Inon Barnatan Presented by Celebrity Series
Main Stage, Piano

An Inon Barnatan Postscript: Thoughts Inspired by the Program

By Connor Buckley

Several years ago I attended a panel discussion on composer Steve Reich’s music at MIT with the composer himself in attendance. Evan Ziporyn, a fellow composer also on the panel, asked Reich about his frequent, almost ubiquitous use of a rhythmic compositional technique known as canon (1). Reich, with typical self-effacement, said that if you took canon out of his music it would fall apart. He then turned to the audience and addressed young composers in the room, encouraging them to use what he called ancient rhythmic techniques, i.e., techniques like canon that date back at least to medieval times. These techniques, he argued, allow you to impose as modern a sound on them as you want while lending you a set structure to place your musical ideas.

When I first heard about Inon Barnatan’s plan for his program, to manufacture a suite out of old and new treatments of traditional forms, it reminded me of Reich’s advice. Not only was the idea similar, but the sensibility was too. Here was a clear position, simply laid out. Barnatan’s plan was immediately comprehensible unlike many program arrangements that leave you in the dark – wonderful as many of those may be. I was excited for the concert, and now that I’ve heard it I’m as pleased as I thought I’d be. It helps that Barnatan is such an impressive performer.

So, why was the program such a good idea and why was it such a success? I will endeavor to illuminate.

Creating art is hard – where does a person even start? A good and common solution to this problem is to work off of older models. In the case of the composers on Barnatan’s program, they took dance forms commonly used by composers of the Baroque era and, akin to Reich’s suggestion, applied their modern sensibilities to the structures. Another question arises from that solution – whose model of the model do you model after? Admiration, after all, is important incentive in creating art in the first place. With this perspective, you can begin to see that all artists are referencing the work of others, often, consciously or unconsciously, reworking a particular creation of a particular artist.

Examples abound – Shakespeare took literally paragraphs of material from Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and rewrote it in verse form for the play Julius Caeser. Shakespeare, for the record, is better and improved wonderfully on North’s texts, though today we would have likely called what he did plagiarism.

The Renaissance painter Raphael was a consummate copier of techniques. As a young artist he clearly copied Leonardo’s forming of people into triangular forms (see Leonardo’s Madonna and Child with St. Anne against Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow), then later copied Michelangelo, then, before his early death, Titian, all to extraordinary effect. I’ve never read an art historian criticizing him for doing this. The plain fact is that every painter did and does something similar. Raphael was just irritatingly good at it.

In music, Stravinsky composed his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto after Bach’s Brandenburg concerti. This would be clear on comparison, but it helps that Stravinsky himself admitted to thinking of the Brandenburgs when writing his piece. Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film) is modeled after Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 from his 24 Preludes, as is Brad Mehldau’s Bard. Jazz composer Maria Schneider’s composition Green Piece is a clear rewrite of Bob Brookmeyer’s Ding Dong Ding and, in a similar vein, nearly every current jazz tenor saxophone player sounds like a carbon copy of Michael Brecker.

The same principle can apply to an artist’s own work. I mentioned Bach’s Brandenburgs – these are essentially 6 attempts at accomplishing the same goal. Sometimes it’s conscious – Freddie Mercury said of his song Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, “it’s in my ‘ragtime’ mood that I get a chance to do on every album.”

The reason this matters is that it’s often how artists, scholars, and critics evaluate the relative greatness of a particular work. It’s much easier to decide who did better if two people work on something with the same goals in mind. If you compare a football player to a baseball player you’ll have a difficult time figuring out who is the “better” athlete. But who between two baseball players might be better? Debatable, probably, but much simpler.

The starkest example of this in music that I know of is the case of Mozart and Michael Haydn (brother of the much more famous Franz Joseph). Mozart enjoyed Michael Haydn’s music, particularly his fugue writing (2). While Mozart wrote his 41st symphony (nicknamed “Jupiter”), he was probably thinking of Haydn’s own 39th symphony. The last movements of both these symphonies use very similar motifs and Haydn wrote his first. Unfortunately for poor Michael, the final movement in Mozart’s is so much better it’s unreasonable to compare the two. The Haydn, on its own a cleverly written piece, sounds almost pathetic in comparison. But, then, the final movement of “Jupiter” is one of the most technically impressive works ever written. So we can give him a pass.

Inon Barnatan at Jordan Hall

Seeing a live concert can often be a magical and thought-provoking experience. That Barnatan’s simple idea encapsulated all of what I’ve discussed is a testament to his power as a performer. Thank you, Inon, and keep on keeping on.

Notes

  1. A canon most basically is thing ‘A’ happens, then, after a set duration of time, thing ‘A’, or a permutation of thing ‘A’, happens again. A simple and concrete example is a round, aptly demonstrated by the staggered singing of “Row, row, row your boat”, which can go on ad infinitum, or ad nauseam, depending on the size of the group and how annoyed you are with your kid.
  2. A fugue is a kind of canon. There are many examples, including the simply named collection “The Art of the Fugue” by Bach.

Connor Buckley is the AP & Payroll Coordinator at Celebrity Series. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, he writes musical theater music and lyrics and reads in his spare time.

All photos by Robert Torres.

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