Sunday, January 27, 2013

Don't Swing my Bach

Browsing around on another blog I ran into this which, believe it or not, I had never heard before:

The Swingle Singers were originally a French group, founded in 1962, and the performance you just listened to was from 1963. The group has been in existence ever since, though now based in London and with different personnel. The current members are all either from the UK or Canada. The line-up is either seven or eight singers plus string bass and drums. They have been hugely successful in a niche they created for themselves. In addition to many awards and the use of their music in films and television shows, Luciano Berio wrote his Sinfonia with them in mind and they did the premier recording with the New York Philharmonic.

What I don't like about what they do with the Contrapunctus IX from Bach's Art of Fugue has less to do with their vocal performance than it does with the bass and drums accompaniment. True, I don't think that 'swinging' the eighth notes adds anything except superficial excitement, but that is partially offset by the nice chorale effect of the main theme in the long notes as it appears later on. This is more effective than it would be on the harpsichord, for example. But I just can't stand the bass and drums. The bass especially, as a walking jazz bass has no purpose in this kind of counterpoint and just muddies up the texture, making it harder to hear what is really going on. Also, the drums are an unnecessary added noise.

Here is a much better way to perform this Contrapunctus:


With that much going on, how could anyone think it was a good idea to add bass and drums?


Nathan Shirley said...

I must admit, I really like some aspects of this swing version, having never heard of this group before.

The relentless bass definitely muddies things up, like you say, which I immediately thought too. But I still like it. Its part isn't completely arbitrary to the original. Thought I think they should have limited the bass to key moments, instead of letting it stomp on everything.

The drums I like, I think a lot of baroque music wouldn't be hurt terribly by a tasteful drum set. This is because of the steady driving rhythm which much of this music has (so much of it having grown out of dance music after all). Having said that I think this drum track is far too static, more variety linked with highlighting key moments of the composition would have been much better.

Also both the bass and drums are too loud in the mix, too much in the foreground where they certainly don't belong.

The swing doesn't bother me, but the singers definitely don't come close to demonstrating the same level of musical understanding as Gould or Emerson.

After having heard "hooked on classics" and other similar garbage, slapping a simple rock beat onto famous classical music... after that sort of thing this swung Bach is refreshing. Although it is highly flawed, I think there is some potential perhaps.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan, I think you have managed to isolate why the Swingle Singers have been popular for such a long time. They have an interesting sound. They do what they do better. Yes, I agree that crafting the drums and bass more subtly to the music would be an improvement.

It's all in how you do it!