the performance I heard (featuring mostly winds and strings with piano; I particularly enjoyed the English horn contribution to the texture and the pianist's fearless hammering - UPDATE: now available here), but here's one that gives a good sense of what it can sound and feel like:

I found an excellent description (by Jesse Rothwell) of this iconic work at the LA Philharmonic's website:
Workers Union (1975), written for "any loud sounding group of instruments," is an assault of repetition and dynamics. Andriessen replaces the pretty hypnosis of American Minimalism with jerky rhythms and dissonance. His music springs from his political idealism, his challenge of the status quo, his belief in struggle. He takes the influences of Stravinsky, the obsessively rhythmic form of Boogie Woogie jazz, and early Minimalism to create his own style; his music sounds like Steve Reich with his hand in a meat grinder.
"Minimalism with jerky rhythms and dissonance." I can attest to that, because though the piece's concept and overall effect/affect stayed with me for several days, I found that my brain started slipping something different into my aural memory, so that it became conflated with this little creation of mine:

That, of course, is Steve Reich's seminal Minimal(-ist) Clapping Music with Stravinsky's famous "Rite of Spring" chords subbed in for the original unpitched claps. It is, thus, essentially what Rothwell says about Andriessen - a combination of Minimalist repetition with brutal dissonance. Of course, I don't know what Andriessen or Reich or Marx would say about me handing over the people's rhythms to a mechanized, synthesized industrial machine, but I'm not really a political person. I do, however (as I've tweeted before), think that my Reich/Stravinsky makes excellent '70s TV car chase music. Try loading this video in one browser tab, with its sound turned low, and play the Clapping Rites video above in this tab as background. (I posted this combo once on Tubedubber, but the link won't work for me today...)