This essay was written to be printed in the program for IonSound’s Nov. 1, 2009 concert, but I post it here in order to give advance access to those interested in such things.
Reduce. To lessen. To make smaller. To make do with less. Imperatives to reduce are all around us, with motives from virtually every aspect of life. Reduce calories to lose weight, reduce spending to get out of debt, reduce waste to save the planet. It’s easy to think of reducing as a hardship; eating less means I’ll be hungry, spending less means I’ll have less fun, using less means I’ll have to work harder. So we focus on the rewards and try to eat our spinach with a smile. We force ourselves to go without so that we’ll feel more attractive, get out of debt, and have a planet left for our grandchildren. But reducing isn’t always about suffering. In the culinary world, one reduces liquids such as wine, balsamic vinegar, or stock to intensify the flavors and increase the pleasure of eating. In many spiritual traditions, the act of choosing to go without something is taken in order to gain awareness of the self and of one’s connection to the world. And once the initial shock of behavioral change is past, many people find that eating less, spending less, or living in an environmentally conscious way simply feels good. The act of reducing becomes something of an end in itself.
Although tonight’s program came about as a direct result of IonSound’s thinking about how music can or can’t interact with the extramusical ideas related to “going green”, the other meanings of reduce are relevant as well. All three of the works you’ll hear already exist in versions for much larger instrumental forces–50+ players in each case. So it’s sort of like music on a diet. Certainly the option to play a piece with 6 rather than 60 players will cost less. But why choose to reduce orchestration when there are already many pieces that exist for this instrumentation? IonSound already has an excellent piece by Philip Thompson in our repertoire, so shouldn’t we just play that again? Certainly any living composer knows that writing an orchestral work for large forces is likely not going to result in hundreds of performances. It will take a lot of hard work. Rescoring a piece for smaller forces not only makes it possible to hear a work more often, it also allows the composer (and anyone else fortunate enough to hear both versions) to hear the musical material in more than one way. In this case, think of the cooking sense of reduction. The incredible energy of the large scale orchestration is distilled into a kind of hyper-excitement in the six-player version, and there is a visceral quality to the sheer thought of one player covering ideas that were originally given to three players. It’s not for nothing that the old saying goes, “sometimes less is more.”
But why choose works by composers who are thought to have been among the finest orchestrators who ever lived? Isn’t a symphonic work for large forces immutable because that was how the composer chose to write it and thus represent his or her ultimate intentions? And aren’t these pieces already getting plenty of performances? There is in fact a long tradition of composers changing their own orchestration for various situations, or approving radical reductions by other persons. Ultimately, practicality has always been a driving force in music. Beethoven first published his Violin Concerto as a Piano Concerto. Symphonies and string quartets alike were sold in arrangements for piano, both two- and four-hand versions. Granted, things did become less fluid as the Romantic period progressed and the concept “Masterpiece” became the cornerstone of programming, but no less a figure than Schönberg himself made chamber versions of works by Mahler and others for a small ensemble, suitable for performance in homes and small halls. Piano rolls exist of Mahler playing his own 4th Symphony in a solo transcription. Kindertotenlieder also exists in a version for voice and piano by Mahler, not as a rehearsal convention, but as a viable performance option. Ravel’s original setting of these five movements was for piano four-hands. For these composers, this music contained ideas and relationships that could speak in more than one setting, and adapted appropriately for each context. “Reduction” for them was as much a part of the creative process as it was a practical measure. Their music was a fact of the present moment and the present situation, however large or small the underlying idea. And regardless of the size of orchestration, the compositional choices at the core of these two works possess a lean sense of economy that lends itself well to a small ensemble. The present reductions are drawn largely from the full orchestrations, but not without consulting the composers’ own piano versions. The music is all theirs, although the perspective may be somewhat different; I was not there in 1905 or 1910. How could I know for certain what they would think? I can only hope that they would understand that this is music that we love, and want to share with our friends, and indulge us in our musing.
Regardless of the origin or intention of a piece, we best honor art by noticing it, we best notice by focusing our attention, and our attention is captured differently than it was a century ago. In this case, we put forward the idea of reduction in all of its senses, but most particularly that of relating to our world in a responsible manner, through doing more with less and finding new joys in the act of so doing. And what has all this to do with the music of Mahler, Ravel, or Thompson? I’m not entirely sure. But if you listen for an hour, maybe you can tell me.
Rob Frankenberry, October 23, 2009