“Why Can’t You Just Do A Cover?” — Classical music and participatory culture

Great Interview with … yeah yeah Zoe freakin Keating again, sue me

One of the observations she makes here is that it’s unacceptable in the classical world to make a “cover” of a classical piece for some reason, an interpretation that goes in another direction, or one that changes the nature of the piece in some way. I recall running into this attitude as a kid, asking what might have happened if Chopin had gone into one key as opposed to another. The response was, “Well, he didn’t do it that way. You do it the way he did it.”

At the age of 46, I’ve only recently begun pulling up the lid on classical music and messing with the fiddly bits inside. I’ve arranged a Vivaldi recorder concerto for piano that I’ve been in love with since I was a kid, the second movement to #443. It’s here, and the second movement is a short thing that starts at 4:02. The little Eulenberg score that I have shows this movement to be a whopping two pages long.

It’s not meant for piano. It’s meant for Baroque dog whistle sopranino recorder and strings. I know I changed the nature of the piece in arranging it, even as tamely as I did. I had to make it more pianistic in bringing it into my universe.

I’ve also completed an arrangement of Haendel’s “Con rauco mormorio,” one of my very favorite pieces of music ever. I’m working on “Pompe vane di morte/Dove sei?” as well. And “Son nata a lagrimar.” Plainly, I like me some Haendel. I have other ideas in mind for his music.

Under no circumstances am I saying that Haendel was wrong in how he wrote his stuff. I’m not correcting what I consider to be errors in his work, nor am I saying that I can do it better than he can. In fact, if they hadn’t been so beautiful just as they are, I wouldn’t never have been inspired to bring them into my universe.

Consider the legions of people who have been so inspired by J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books that they weren’t content merely to read them over and over, or read them aloud to one another, but they had to jump in themselves and write their own stories in that universe. They aren’t saying they dislike it, even if they might disagree with some of Rowling’s artistic choices — perhaps they were very attached to a character who was killed off, and might write a story that brings that person back to life. Maybe they’d like to throw two characters they consider attractive in bed with one another. Maybe they might like to speculate on what would happen if the characters were American, born 500 years ago, born 500 years in the future, had their genders swapped … who knows?

These aren’t people who disdain Rowling’s work, and their inspiration isn’t an indictment of it. They are in fact probably the franchise’s most devoted, hardcore fans. They love the universe she’s created so much that they are inspired to leap in past the “velvet rope,” and play around themselves.

And people have been doing this in beloved fictional universes for ages. They did it with Sherlock Holmes! They did it with the grandmother font of endless fanfiction, Star Trek, back in the 1960s.

They are still doing it. They will always be doing it.

BTW, if you are unfamiliar with this, you really need to visit an online fanfiction archive called An Archive of Our Own. Ignore the paid Jane Austen riff-novel, or anything done predominantly by men. (Sorry to say it, but fanfiction is an overwhelmingly female occupation and has been since the dawn of time. Most TV and movies are made by men, for men, and they don’t exactly scratch the female itches very well. If we want that done, we have to do it ourselves, so there can be a shaded political component to fanfiction. Minorities of all kinds often will rework beloved fictional universes to give others like themselves more than a supporting role of the dumb-girlfriend-in-distress, the black-guy-who-gets-killed-to-show-the-situation-is-serious, or the sassy-gay-friend.)

Anyway, dig around in the Archive of Our Own, and take a few days doing so. Click on “fandoms” at the top. You’ll be a while. 🙂

When you’re done, go to another called Yuletide Treasure and dig around. By the way, people have written fanfiction for operas, such as fanfiction for “The Magic Flute.” Yes, the story is called “Cosi fan tutti,” and it’s called that for a reason. The volumes of Shakespearean fanfiction that you’ll find in both archives is likely to keep you reading for the better part of a year.

Short version: You think that the Metropolitan Opera’s Enchanted Island is a new idea? Think again! Fanfiction writers have been throwing people together willy-nilly for decades. The women who have done it are now old enough to be grandmothers.

So, why not do it with music?

The people who write Harry Potter fanfiction, Twilight fanfiction, Star Trek fanfiction, aren’t trying to undo the canonical works by any means. They are often its most dedicated consumers — they buy multiple copies of the shows, the books, everything. All the “swag.” They fill their lives with it.

But they don’t want a velvet rope between them and what they love. Try to put one there, and they will flat-out ignore it. (If you’re lucky, they’ll ignore it. If not, they will start a letter-writing or blogging campaign that will humiliate your lawyers’ efforts to shut them up.)

Yet why are classical music fans so content with that rope? Why are multi-part works retelling the story of Star Wars with the characters repositioned in the Roman Empire considered acceptable, while a reimagining of Beethoven is controversial? (More Keating, I know, I know … )

If your reply is that Star Wars is “crap,” whereas Beethoven is Beethoven … well, that’s part of the problem. We’re trying to show respect for this music by putting a velvet rope between it and those who love it, but all we’re doing is mummifying it. The Harry Potter books have hardly been invalidated by the avalanche of fanfiction written about them. Star Trek is going strong as a franchise going on the fifth decade, carried forward by the same people who wrote their own stories about it. Meanwhile classical music, or the classical music industry that has grown up based on the existence of that velvet rope, is in a serious decline.

Do we think that Beethoven and Haendel and Mozart are so fragile that reaching in and playing with them will kill them?

I certainly am not saying that I’ve threatened Vivaldi by arranging his work for piano. I love the original work. Like those Harry Potter devotees who avow their deep love of their chosen canon by daring to rewrite it, I am also avowing how much I love that piece of music by arranging it myself. I don’t want the canonical version to go away! If the canonical version hadn’t been so deeply moving to me, I would never have been so inspired to reach in and play with it myself.

I celebrate it by playing with it, just as Brahms was so moved by Haydn’s work that he felt motivated to put together a big multi-part work based on it. No, I’m not Brahms. But I am what I am, and if I’m moved by Vivaldi or Haendel, then why not express it? If it’s good, people will like it. If it’s not, then I’ve at least gotten my voice into the world.

We live in a more participatory culture, as observed by Baltimore Symphony conductor Marin Alsop, originator of the Rusty Musicians program that that orchestra created. Another person who has been using that phrase for years about literary and film fan cultures is Henry Jenkins of USC. For a basic idea of what participatory culture is and what it means to those who are a part of it, I’d encourage anyone to read a (pre-Internet) book that he wrote called “Textual Poachers.” He’s since written several more, all good, but “Poachers” is a great overview of the culture of fanfiction, and the relatively early dates thrown about in it will come as an enormous shock to those who mistakenly think this is all about today’s teenagers.

No, it’s not just a thing for today’s teenagers and college kids. There are grandmothers around today who have appreciated the boundary-shattering nature of participatory culture since possibly before you were born. It’s just new to the classical music world. Just because you guys are only hearing about it now doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been around for a very, very long time. 🙂

And again, it’s important to realize that these canon works that have been surrounded by oceans of fanfiction are going strong, whereas the classical music industry which chooses to surround its canon with a choking velvet rope is the one in a severe decline. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was always notably tolerant of fanfiction. Signed letters exist among fans whereby he blessed off their efforts — including the authors who threw Kirk and Spock in bed together. His take was that if it weren’t for those people, what was a simple 3-year failed experiment would never have come back to life. He felt gratitude toward them for loving his universe so much that they saved it from obscurity, and in the process made him a very, very rich man. (And his works are even protected by copyright! Let’s not even touch the topic of why works in the public domain are considered off-limits for reinterpretation.)

Another good link for those curious about participatory culture and its output: The Organization for Transformative Works — a nonprofit organization established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms. The OTW believes that fanworks are transformative and that transformative works are legitimate.

BTW, I’m not kidding about reading “Textual Poachers.” Anyone interested in the history of participatory culture really, really, really needs to appreciate that this is not a new thing invented by the hip, blue-haired teenagers with lip piercings in the front row of your classroom but by their grandmothers, who created a large, thriving, extremely rich subculture that predates the ipod by several generations. There is a storied past here, and ignoring it is not a good thing, particularly since there are political implications toward overwhelmingly minority cultures in doing so. Please do not make the teenaged mistake of thinking that because you have never encountered something before that that means it never existed. There is over half a century of difference between “new” and “new to me” in this case.