Monday, July 30, 2012

Lost in translation...

I’ve made many passing references this blogging summer to Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, a book which I’ve said changed my life. The book first attracted my interest when I was trying to find a dissertation topic back in the late 90’s. Since I was in the process of metamorphosing from a pianist into a collaborative pianist*, I had become quite interested in the subject of musical transcriptions. After all, I was often spending hours a day pretending to be an orchestra accompanying concerti, arias, opera scenes, oratorios, etc. – and I loved being an orchestra. Come to think of it, my first deep attraction to music came when I took up the cello and joined my junior high school orchestra; seeing how parts fit together this way had an important catalytic impact on my theretofore casual piano studies. So, perhaps it makes sense that my piano training led me back to the “orchestra.”

And those scare quotes around “orchestra” are what, for awhile, I hoped to dissert about. I was and still am intrigued by what it means to have some core identity of a musical work shapeshift from the product of 100 musicians to 10 fingers. It says a lot about how Western music has been constructed that we so often accept this transfer from one media to another, even though we know something always gets lost in translation. Although piano reductions have long served utilitarian purposes, I thought there should be more literature addressing this curious art as art.

So when I saw that Hofstadter, author of the wonderfully interdisciplinary Gödel, Escher, Bach, had written a book about the art of translating art (in this case, poetry), subtitled “In Praise of the Music of Language,” I read it with great anticipation. (You might say I hoped to write a similar book about translating music, perhaps subtitled "In Praise of the Language of Music.") The surprising thing is that I became so interested in poetic translation that my dissertation topic shifted into the process of translating a French operetta libretto into English (while also “translating” a fairly standard orchestration into a chamber version). The aesthetics of piano reductions continued more as a side interest, something I still hope to explore more fully some day.

Well, that day has not yet fully arrived, but I've brought a small-scale case study. Hofstadter’s book is all about translating a tiny, tightly constructed French poem into English. (You'll see a few of my translations in future posts. UPDATE: See these translations here.) Most of the 600-plus pages flow out of questions about just what a translator should prioritize when transferring this "information" from language to another. Is it primarily a matter of getting the same ideas across? What about the rhymes? Meter? Alliteration? Does every line have to match up exactly, or can ideas move from one place in the poem to another? Medium vs. Message? Robert Frost famously said that "poetry is what gets lost in translation," but Hofstadter disagrees pretty strongly, just as I feel pretty strongly that a big concerto can still be very satisfying with only piano accompaniment. Yet, I'm sure we can all agree that there are times when a translation fails in some fundamental way.

So, to my case-study. My daughter started working on Prokofiev's first violin concerto this summer. I'm not sure why, but it's a piece I've never really gotten to know well, although I heard Hilary Hahn slice and dice it in absolutely glorious fashion with the BSO a couple of years ago. (The more popular second concerto I've known for years and accompanied - er, served as its "orchestra" - many times.) I've written before about how when Daughter of MMmusing is studying a piece, I tend to like it more than expected and that the enthusiasm often wears off when she's moved on, but I'm pretty sure this "new to me" Prokofiev is a keeper. I've fallen head over heels in love with it, and for now, it seems like the most perfect and special of all concertos. (And I LOVE the violin concerto repertoire.)

One of its most magical and fairly unique features is the way the first and final movements end in almost exactly the same way. In the first movement, the closing section has featured the flute playing [7:50] the melody (see above) with which the soloist had opened [0:15] the concerto, the flute line now embroidered by intricate violin filigree; in the final movement, the violin itself revisits the same tune [19:44], trilling every note ethereally. In both movements, the closing section leads the soloist up to a high D [I: 9:25 III: 21:28], and then a few echoes of the rising fourth (A-D) that first generated the melody. Beneath this stratospheric rocking motion, the flute introduces a quirky, rising figure outlining F-sharp minor and thus emphasizing a C-sharp against the tonic D Major chord, with an even stranger clarinet line snaking up chromatically below. These flute and clarinet lines seem to have wandered in from some other concerto.

[click to view larger]

So, there's resolution mixed with the unexpected, heavenly serenity mixed with earthy sensuality. When the violin finally lands on the last high D, the flute slithers up an exotic scale from its lowest reaches. One could easily argue that this flute line is less about melody or harmony or even rhythm than it is about color – the piece is basically over, but it’s as if this final resolution (and new vantage point) unearths a curious new discovery. I don’t hear the ending as subversive or deceptive, although it could be interpreted that way, but rather as an unexpected heavenly reward, a little bit of earth come to color the sky.

That’s about as sappy a musical description as I’ve ever attempted here on the blog (I hope), and it’s much too wordy. A musical picture may be worth a thousand words, but who wants to read a thousand words about five seconds? The point is, this flute line is both superficial and essential to the character of the ending.

Here’s what it looks and sounds like in the score (slightly simplified to make these parts easier to read; note that this is a synthesized performance - not bad for virtual reality!).

[for some reason, clarinet audio is barely audible in transfer to YouTube; will fix soon.]

And here’s what those three bars look and sound like in the published
 piano reduction I have:

All the good stuff is gone, especially in the final bar! Nothing but D Major arpeggios ascending upwards, a completely different effect. In the previous two bars, rather than play the distinctive rhythm of the flute, the pianist is given a bare outline that was originally played by the harp, but clearly subsidiary to the flute line.

There are all sorts of legitimate philosophies about what to leave out in a piano reduction, and all sorts of practical reasons to leave out even the most beloved little orchestral touches, but I can’t imagine the mindset that says those flute lines are expendable. It’s the end, the culmination, the reward, the final thought. The ending of the piece in the piano version above is missing the ending – like getting to heaven and finding it predictable and a little dull. It’s true that a piano can only begin to approximate the special color of a flute in that register. In fact, this concerto as a whole has many lovely chamber-like moments when only a few instruments are audible (clarinet, flute, and harp especially) and a piano can only begin to suggest what Prokofiev had in mind, but we collaborative pianists are all about suggesting. The fact is, it’s not very hard to play that little flute scale, and I will certainly do it when performances come around.

On the other hand, I would probably leave out the clarinet line (because it would be hard!), even though it also adds something unique, so there's a sliding scale in play. Hopefully it would come out something like this, though a real piano can do more shimmering (or so I choose to believe) than you get here.

Actually, after years of thinking I wanted to create my own piano transcriptions, I’ve realized that as a performer, I care less and less about exactly how things are rendered on the page, because I’m more and more likely to use my in-the-moment instincts to make decisions about what to play, how to pedal, etc. I think I’d drive myself crazy trying to get all these little decisions notated, and I suspect that the subtleties of touch and pedaling have more to do with a good “black and white orchestration” than what is printed on the page. (Trying to get that L.H. tremolo to sound decent with synths was much harder than getting the other instruments to sound real-ish.) But I do think this art of translation is worth pursuing as well as possible. I realize that whoever transcribed the Prokofiev above may have thought of the reduction as little more than a rehearsal dummy to let the violinist feel how things synch up, but endings matter. And that's the end of this post.

P.S. It's never totally clear to me how many people are interested in this kind of musical minutiae (I just wrote a lot of words about three bars of music), but if this post has inspired you either to get to know Prokofiev's first violin concerto or to explore Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot, then I will have accomplished something. I genuinely think these are two of the most sparkling monuments of the 20th century.

* I used "scare italics" to put a skeptical tone on this notion that a "collaborative pianist" is somehow different from a "pianist." Personally, I don't even mind being called an "accompanist!" Note the combo "scare quotes, italics, and exclamation point" to suggest just how volatile this word has become. Also note that, although I'm sure many writers and editors would say I use way too many parentheticals, hyphens, italics for emphasis, and scare quotes for eyebrow-raising, I think all these elements can help clarify the language being used.
It also occurs to me that, just as Hofstadter talks about translation as a kind of analogy-game (e.g. "jeux is a French analogy for 'game'"), scare quotes and the like can be a way of clarifying that a word is being used in a particularly analogical way. When I say that I am a pianist being an "orchestra," I want to say more than that I'm playing the orchestra part, but less than that I'm becoming dozens of people. I'm actually acting as an analogy for the orchestra. And if I do a good job, then like a good poetic translation, I have managed to keep from losing all of the art in the process of translation. (By the way, Hofstadter begins his great book noting that "Lost in an Art" is an anagram of "Translation.")

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