Unknown Knowns and Known Unknowns

‘Tis the season—yesterday at our office’s holiday party, we played through virtually an entire book of famous Christmas carols arranged for two violins and piano accompaniment. Several folks took turns on the fiddles and the non-bow oriented members of our staff sang along. I played the piano, sight reading the arrangements which were—for the most part—not terribly difficult, especially considering that I had heard and played this material countless times before. Contradictorily, however, that very aspect of this music—its long ingrained familiarity—was also what made playing the versions printed in the book occasionally something of a challenge.

Every now and then what I was attempting to play from the page deviated significantly from what I and everyone I was accompanying has had burnt into our collective subconscious from repeated exposure to these tunes: a different harmony, a slightly different rhythm, etc. At such times, on the fly decisions needed to be made as to whether to attempt to follow what I was reading to a fault or to be attuned to the energy of the room and play what worked best. I invariably chose the latter most of the time; fidelity to a score in this particular context would have been inappropriate. But sometimes I’d throw in some of the printed score’s oddball reworkings anyway, just because I wanted to hear them and I thought the rest of the group would find them amusing, which they mostly did.

But combining sight reading and moderate improvisation is invariably something of a balancing act. Once your hands are freed from the tyranny of the page and can start doing what you want, it is possible to get carried away. At one point during “What Child is This?” —it being the same tune as “Greensleeves”—my memory of John Coltrane’s version took over and McCoy Tyner’s quartal harmonies started seeping in. These harmonies were admittedly much further out than anything that was in the book from which I had been playing and temporarily seemed to have caused more confusion than amusement.

But that very balancing act between maintaining traditions and venturing into unchartered territory is often what makes for the most exciting listening experiences. The uniqueness of the interpretation is what gives performers of popular music an auteurship that performers of classical music, with its inherent underlying deference to the auteurship of the composer, can never have. It’s why you might be willing to own twenty different performances of, say, “Love is Here to Stay”, “Caravan”, or “Dark Star” (there are few covers by other bands, but the Grateful Dead never played it the same way twice). However, unless you’re a hardcore Gramophone subscriber, you probably do not have twenty versions of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

But Christmas fare, whether emanating from the classical tradition (e.g. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” which was actually written by Felix Mendelssohn) or the realm of popular standards (e.g. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”), has been excellent fodder for interpretative license across all genre divides. Since this stuff most likely gets listened to more than any other music, it’s best for our aesthetic fulfillment, if not our sanity, that we’ve found a way to bring a maximum of variety to it. While one of my favorite activities this time of year is pulling out albums of original material specifically created for these holidays by the likes of Willie Colón, James Brown, the Beach Boys, and John Adams (it’s nice to see El Niño becoming a repertoire item!), I’m even more of a sucker for the covers. It’s a total joy to listen to the Ronettes’ kitchen sink version of “Frosty the Snowman” (arranged by Phil Spector in better times), Reno and Smiley’s hillbilly “Jingle Bells” (I really can’t hear the song any other way than as bluegrass anymore), or Carla Bley’s amazing chromatic brass quintet alterations on “O Tannenbaum” on the brand new Carla’s Christmas Carols. (Yes, folks are still making these records.)

I’ll be back in 2010. Happy holidays!

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