Trapped in Media!
I was researching for my talks this week for the LA Phil and realized that two works on the program— Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein’s Suite from On The Waterfront—are both examples of music trapped in other media. The Prokofiev symphony is a recasting of music from his opera The Fiery Angel. A full production never happened, and Prokofiev took a friend’s suggestion to use the themes of his opera for a symphony.
Leonard Bernstein wrote only one film score, for Elia Kazan’s brutal, phenomenal film On The Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando. Though considered one of the best film scores every written, the experience of hearing his music reduced and cut during the dub was heartbreaking for Bernstein. He confessed in an interview with the New York Times:
I had become so involved in each detail of the score that it seemed to me perhaps the most important part of the picture. I had to keep reminding myself that it really is the least important part: that a spoken line covered by music is a lost line; and by that much a loss to the picture; while a bar of music completely obliterated by speech is only a bar of music lost... I repeated this little maxim to myself like a good Coué disciple, as I found myself pleading for a beloved G-flat.
Like Prokofiev, Bernstein recast his work into the symphonic medium, a medium he could perform on the concert stage where his music received full attention. These examples remind me of composer Leon Kirchner who salvaged music from the disastrous premiere of his opera Lily into one of his best pieces, his Music for Orchestra.
In each case, great music was rekindled and possibly kept from obscurity by being reimagined into a more viable medium. I think quite a bit about media entrapment. I play classical guitar. Concert audiences used to know the guitar repertoire well. But times have changed. There are no “super-star” classical guitarists and the fine ones around are not frequently scheduled on the major recital series in American concert halls. Now fewer people are familiar with this wonderful music and the music is idiomatic for the instrument—it rarely translates well into other instruments or ensembles.
I think of Chopin who composed exclusively for the piano. The piano remains a popular instrument, but homes with pianos (and there are fewer of them) are increasingly replacing their instruments with electronic keyboards for reasons of space and cost. Chopin doesn’t really sound good on electronic keyboards. Should electronic keyboards eclipse the piano at some point in the future, how would Chopin’s music possibly survive?
I read that there are about a million piano students now in China, so I’m not losing too much sleep over the fate of Chopin. But I do lose sleep over the electronic media that houses our modern creative efforts. Composers lock their written life’s work into software owned by just two companies, either of which could fold at any time, essentially entrapping everyone’s “content” into obscure computer code that can’t be easily translated. There is good progress on a universal music reader, an equivalent of the PDF format called Music XML. But it has a long way to go to being able to accurately transcribe all of the thousands of musical symbols and typography.
Regarding audio, it seems like we are in the best of times. Most music you can think of seems to be uploaded on YouTube in mp3 format. But all the audio formats—and there are so many of them—are code that eventually will be replaced with other code. And when that replacement occurs, there’s a lot of road kill. How many of you still have cherished rare LPs that have yet to be available on CD? That was the case with a good portion of my contemporary music record collection. A lot of that is gone!
I mentioned Chopin, whose music is inextricably bound to the acoustic piano. I conclude by asking you to consider J.S. Bach, whose music is not bound to any particular instrument. Many people love to remark that his final grand opus, The Art of the Fugue, is written on four musical lines that don’t specify any particular instruments. It is abstract work that sounds universally wonderful on any instrument that can encompass its range of pitch. And indeed, Bach’s music sounds as compelling on well-played kazoos as it does on a magnificent organ or violin.
So question! Should composers, or (to be current) “content providers,” focus on creating work that is not bound to particular colors and instruments in order to allow a longer “shelf life,” or should we simply continue to create for the concert instruments that still happen to remain useful? I’m still wrestling with that. But I'm not finding a compelling reason to write much for contrabassoon!