Adventures in Edinburgh 3: Venn Diagrams of Style
The last event we went to before leaving Edinburgh was David Patrick’s Jazz Rite of Spring. It has got me thinking about cross-over aesthetics - why they work, why they don’t - but before I get into that, I’d just like to enthuse for a paragraph or two about the performance itself.
It was performed by an 8-piece jazz ensemble, and much of it was a very faithful transcription of the original score for these reduced forces. But every so often they’d hang out on a riff longer than Stravinsky had specified, and put in a solo. The transitions between the two modes were remarkably convincing. There was one where I felt the holding pattern of the riff and easing back onto the score interrupted a build-and-release passage such that the moment of arrival wasn’t as effective as it might have been, but then again you have to accept that not every person thinks of musical shape in the same way.
The nature of the ensemble mitigated towards a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat performance, even without the improvised passages. If you think about the usual scoring of the Rite, and then imagine the whole lot played by just 8 people...they all had a lot more work to do than your average orchestral player. Nobody got any down-time to speak of; all were on duty throughout.
And then: imagine the Rite performed without a conductor. Yep, they were all having to do their own counting, all the time. For sure, they read cues off each other (and David Patrick had to do a certain amount of management from the keyboard, to signal ends of solos, and once to prevent a miscue), but they all had to be alert to the whole throughout. None of this just playing your own part and coordinating to the conductor; they all needed to know what was going on in the whole texture. It was an impressive and exciting display of musicianship.
Now, back to the whole concept of the thing. I had picked the event because I do like stylistic versions of ‘words of one song to the tune of another’. Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite is a classic, and I also enjoyed Brian Wilson’s Reimagining Gershwin tour. There is something that pleases me about people taking two things that usually live different artistic worlds and finding common ground between them.
(In much the same way that it was a delight, when I moved to Birmingham, to come across the Asian Brummie accent. It does sound both genuinely like English as spoken with accents from the Indian subcontinent and like a real Birmingham accent. Now I have put roots down here, it is the sound that tells me I am home.)
But it might not have worked of course. Just because I like both terms in the portmanteau doesn’t guarantee that I am going to like the combination. It can ruin both: as far as I am concerned, chocolate raisins are a waste of good chocolate, and a waste of good raisins. I wasn’t a great fan of the Hooked on Classics albums either, come to that.
So, I am trying to work out if there are any general points one could identify that indicate whether a particular artistic venn diagram is going to produce results that are artistically exciting or mutually destructive.
One key element seems to be artistic growth - of both practitioners and audience members. (Interesting tangential question: can you induce artistic growth in your audience if you are cranking the handle on autopilot yourself as an artist?) Juxtapositions of genre have the potential to generate creativity, as they make people reach out beyond their usual boundaries of praxis. They have to extend themselves technically and they have to feel in new ways.
The venn diagram in this context becomes a method of extension of experience. It creates common ground between the two terms from which to invite you beyond the edge of where either term would usually lie. It lights you up by piquing you out of the complacency of your comfort zone.
(I recall someone voicing the theory when I was a student that the opening passage of the Rite was, in the context of bassoon repertoire of 1913, absurdly high, leading to an extremity of expression, but that since it has become a standard part of the repertory, it is now within everyone’s reach and has lost its effect. The solution proposed was to transpose it all up a semitone every 40 or 50 years. Alternatively one could simply sack the conductor and make each player take a solo if you wanted to reclaim that feeling of living dangerously.)
Another element is, I think, a kind of metaphorical mapping to shed new light on either or both terms of the venn diagram. Look, the juxtaposition says, this is like that; oh yes, you think, I’d not seen it that way before. Like a good topical joke, it changes the way you perceive the world. In this regard, I particularly enjoyed the trombonist’s use of extended techniques in his solo as a critique of the polish that can characterise performances of the Rite. I also came away with all kinds of half-formed questions about how woodwind vibrato signifies in different ways in different genres.
I wondered when I started this post whether I would get any nearer to making sense of that peculiar genre that gets called ‘crossover’. I find it hard to get a grip on because it mostly gives me the screaming dib-dabs, then I worry that I’m just being a snob, and then it all gets too difficult and I go find something more comfortably obscure to think about instead.
And this post is getting kind of long as it is. But I have a hunch that there are some resonances with my previous Edinburgh Adventures post about envelope-pushing and the construction of niche versus mainstream audiences that might be relevant. We may come back to this another day...