Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Absolute Beethoven

I don't write about how I earn my living very often. My three readers ought to be thankful for that.

If you don't know what I do, I work as a freelancer in the exciting world of music preparation, toiling away at home, keeping my own bizarre hours, occasionally meeting terrifying deadlines, just as occasionally wondering if I'll ever get another gig.  I've been doing this for nearly 30 years. I make the joke "It looks like this job is going to work out." (The rest of my work history is better known: before going freelance I worked for Frank Zappa for seven years, also doing music preparation. I can honestly say that working for Frank Zappa is as close as I've ever come to having a real job.)

These days my biggest client is composer John Adams.  John has produced a steady stream of orchestra pieces, concertos, chamber works and operas over the years. His music gets played lots. I really appreciate all the jobs he's sent my way. Thanks, John.

Occasionally John writes something which appeals particularly to my own individual musical taste. It should not be surprising that I don't like all his music equally. I don't like all of any composers' music equally. Domenico Scarlatti gets the closest, I think, but even he wrote a few things I'm not too keen on. Yes, there are a few composers who never wrote a single piece I enjoy. And of course, as the decades pass, my opinions are subject to change.

Anyway, a few years ago John composed an orchestra showpiece which I think is perfectly fantastic. It's called Absolute Jest. It's a sinfonia concertante, a cross between a concerto and a symphony. Instead of one solo instrument there is a small ensemble of soloists, in this case a string quartet.

This work was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 2012. I wanted to hear it played live bck then. That didn't happen because my life was just too busy (see above under "terrifying deadlines"). Later John made changes to Absolute Jest. He didn't simply alter a few harmonies and fix a transition or two the way he (and every other composer who ever lived) usually does after new works are premiered. This time he completely junked the entire first ten minutes and composed all new music. Ten minutes is enough to have created a whole new piece.  I liked the original version and I like the new version too.  I've given up trying to understand why he needed to make such massive changes.  I guess that's why he's the composer and I'm the copyist.

Earlier this month I flew up to San Francisco to hear the revised Absolute Jest at Davies Symphony Hall, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.  They recorded the concerts and promise to eventually release an album which includes this piece.  Watch for it.

Absolute Jest is a fun listen.  And it has an epic, travelogue feel to it.  Other Adams orchestra pieces with similar qualities include Slonimsky's Earbox, Guide to Strange Places and My Father Knew Charles Ives, all favorites of mine.  Absolute Jest has a certain humorous, good-timey wild joy-ride in the countryside, I wonder what's waiting around the next curve, hang on or you might miss something feel to it, which (you may have already guessed) I really like.  This side of John's music goes at least as far back as Short Ride in a Fast Machine

The composer demurs when it is suggested that the word "jest" in the title might imply some kind of musical "joke".   The piece was originally subtitled "a scherzo", the musical word for joke, but he took that out.  I agree that Absolute Jest is not a musical stand-up routine, ala Hoffnung or PDQ Bach or even Mozart's Musical Joke.  When asked what "jest" really means in his title the composer points to the word's archaic meaning.

Okay, if this work is more of a "narrative of exploits" then it's an enjoyable tale, a bucket-of-popcorn summer blockbuster or an extended personal anecdote or maybe a humorous short story.  There are no one-liners or punch lines.   Once it's over you know you've been somewhere fun and had a good time.  Throughout the piece you're never called upon even once to consider the eternal verities, like god or love or death, those inescapable banes of serious classical music.

There is one musical eternal verity, however, you need to know about to understand Absolute Jest properly. That would be Beethoven.

John has taken bits of Beethoven's themes and woven them throughout the fabric of Absolute Jest.   The essential culture of classical music is saturated by our imaginings of who Beethoven was and what his music means. If you think of classical music as a kind of religion (as I often do), then Beethoven has become one of its most revered graven images.

John Adams has added Beethoven themes to his music without the heavy sense of cultural gravity Ludwig usually gets.  One of the bits he chose (from Ludwig's late quartets) becomes a spritely musical hook which bounces around throughout the piece and stays in my head long after listening.  Like an ear worm.

As a result of all these references, the story which Absolute Jest tells is inescapably about Beethoven. The most performed living composer of classical music wants his audience to consider Beethoven.  And how does he do this?  By telling us a story!  A narrative.  A "jest".

(As an aside, here's a story about Beethoven told by Charles Bukowski:)

Now, at this point in my story I desperately want to tell you that Beethoven is funny.  The problem is that he's not, not at all, at least not very often and not intentionally.  Beethoven is the epitome of serious, the ur angst-ridden artist, the ultimate example of creativity beset by a cruel cosmos.

And I'm here to say "Well, screw that."  My opinion is that it's healthy for the artform when the icons of classical music are brought a little closer to the human level, especially an icon which has been worked over and beaten up for seemingly ever.  All those guys who wrote the great classics were human, after all, including Beethoven.  We ought to be able to enjoy their music without getting all cosmic on it.

And please remember - I'm not implying that John Adams agrees with any of this.  I'm just having my personal say about the matter.  My thoughts prompted by his music.

In spite of my opinions, the use of Beethoven source material in a brand new concert work like Absolute Jest ought to help endear it to audiences.  One piece is not likely to change the reverant opinions of Beethoven held by most serious classical music fans.  If it doesn't do that, then I hope that the people who listen enjoy the ride anyway.

For no good reason, here are some appearances of Beethoven's music in our popular culture:

My least favorite Beethoven work accompanies the Harlem Shake:

Dudley Moore, a pianist, performs his classic Beethoven parody:

Rowlf, another pianist, plays Beethoven with a little coaching from Ludwig's bust:

Beethoven's music gets used in televisions commercials quite often. This might be the stupidest one of all.

Beethoven's own idea of a jest joke?

Eric Peterson offers this Beethoven-themed commercial as another candidate for stupidest ever:

Links from out of the past -  other fun Mixed Meters articles about Beethoven:

Everybody Loves Beethoven (probably).   (see a picture of Beethoven's skull, read about the teaching of evolution.)

Stories of Almost Everyone  - an excerpt from Eduardo Galeano's book detailing how Beethoven's Ninth Symphony can mean just about whatever anyone wants it to mean.

LvB's on my list of Ten (or Eleven) Most Influential Classical Composers - each composer is described warts and all.

The Lifespan of Classical Music - a nearly Beethoven-free rant

More links from out of the past - other fun Mixed Meters articles about John Adams

In which David writes new notes for a John Adams piece  (plus a short interview with the composer)

In which I read the book that John Adams wrote (I pick some fun quotes from Hallelujah Junction)

Hell Mouth, the name of John's blog; I quote something he wrote there about me.  (Also, see Ivy the late Six-Toed Cat next to a towering stack of Adams music).

Composers About Composers: Richard and John and Richard - three composers discuss composing.  Guess who said "it's easier to become a Catholic Saint than a truly Great Composer."  (me)

Fast Metronome Tags: . . . . . .


David Ocker said...

A blog post about John Adams' orchestra piece Absolute Jest, including the only known instance of the phrase "I desperately want to tell you that Beethoven is funny."

ericnp said...

I'm sort of not reading this but I will. I did, however, listen to and watch the Dudley Moore piece with the unfortunate laugh track. He really was quite talented. I'm wondering now if he was left handed. I suppose I could find some 10 or Arthur clips and see what hand he was drinking with. Can you see that in his playing or am I making things up?

David Ocker said...

Maybe a professional pianist could identify another pianist's handedness from a video. I have no clue.

It never occurred to me that the laughter was canned. There are no shots of the audience. I thought, however, that it was a chat show of some sort with a smart audience that understood classical music. Dud certainly does mug for the funny bits.

I wanted to post the original Beyond the Fringe video which is on YouTube but set for Do Not Embed. Check that out. That's a better performance, I think - he still mugs, but it's clearly a real audience which gets the classical music jokes.

ericnp said...

This is something that interests me from time to time as a lefty. Moore was right handed. I just watched some clips from 10. I also read on Wikipedia something about him mastering some left hand technique of Erroll Garner and taking certain pride in that. Reading your blog now... excuse the interruption.