My background is in the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme, whose emerging paradigm seems to be the search for context and discursive elements not in academia but rather in discussions, tendencies, and shifts from within the arts themselves. The project at hand seems to exist within a triangle-shaped dialogue between (a) the source material itself, (b) the instrument I’m revising it for, and (c) performative or theoretical analyses that facilitate and/or contextualise the transcription work.
As Paul Elie’s book Reinventing Bach shows, transcribing music from one instrument to another has been common practice from Bach’s own time – and desk – onwards. Technological developments (sometimes initiated by Bach himself), performance practice vogues, and purely personal takes on the composer’s output have shown that throughout history this music has presented itself in many guises while maintaining a foundation of timeless coherence. Edward Said cites pianist Glenn Gould’s November 1964 address to the graduating class of Toronto University: ‘Music is a rational, constructed system; [. . .] [it] depends on invention as something that involves venturing beyond system into the negation (which is Gould’s way of describing the world outside music) and then coming back into system as represented by music’.
During the middle part of the twentieth century, many performers felt that the Romantic era’s performance practices were unsuitable for Baroque music, and sought to find guidelines for their interpretation in written documentation from the eighteenth century. The historically informed performance (HIP) movement has reintroduced an interest in rhetoric and gesture-related interpretation. Following this paradigm shift, musicians from what is simplistically labelled ‘traditional music’ have started helping themselves to Bach’s music as well. I’ll stay away from the historically inclined field of Bach expertise and the discussions that unfold there, instead focusing on two – for me – less distant discourses that I seem to perceive now.
The liner notes for the 2007 recording Bach på svenska (Bach in Swedish) declares its intent straight away: ‘we invite Father Bach to dance his own dance side by side with the Swedish polska. There is much common ground – melody lines, harmony sequences, accentuations, ornamentations and rhythmic inclinations’. Over eighteen tracks, the fiddle/harmonium duo of Gunnar Idenstam and Lisa Rydberg tackle various compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as some traditional Swedish dance tunes. Drawing on their rich experience from classical as well as folk music environments, they create arrangements that subtly shift the rhythmic emphasis of Baroque compositions towards, say, a polska, as in Allegro Assai from the Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042. For copyright reasons, I can’t include sound clips of these examples, instead I encourage the reader to compare the first few bars of Idenstam and Rydberg’s folk-influenced recording with, say, Gidon Kremer’s more conventional 1984 recording of the same piece with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields: the lively 6/8 time in Kremer’s version is transformed into a 9/8 polska with a perceived slight delay of the third beat of each measure. In Idenstam and Rydberg’s version, this creates the grid across which the melody is then stretched.
My initial idea, inspired by the two Swedes, was to let my instrument retain its connection to traditional dance music from Scandinavia – to saturate my simplified version of Bach’s lute suite with Scandinavian accents – but time has led me to question this approach.
The reason for this apprehension is that the Swedish recording sheds light on what I’m learning are central issues in the interpretation of Bach. What is ‘classical’ music and what is ‘folk’ music? I’ll leave it to musicologists to debate the definitions, but it seems possible that the distinction was unnecessary to the composer himself, as he would employ, for example, the Baroque version of ‘mash-ups’, the quodlibet, for raw material in, say, the final movement of the Goldberg Variations.
If we try to define how the music is used, we also run into blurred lines and transactions back and forth, as is clearly demonstrated by footage of Swedish folk dancers in folk costumes surrounding Idenstam and Rydberg in a TV special: though Bach’s music was based on dance rhythms such as the bourrée and the gigue, it is a fair statement that one primarily listened to the master’s creations, whether at court or – surely – in church. Reconnecting these creations with dancing can be said to bring the music full circle, and it disconnects the terms ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ from a compulsory danceability.
Nor is timbre necessarily a defining trait in engaging this music: the most common way to perform Bach’s lute suites today is, as mentioned above, on classical guitar – an instrument that produces sound through the plucked single string, and has a place in the context of performing Baroque music as a modern descendant of the single-strung theorbo/chittarone. Lutenist and early music specialist Hopkinson Smith, on the other hand, discusses how he prefers double-coursed instruments whenever he performs Baroque music, providing me with a historical context for playing Bach’s lute music on worn-down bronze, nickel, and plain steel strings in unison pairs, which may create a timbre as suited to Baroque-era music as that of the classical guitar.
At the time of writing, in August 2013, American mandolinist Chris Thile has just released a record on which he interprets three of Bach’s violin partitas and sonatas. The recording has gained much attention in the international music press, as well as remarkable sales figures. Reviews of the record have mostly been very positive, though some critics have remarked on what they feel is a lack of functionality – on a plucked-string instrument – in music that was intended for a bow. This criticism may seem somewhat historically unfounded, as the overriding aesthetic ideals rather than the specific instrument in use at any given time seems to have governed composers and performers since the Baroque era itself: witness, as a case in point, how the same melodic material is echoed back and forth between plucked and bowed instruments in Rolf Lislevand’s recording of Vivaldi’s Trio in G Minor for mandolin and bowed instruments, with no indication of predominance of one instrument type over the other. Another example of this pragmatism across instrument groups is that Bach’s own Fourth Lute Suite, BWV 1006, was originally written for violin and later transcribed for the lute.
There seems to be little nuance when discussing the various statuses surrounding Thile’s undertaking, however. According to his record company’s website, he has completely changed the mandolin’s identity, ‘elevating it from its origins as a relatively simple folk and bluegrass instrument to the sophistication and brilliance of the finest jazz improvisation and classical performance’. I’m not convinced that bluegrass mandolin virtuosos such as Bill Monroe, David Grisman, or Sam Bush would accept the verb ‘elevate’ in this context. The technical dexterity, improvisational skills, and interplay facilities needed to get through an evening of top-notch acoustic music around the bluegrass genre are to my mind the same as are needed to play notated European art music from the eighteenth century – except the bluegrassers tend not to use sheet music. So what does the ‘elevation’ consist of? The audiences tend to sit down, rather than stand, at bluegrass festivals as well as in recital halls, and though the American F-style mandolins favoured by the bluegrass elite depart from the bowled-back and gut-strung instruments of Vivaldi’s era, the difference in tools is negligible. Although direct-line amplification is used, the ideal remains gathering around one microphone to play in the same acoustically balanced space of, say, a classical string quartet. So performance rites, chosen tools, and technology don’t really identify a high–low disparity – one is left wondering why bluegrass isn’t called ‘American chamber music’.
While the left-hand fingerings of the violin are more or less directly transferable to the mandolin, as on Thile’s recording Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1, due to differences in tuning and range there is no such ‘express route’ between the lute and the guitar bouzouki.