Transcriptions/Popular Music…why or why not?

Warning: Here is my opinion on a mildly controversial topic in the performing arts. Read at your own risk.

Before the main point is addressed, perhaps this topic can begin more abstractly by asking a different question. What does one seek to be stimulated in a musical composition? There are a number of things, certainly, but I’d like to focus on one element: I believe all (or at least a large majority of) music can be looked at in three stages (from a macro perspective):

1) Presentation
2) Conflict
3) Resolution

Consider sonata form in common practice period tonality. The exposition offers the initial set of materials and presents it to the audience. The development represents the conflict through harmonic instability, motivic chaos, and other various compositional techniques. And, of course, the recapitulation reintroduces the ideas from the exposition so that the listener has a sense of completion. Without going into too more detail about key areas, theme areas, etc., sonata form works pretty well with this idea of Presentation, Conflict, Resolution.

On a smaller level, phrase by phrase, and section by section offers this idea of presentation, conflict, and resolution. Phrases can have “high” and “low” points. The beginning of any phrase serves as its own presentation, of course. If the “high” point of the phrase is thought of as conflict (a heightened sense of urgency), resolution can be found at the end phrase, or soon after in a following phrase. I do think on a micro level, sometimes Conflict and Resolution aren’t necessarily in the same order, because composers will link phrases together, and sometimes it is necessary to end a phrase in conflict so that it can be continued in a different section. However, these elements are still very prevalent in phrase by phrase form.

From the perspective of a full symphony, I’d like to offer Beethoven 5 as an example. The first movement, in c minor, presents the initial mood of the work, which is based in conflict. I think this offers an example of a case where Presentation and Conflict are one in the same. This fiery movement, perhaps the most famous in all classical music, ends without a true sense of finality. Beethoven’s turbulent storm is quieted in the second movement, a temporary resolution of inner dialogue. The third movement begins stately, regally, with a sense of finality, but Beethoven starts to question himself in the movement. The third movement builds with a climax of conflict into the fourth movement, in C Major. The fourth movement is the triumphant and final resolution that Beethoven has eluded (in degree of finality) through the entire symphony. And while each movement works individually as an example of conflict/resolution, the overall direction of the symphony fits as well.

To make this even simpler, I will simply say that Conflict/Resolution can be summed up as Contrast. Points of contrast, through texture, harmony, melody, dynamics, timbre, are what create conflict and resolution. Conflict cannot exist without resolution (and vice versa), because of the integral need for contrast. Love could not exist without hate, good without evil, and so forth. I truly believe this is why much twentieth century “classical” music is disengaging for audiences; they have difficulty discerning the composer’s attempts to present conflict and resolution.

All right, without belaboring the point (because the truest details of the theory of conflict and resolution in music require elaborate discussions as a topic of their own regard), I will move on. What does this have to do with the blog title? Everything. I firmly believe that this idea of conflict/resolution is a vital part of the human experience. This is what makes the field of “classical” music so stimulating and engaging, it is the pinnacle of conflict/resolution as penned by the greatest musical minds of all time. Each individual piece on a concert or recital should offer these contrasts. However, I think that, for a truly successful program, one must consider the macro flow of a performance. Too often this is ignored.

How does one program variation? A number of ways, I think. First, when the opportunity is available, one should seek various mediums of expression. For instance, joint recitals in which two different instruments are performing offers contrast. Unaccompanied works versus those with piano accompaniment offer variety. As a conductor of a large (or even chamber ensemble), programming pieces with varieties of instrumentation isn’t difficult.

Another way is through musical style/era, which will bring me to my main point shortly thereafter. An entire concert of Baroque masterworks is not nearly as engaging to an audience as one that is varied, offering different palettes. I think eras and stylistically different works serve as the ginger at a sushi bar, clearing palettes for the next carefully chosen bites. It is my belief that this is one of the fundamental necessities for engaging audiences, preparing them to hear new music (particularly that music which may not be as palatable). If one is to program Webern, it is balanced out well with a light work. Too often musicians create programs that are constantly engaging, never allowing the audience time to breathe.

Transcriptions and Popular music (meaning not generally identified as Western Art Music), particularly those of easier-to-digest opera arias, film music, even some pop music (carefully chosen), can offer an opportunity to breathe, particularly before a final work in a recital or program. An intermission offers this same chance to breathe, in the case of the Orchestra as well, but this is a practice well accepted in the performing world and needs no discussion. I think entr’actes, intermezzi, and overtures in opera all serve this sort of function. While there is serious artistic merit in the works, they are lighter by nature and offer contrast to the dense artistic material that often follows it. Remember, the keyword is contrast. Conflict, resolution. This even means abstractly, in terms of intellectual or aesthetic engagement. If conflict means a departure away, and resolution means a return, the conflict/resolution diversity can imply a change from “fast-slow-fast”, “lyrical-exciting”, “intellectually overwhelming, underwhelming, overwhelming”, etcetera.

There is some beautiful popular music out in the world. Jazz standards, certain ballads, and so forth, that are favorites outside of the classical world. Perhaps more classical musicians should seek the opportunity to integrate said works, in an artistic way, into their programming. At the very least, with an open mind. So many people scoff at the notion of performing a John Williams piece on an orchestra concert. Or if a violinist were to do a transcription of Stardust on a recital. But, if such pieces were carefully selected in a way that complements the “more artistic” material, then the opportunity exists. Obviously, it’s a tight rope to walk. But it can, and perhaps should, be done. Examples:

This weekend the Colorado State University Orchestra programmed an Overture by a composer at East China Normal University (this was a collaboration concert with performing members from the university in attendance from China), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Beethoven Symphony No. 9. To be frank, the overture wasn’t greatly written. To sum my opinions, it feels like the Eastern Hemisphere’s perception of American classical music, John Williams light, with perhaps a hint of Prokofieff. Either way, most of the orchestra did not care for the piece. Understandably, their palettes are used to critically examining masterworks and finding the deepest of meanings, the most intricate compositional techniques employed, and if a piece seems to lack a majority, it is dismissed as fluff. At the same time, after the concert, I overheard so many audience members who adored the Chinese overture. They were generally less fond of the Stravinsky, which undoubtedly is a work of genius. And, then, of course, Beethoven 9, the work that sells out crowds, an audience favorite, a work that is both magical in live performance and brilliantly composed. And, while there was dissatisfaction in some orchestra personnel with the exact repertoire, I found the light-deeply serious-brilliant presentation to be well crafted. The overture served as the presentation of the orchestra, the Stravinsky became the conflict through its dissonant harmonies and thick intellectual engagement, and the Beethoven was the Resolution of the triumph of the human spirit.

I’d like to offer one more example, with a video. In a collaborative recital with my colleague and good friend Christopher Martinez, we programmed two transcriptions of songs in the popular music genre as an encore. Our recital included works by CPE Bach, Debussy, Reinecke, Chopin, and Schubert. We added “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and “Amen” from Jewel’s Pieces of You album. Both of these pieces are not as “well written” as the greats. The Webber served as the palette cleanser between the emotionally invested Chopin Ballade No. 1 and the technically brilliant Schubert Variations on “Trockne Blumen”. And the Jewel was the pensive epilogue to the artistic statements we presented through the evening. I took the piano part, just chords, and fleshed out an entire accompaniment. Chris reworked the registration to have contrast within the piece. Our interpretation/remake of the work was artistic, (of course, this is my opinion, one might feel otherwise), and I felt justified in performing the Webber and Jewel. What do you think? Should classical musicians venture into melding the bridge between the classical and popular divide? One of my life long goals is to narrow the divide, bringing classical music into the absolute mainstream idiom, in hops that the masters of the past influence those writing today (in different genres), and perhaps classical musicians can draw inspiration from those works which saturate the popular realm today.

If you’d like the playlist link for the entire recital, click here.