Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Magical Transformations

There are certain musical phenomena that are very, to my ears, evident, but are scarcely ever talked about. It is like we all have this secret we know but that we never mention. I'm talking about what I call "magical transformations". These are kinds of aesthetic musical journeys or transformations that are inherent in the very nature of music, but that only appear occasionally, as if by magic. One of them is in a piece I was just recently talking about, the first movement of the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich in which, over eleven minutes, a simple march tune is transformed from a jaunty little nothing into a ravening monster that terrifies the listener. Of course, he had to use all the resources of a large orchestra to do that. But there are other, equally magical transformations accomplished with very modest musical resources. One remarkable one happens in a recording of a blues tune by Robert Johnson. This is Eric Clapton with some of the best session players around. For one thing, Billy Preston is on organ. The only two outside people to ever play with the Beatles--in the band, not just a little solo added on--were Billy Preston on Abbey Road and Eric Clapton on The White Album (without credit). But all these musicians are top notch. Now listen:

You might notice that it starts off pretty laid back. Everyone is playing well, clean, but without much excitement. This was probably the first tune of the session. The song trudges along until the four minute mark when Clapton takes a solo that extends to the five minute mark. Whatever he did during that solo absolutely transforms this band from a bunch of guys who know how to play the notes, to a bunch of guys who are really excited to be playing the notes. From the five minute mark to the end, they sound like an entirely different band. What did Eric do? Magic. And by that I mean he chose notes and expression and vibrato and a thousand other things in his solo to communicate an intense musical expression that the rest of the guys responded to. Eric Clapton is rarely on stage with anyone even close to being his musical equal and this shows it. When he is, as he was with Cream, some magical things can happen. A few years ago Cream got together for a few concerts in Royal Albert Hall and this is one of the tunes that they played. It's an old blues tune by Skip James. For the first three minutes it's just an ordinary song, delivered pretty well, but nothing special. Then at the three minute mark, they launch into one of their famous group improvisations and within a mere 45 seconds, they are soaring into the stratosphere. Again, Clapton is the catalyst, but Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker are right there with him all the way. Have a listen and see what I mean.

Here is an utterly different kind of magical transformation. The fifth movement of Beethoven's Quartet op 130 in B flat, is a Cavatina. For the first four minutes it is a profound, touching, deeply sad piece that few if any other composers could have written. But then, at the 4:14 mark in this recording, it becomes something utterly different. The accompaniment goes into throbbing triplets and the violin plays something that seems almost hopeful, but somehow it is hope that can only be crushed. I don't really know how to put it into words. This transformation I think no other composer could accomplish...

So there you have four different kinds of magical transformations. I say magical because, while we might be able to put into words or theoretical analysis, some of the techniques involved, I don't think we can really capture what is going on. I also think it is something that does not necessarily happen in every performance, just ones where the musicians are either very sensitive, or very lucky. And I really don't think we can put into words the feeling the listener has, hearing the transformation.

Anybody have any other examples?

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