Monday, October 19, 2015

David Garrett and Social Inversion

Back in European history there are local traditions of social inversion where the great are brought down and the lowly raised--if only for a day! It shakes up the hierarchy and blows off steam. One remnant of this tradition is the carnival which is still celebrated, especially in Catholic countries. I am reminded of this by a clip a commentator sent recently. This is the crossover violinist, David Garrett, playing the last movement of the Violin Concerto No. 3 by Mozart with the K├Âlner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester:


This is a more recent clip of David Garrett in his crossover mode:


What is interesting, I think, are a couple of musical clues and some visual ones. Let's take note: in the Mozart, this is an entirely respectable and conventional performance of a piece that is well-established in the classical canon (one of five concertos for violin that Mozart wrote for himself to play when he was nineteen). Apart from the young, well-scrubbed and nattily attired virtuoso, the orchestra and conductor, dressed in formal white-tie garb, are visually part of the classical music establishment.

Now let's look at the Bach performance. This arrangement is a piece that lies in the border zone of the classical canon, not quite fully respectable. It is an arrangement by the 19th century violinist August Wilhelmj of the second movement of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D dating from 1730 and this arrangement is known as the "Air on the G String". Wilhelmj took a movement with a distinctive and charming melody and turned it into a concert bon-bon. Here is the original performed in adherence to the original performing practices:


What David Garrett has done musically is at two removes from the original. First we have the layer of heavy vibrato and portamenti (those little slides connecting melody notes) that were features of 19th century performance practice. Then he adds an additional layer of modern pop music: the backbeat percussion and general laid-back groove (plus some jazzy countermelodies). But even more important are the visual cues. David is projecting his image as a kind of indie-pop musician with things like the hat, the pony-tail, the stubble, the multiple rings and chains, the t-shirt and, of course, the fact that this is all projected on a huge screen.

We are seeing here, in graphic and aesthetic terms, a social inversion. The young, tidy and respectable aspiring virtuoso becomes a minor pop star with all the associated bling and grooming. The music is trimmed to fit pop sensibilities with its rigid beat and droopy sentimentality. David undoubtedly discovered as his career developed, that he was not an extraordinary virtuoso, but more of an ordinary one (hey, I know what that's like). So he decided to widen his appeal to those people who might not attend a conventional concert. What is interesting is the implied social inversion: he had to move far down-market. Everything that smacked of elite snobbism had to be eliminated and replaced with cues of a relatively low social class.

You would not be taken aback if the current David Garrett approached you on the street asking for spare change, but you would if the young version did. Social inversion: the turning upside down of the hierarchy.

13 comments:

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks for the posting of the Bach 'played in adherence to the original performing practices'. I enjoyed it.
Concerning David Garrett and the 'social inversion' there's nothing unusual about young people completely changing their personal styles when they are freed from parental obligation. As for his motivations you said "David undoubtedly discovered as his career developed, that he was not an extraordinary virtuoso, but more of an ordinary one". It's difficult to second guess other people's motivations (not to mention our own!) but I think David's extraordinary popularity in Europe and his native Germany from early childhood pretty much guaranteed his future in the world of classical music.He was much sought after. The only person who can answer the question about his motivations is David himself. One could always speculate that due to his childhood he may have had a need to distance himself from his parents. I hope for his sake that he is simply doing what he loves.

Bryan Townsend said...

You might be completely right, of course!

Christine Lacroix said...

When you think about it it's a bit like a Rorschach inkblot test isn't it? If you hold up somebody's picture to 20 people and ask them to describe the person's character you might get 20 different answers, each one revealing more about the person describing than the person being described!

Christine Lacroix said...

And do you know what this little exchange about David Garrett reveals about us? It reveals that we're old! David Garrett is dressed the way young people are dressing these days minus the nose ring, and face piercings. And jeans that already have holes in them cost a fortune. One of the injustices brought about by income inequality is that people with money can afford to buy jeans with authentic looking holes in them and the other poor suckers have to buy regular jeans then work like crazy to get those hip looking holes. And see? I just used the word hip! How unhip is that?

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, that's just so, so, so, ageist!

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan if I understand correctly the Air was the original 2nd movement from the orchestral suite that was subsequently re-worked by August Wilhelmji and then referred to as Air on the g string. My question is do people sometimes now use the term Air on the G string when they are really referring to the original Air? I ask because I've been listening to different versions and I sometimes can't tell the difference.
By the way was August an evil crossover artist?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, performers and marketers often use the title "Air on the G String" because it is familiar to listeners and familiarity is a big plus when marketing.

No, August was not an evil crossover artist, but in the 19th century they liked to play old music in their style with slow tempos, lots of vibrato, thick rich sound and very legato. In the 20th century the alternative idea, to try and uncover how the music might have been played in its own time, became a whole movement, the "Early Music Movement". I suppose I should do a post on that...

Christine Lacroix said...

At the risk of once again bringing your wrath down on the heads of 2CELLOS is this really Air on a G string or is it the original?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xn_r19xb_s

And did you ever hear of an album called Switched on Bach? I had it in the 60s and I think Air was on. If I remember correctly everything on that album was played fast tempo on some sort of synthesizer. You said in your post how David Garrett had re-worked Air on a G string but didn't say much in detail about what August did.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have never sat down and compared in any detail what Wilhelmj changed in his arrangement of the piece. That might be an interesting exercise in the history of performance practice. Also, I would need to do that in order to answer your question.

Yes, I owned Switched-On Bach as well. One of the first classical albums I ever bought. It came out in 1968 and was a big seller. Yes, it contained the Air.

Christine Lacroix said...

Yes, Switched on Bach was my first classical album too along with one called I Like Beethoven. Don't ask me what was on it!

Christine Lacroix said...

Came across this article about David Garrett quite by chance and it reminded me of our exchange.
http://fabiennewolf.com

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine. Oddly enough, I was just thinking about some of these issues. I think I feel a post coming on!

Christine Lacroix said...

An interesting post I hope, minus the tar and feathers!