Programming the music of J.S. Bach in tandem with modern and contemporary works is a common practice. One would not be surprised to hear, for example, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (c. 1715) followed by Benjamin Britten’s Cello Suite No. 3 (1971). This sort of programming can provide an audience with a poignant musical dialogue between a recent musical language and one from the more distant past. The relationships among different musical styles are fascinating – the characteristics they share; how they distinguish themselves from each other; and how one style effects our engagement with another. One way to explore music across periods and to illuminate these similarities and differences is a process called “musical translation.”
ABOVE: Bach’s original notation (left) compared to a translation (right) in the style of G. Ligeti in his Solo Cello Sonata.
“Translation” includes a large number of different musical activities – from arranging a piece for new instruments, to interpreting music in another art form, to completely re-writing a piece with a new style. Over the past 100 years, many composers have written music that is deliberately inspired by, or a re-interpretation of, earlier works. Igor Stravinsky, for example, in his popular ballet Pulcinella, re-wrote a number of pieces from 18th century Italy. Many cellists perform and commission contemporary complements to Bach’s Six Cello Suites. Matt Haimovitz commissioned a new piece to correspond to each suite. CSO cellist Katinka Klejin recently performed a Bach Suite-inspired work by Marcos Balter. These could all fall on the spectrum of musical translations.
I use the term “translation” to refer to a very specific kind of re-writing of an earlier work. A translator of poetry or prose attempts to give each word, sentence, and paragraph in the original text its equivalent meaning in the new language. In this vein, I have “translated” movements of J.S. Bach’s Solo Cello Suites into the musical languages of some modern and contemporary composers, filling the structures and lines of various movements of Bach’s Suites with the harmonies and rhythms of Gyorgy Ligeti, George Crumb, and Krzysztof Penderecki. I do my best to maintain a strict measure-to-measure correspondence between the original and the translation to make clear the relationships between the two styles. These re-compositions intend to serve as transitional pieces, smoothly leading the ear from the sound-world of Bach to that of these highly contrasting 20th and 21st century musical styles.
The concert featuring these works is called “Music in Translation” – it will be performed on Wednesday, June 6, at 7:30pm in Buntrock Hall at Symphony Center (free, no tickets required!). The program will include some of my own translations alongside the particular contemporary works whose style they explore. Then, Chicago-area Soprano Bahareh Poureslami and Civic Piano Fellow Pei-Yeh Tsai will join me for a newly commissioned “translation” by Kenneth Lim. He has artfully translated Bach’s beloved hymn “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” into his own musical language, leading the listener beautifully into a performance of “Words Without Songs,” Lim’s colorful and haunting work for cello, soprano, and piano. My hope is that the process of writing, learning, performing, and listening to these musical translations promotes new discoveries about all of the musical languages featured in the concert.
How does the process of re-composing Bach music inform a composer’s understanding of her or his own musical language? Do the musical languages of some composers lend themselves to this kind of “translation” more than others? How does this process inform our experience of Bach’s music, which many of us already know quite well? Stay tuned for a second blog post that will address these questions and more, and reflect on the results of the concert.
By Civic Fellow and cellist Nicky Swett
TOP: The 2016 premier of Words Without Songs. | Photo by Ren Doike-Martin.