I've previously blogged about the various ways one composer can base a new work on music by another, whether in variations, fantasies, rhapsodies or some such form of homage, or by transcribing, orchestrating, arranging or otherwise morphing the original work from one performing force to another. Now, there's a new term to contend with in classical music, a provocative example of which comes up during the noon hour on Wednesday: Recomposition.
Though I may have missed earlier examples, I first came upon the term just last year upon the release of a new recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" as "recomposed" by British composer Max Richter. Here's NPR's report on the album, which became the most requested classical music on NEPR for 2012. So, what does "recomposition" mean? Using Richter's version of Vivaldi as an example, it means taking the original piece, mashing it up, adding a few extra ingredients, and molding it back into something resembling the original shape, if not exactly the sound — sort of the "deviled eggs" way of making new music out of old. You can still taste the original egg yolk, but there are all sorts of other flavors happening. And I, along with many others (though not all), found Richter's Vivaldi mashup to be absolutely delicious.
Look back in music history, however, and you'll find many examples of similar goings-on. Here, for instance, is the early Renaissance composer Ludwig Senfl, taking an "Ave Maria" ("Hail Mary") setting by his great elder contemporary Josquin des Prez, adding two more voice parts to Josquin's original four, lengthening the original by about 50%, and coming up with something new based on something old. Not a transcription, not variations, back in Senfl's day this would have been called a "parody." But go ahead, click on the links and check them out. Can't you hear "Senfl's" Ave Maria as an ancestor to Richter's recomposed Vivaldi Seasons?
So far, so good, at least for me. Neither of these recompositions in any way replaces or invalidates the originals, nor do they disrespect (to verb a noun) the great works in question. My ears and mind remain open for the possibilities, the wilder and more creative, the better. But then I heard the recomposition we'll be sampling during the noon hour on Wednesday, and I found myself saying "hold on here just one second!"
The recomposer in this case is the young (born 1985) American composer and pianist Timo Andres, whose works are featured on a new CD from Nonesuch Records called "Home Stretch." Perhaps you were tuned when we played the title selection, a fleet, pointillistic mini-concerto for piano and chamber orchestra, or maybe you came across Andres's "Parapharase on Themes of Brian Eno" in Tuesday's NEPR classical show. Don't worry if you missed them; we'll play them again soon.
Then there's the third piece on the album, Andres's "Mozart Coronation Concerto Recomposition." That term again. What does "recomposition" mean this time? It means that Andres has taken Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 26, the "Coronation," retained the original structure and orchestration, and filled in the blanks in the left hand part that Mozart left in his haste to complete the piece. Does Andres do so in a Mozartean style? He does not. To quote Daniel Stephen Johnson's booklet notes:
While most pianists work from a completion of the score that sketches in the expected harmonic treatment, Andres's left hand frequently wanders off to the wrong note, or finds itself on the right side by taking the wrong route entirely. Harmonies that ought to be stable instead slide and wobble, and Andres strolls blithely into the resolutions that Mozartean style would have stuck like a gymastic dismount.
OK, that's what Daniel Stephen Johnson heard. What I heard was something else, something between an in-joke and a parlor trick. All right, I admit to having been amused for the first minute or so, then finding my amusement quickly turning to annoyance — at which point there were still the better part of three movements and thirty minutes to go. Perhaps my tolerance for archness and smirking irony is not what it once was. In any case, it reached its limit rather quickly, as Mr. Andres went on showing us what a very clever young man he is, winking at us (or at his fellow musicians and other insiders) along the way. That impression, if anything, was even furthered by this passage in Johnson's notes, which I read after listening:
His completion, however irreverent, is neither a show of disdain for the past, nor an oedipal grappling with his historical forbears. He admires Mozart; he doesn't worship him.
Which leads to the question: Why should you or I give a damn whether Timo Andres worships or doesn't worship Mozart? This album is almost everyone's first encounter with Andres is any guise, whether pianist, composer or recomposer — a little early, I think, to assume that his audience will be terribly interested in his every thought. Timo Andres can, of course, do as he chooses. But the quite favorable initial impression created by the original works on his collection was, for me, diminished by what struck me as an act of self-centeredness and self-indulgence at Mozart's expense. The difference between Andres's recomposition and those of Senfl and Richter? At no time when listening to the latter two did I wish to stop and switch back to the original. About two minutes into Andres's Coronation, I wanted him to knock it off and go back to playing what Mozart would have written down if he had the time. Get over yourself, man!
And if, after hearing the finale, you feel differently, please let me know. That's why I'm playing it anyway, despite my reservations. Now, lest I leave my own sour impression, let me instead leave you with an especially lovely bit of Mozartean recomposition — his "Sonata facile" ("Simple Sonata") in C major, K. 545, with a second piano part added by the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. That's more like it!