Reflection: Music in Translation

What is it like to hear the music of J.S. Bach translated into other musical languages? What are the challenges inherent in re-composing in this way?

These are some of the questions that motivated Music in Translation, my Civic Fellowship independent project and recital that took place this past June. Before addressing them, I would like to thank everybody who attended and helped with the performance – especially Kenneth Lim, who wrote an original translation for the concert, and Bahareh Poureslami and Pei-Yeh Tsai for their fantastic musicianship in the performance of Kenneth’s music. I would also like to thank the Negaunee Music Institute for their support of this project.

For some background on the concert and on what I mean by musical “translation,” check out my pre-concert blog post from May.

I got a number of interesting responses from audience members at the June 6 performance regarding their experiences listening to the various “translations.” Several listeners mentioned that they found the set based around the music and style of modernist George Crumb to be the most effective of my own translations of movements from Bach’s Solo Cello Suites. Perhaps this is because of the dramatic contrast between the musical styles of Bach and Crumb. It could be that the by re-writing Bach in such a distant language, what common ground there was between the two musical styles became all the more clear. As one audience member pointed out, it also might be because the movements from the Bach Suites that I re-composed in the style of Crumb were fairly famous ones: the “sarabande” from his Fifth Solo Cello Suite and the Minuets I&II from the First Solo Cello Suite. Here is one of those translations, the second minuet from the First Suite, translated into the style of Crumb, followed by the corresponding movement written by Crumb:

The most popular set was the last, which featured Kenneth Lim’s translation of Bach’s hymn “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” followed by the Chicago premiere of Lim’s trio “Words Without Songs.” One listener hit the nail on his head, describing the “translation” piece as “a musical journey into the Upside-Down,” a reference to the spooky alternate universe familiar to many from Netflix’s Stranger Things. Everything in the real world has a darkened and inverted equivalent within the ‘Upside Down.’ Indeed, every measure of Bach’s original hymn has its clear equivalent measure in Lim’s translation, comfortably transporting the listener from a familiar musical landscape to a brand new one, and preparing them to experience a full work in that musical world.

After the concert, I chatted with Kenneth about writing his translation for this project. I would like to end this post with his thoughtful reflections about his composing practice and the experience of musical translation.

Nicky Swett: What were the biggest challenges in re-writing Bach’s piece?

Kenneth Lim: What I perhaps paid the most attention to was controlling the degree of transparency of the translation piece, that is, to what extent I wanted the translation to resemble the original and how much of that resemblance I wanted to make readily recognizable to a potential listener. I decided on a method of taking brief but rather strong moments from the original Bach tune and texturizing them in a way that blurred those fragments out of focus; the textures thus created also served as an intermediate step toward what would later be heard in my own work Words without Songs.

N.S.: Did the constraint of a measure-to-measure correspondence with the original make the re-composition process easier or more challenging?

K.L.: I generally think of compositional constraints, whether self-imposed or commissioned, as being no more severe than the structural constraints that govern natural languages; above all, they enable, rather than restrict, creative freedom. In particular, the measure-to-measure correspondence was a fun mind-game that the composer could engage in, and well-suited for the task of communicating the analogy between the original and the translation; however, it did also prescribe that the two pieces have identical form – in that regard, there was no surprise in how the translation piece ended up unraveling across time.

N.S.: Through the process of translating, what were some of the things you discovered about Bach’s music?

K.L.: I am of the opinion that no analysis is complete without the act of creating a study piece that incorporates those very ideas that were extracted. The process of translation was crucial in my gaining an understanding of the architecture of the piece, and more generally of Bach’s compositional voice and craft. I was particularly fascinated by moments in the piece that displayed free deviation from, or strict adherence to what could be described as tonal order.

N.S.: Did the translation process impact your own experience of “Words Without Songs”?

K.L.: To place Words without Songs in a program alongside Bach and a translation piece – in which the chronology of the pieces mattered – was to situate it in a certain musical context that it had never been a part of; this alone, I would say, enables the piece to take on new meaning. Also, I consider Words… to be an ongoing collection of short pieces for singer and small chamber ensemble, and as such, I intend to continuously add, replace, and revise new/existing movements. I would like to think the performance, as well as my experience of preparing the piece for performance, was able to capture a certain side of Words… at a certain moment in the course of its own evolution.


By Civic Fellow and cello alumnus Nicholas Swett (Class of 2018). Nicky is currently pursuing graduate studies at The University of Sheffield.