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!

Flannery Monaghan-Morrs said...

Hi there,

Look, I don't listen to classical music that much but I want to ask....are you a purist? I don't think you thing is I don't mind this at all. I do listen to a lot of film scores though.

We all must keep an open mind and be tolerant of covers that are not "perfect". Because if we don't open our minds up to other forms of creativity, than we would be missing out on a learned opportunity to see what else is out there and how it contributes to our understanding of a particular field. I don't mind it at all.......Have you ever heard of symphonic metal? It combines hard rock with (scream-less) melodic symphonic music, and they often have classically trained vocalists, that most of the time are female. Trust me, it's awesome....Despite the contradictoriness, it is actually really good if done right................................

But thing is, maybe if it could be balanced, maybe acapella would be good, or if they brought someone like Carmine Coppola or Ennio Morricone in and help out with the non-traditional arrangements, that would be good.......I mean, they are one of the greatest film score composers of all time and they combine classical and non-classical styles (like Jazz) to their work.

I am 18 years old, and I think that you are probably less snobbish and elitist than the other bloggers who do this kind of stuff. I think you are a very nice man.

Have a nice day.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Flannery and welcome to The Music Salon. I think you will find some interesting things as you browse around the site. I hope I am a nice man! In some ways I am rather a purist, but I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. Being a purist in music is a bit like someone who prefers natural flavors or unrefined fruit juice or something. It is a preference for things that are unadulterated, especially for commercial purposes.