Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Jazz Version

I used to know a pianist who was a hit at parties. He could do variations on a well-known tune like "Happy Birthday" in the style of different composers: Handel, Brahms, Debussy, etc. A somewhat different phenomenon is jazz arrangement of other music. Of course, a lot of jazz is based on arrangements of "standards" in jazz style. But sometimes it goes beyond that. One famous example is Miles Davis' recording of an arrangement by Gil Evans of the middle movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Here it is:

That is pretty interesting, but I think more limited musically than the original, which gets many, many performances every year.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there is an aesthetic principle involved here: as a general rule, arrangements are less substantial, aesthetically, than original versions. I have to be careful, because it is easy to overstate this. What I mean is that at the top of the aesthetic ladder, musically speaking, are certain works written for a specific instrument or instruments. The unitary aesthetic vision, in other words, includes abstract structural features but, since music is a concrete art form, also includes exact realizations in sound. Bach's music for solo violin or cello can be played on other instruments such as mandolin or guitar, but the original version takes precedence because it is the ideal realization of the idea. How do we know this? Because Bach made the choice. Even more pointedly, the piano sonatas of Beethoven are virtually never heard in any other medium because they are so perfectly written for the piano. He made one transcription of one sonata for string quartet, but the experiment was not repeated.

I said "at the top of the aesthetic ladder" and what I meant by that was that there are lots of pieces of music that are less specific. There are hoards of Renaissance pieces for any two melodic instruments that are quite nice pieces. In general, as you go back in music history, the specificity of instruments is less. A lot of Medieval music can be played by a wide variety of instruments. But more and more, from the Baroque on, instruments (and voices) are written for with great precision.

Alongside this there are always arrangements, of course, to fit the needs of special occasions. The harp player at the wedding plays the famous march by Mendelssohn even though it was written for orchestra. But as I said, at the top of the musical ladder, originals are preferred over arrangements. It is not just symbolic bowing to the composer's intentions--it is recognition that the composer's choice of instruments is very often a crucial part of the unitary aesthetic vision.

All this is prompted by the news that there is a new version of Lulu, the unfinished opera by Alban Berg, in which Lulu is a "black American freedom-fighter singing to a jazz score". Here is the link to the article in the Guardian. Responsible for this project is composer Olga Neuwirth. Here is a brief excerpt from one of her pieces, Hommage à Klaus Nomi. YouTube refused to embed for some reason, but here is the link:

Forgive me, but that sounds like Couperin being mugged, first by Pierrot Lunaire and then Miles Davis...

The Guardian has a paragraph that summarizes what is going on with this new version (arrangement?) of Lulu:
What's radical about Neuwirth's American Lulu isn't just that she has dared to finish what her countryman couldn't ('much of the orchestration and some of the composition of the third act of this luridly sensual and musically complex opera was incomplete by the time of Berg's death in 1935). It's the fact that Neuwirth sets the story of Lulu's manipulative rise and desperate fall not in the fetid European cities of Berg's original, but turns her into a freedom-fighting black woman amid the civil-rights struggle in 1950s New Orleans and 1970s Manhattan – and comes up with a new text in English to boot. She also arranges Berg's music for a glorified jazz band while compressing the opera's structure, throwing out much of Berg's score, and inserting an ending very different to what was originally envisaged.
"Throwing out much of Berg's score"? In that case, shouldn't Berg's estate or publisher be suing someone? Or at least demanding that Berg's name be taken off the publicity? After all, aren't we reading this article and aren't people attending these performances because Berg's name is up there? Please, Lulu is not a "sacred cow" as the article says, it is a justly famous 20th century opera. Famous because of the music written very specifically in a certain way for specific instruments, not for a "glorified jazz band". Therefore, we are, are we not, being sold a bill of goods here? Isn't this a kind of aesthetic fraud? Don't we need a forensic musicologist, stat?!?

Let's have a look at what is available online. Here is a French news item about the Berlin première of the "American Lulu":

Oh no, nothing exploitative there! Much more revealing is an advertisement for the production that, again, oddly, YouTube refuses to embed. Here it is:

Are we really that desperate to sell tickets to an opera? Or is it just that nothing matters except the vision of the arranger? My opinion is, if you want to do this, more power to you, just don't implicate Alban Berg.

It is a little disconcerting that the very people who should be promoting culture seem instead like barbarians, intent on stomping it into the ground.

UPDATE: It's nice to hear that my doubts about this production seem to have been quite justified. The Guardian just put up a review. This is a key sentence:
Of the sounds that linger in the memory from the Edinburgh performance, the most dominant is that of seats being upturned as members of the audience crept out.


Virgil T. Morant said...

On a less radical and likely much less disconcerting note, not long ago I saw the Cleveland Orchestra perform Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden (not quite finished by Mahler, but later completed by one or two others, and I don't remember which edition was performed that night). It was not profoundly different or much of a reinvention of the music. I'd heard the quartet many times, and, listening to the string orchestra performance of it, I just wondered, Why?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, there are orchestral versions of a number of pieces of chamber music. I'm thinking of Schoenberg's sextet Verklärte Nacht which I first heard in a version for chamber orchestra. I assume you are referring to the string quartet by Schubert nicknamed "Death and the Maiden" and not the song by Schubert?

As musical sins go, this is a fairly minor one. But one does wonder why. Surely there are gazillions of excellent pieces for orchestra that they could play instead. I have a nice little overture that has never been performed if anyone is interested... ;-)

Rickard Dahl said...

"Surely there are gazillions of excellent pieces for orchestra that they could play instead." This is an excellent point. I've also heard several arrangements played by the orchestra. For example Debussy's Children's Corner orchestrated. I mean it was nice and all but would be nicer to hear something newer rather than an arrangement of something old. And also if the orchestra plays something new it is typically one of those avant garde/postmodernist things, usually with some kind of long orchestral crescendo. Sure it is usually a nice blend of orchestral colors but there is hardly any concrete substance (and thus it's pretty boring or forgettable), barely any melodies, barely any themes and so on. I'm sure there are plenty of well written (not some kind of avant garde orchestral (sometimes including electronic sounds) color blend pieces)) not too old pieces by living (but maybe not so well known) composers they could play. That's one of the problems in the classical music world today: barely anyone willing to play new (non ridiculous avant garde or silly postmodernist (i.e. too simple, too electronic)) classical music. Maybe the audience is one of the causes of this problem, if it ain't Beethoven or Mozart (for instance) maybe it doesn't sell so well. Who would go to a concert to listen to good pieces written by lesser known living composers?

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, you raise a host of interesting issues and problems!! I think that one of the interesting historical phenomena of music since 1900 is the deployment of modernist (and then post-modernist) ideology in shaping the public reception of music. Books like René Leibowitz' "Schoenberg and His School" were designed to influence and shape public opinion. That they were not entirely successful was due to two things: competing narratives such as the one put forth by Igor Stravinsky in his (probably ghost-written) book "Poetics of Music" and the series of books written in collaboration with Robert Craft and by public resistance to atonal music generally. Since 1900 it has been almost de rigeur for composers to further their careers with some kind of written manifesto. John Cage is an outstanding example of this.

But at this stage in music history, where I think a more conservative stage is beginning, the radical manifesto is really not the right strategy. What does a composer who writes music that acknowledges a relationship with the past that involves the use of elements like harmony and melody do? Well, this one started a blog that is attempting to subvert the modernist and post-modernist narrative in music!