By David Aijon Bruno (MA Music Studies)
When I volunteered to give this rather improvised presentation for Cardiff University’s Postgraduate Forum, little did I know that the platform came with blogs attached. And so this post will make things I had wished to keep private a bit more public than I’d probably like, but so be it. Mainly, I had intended to hide my role as co-producer, together with my friend Mei-Ting, of his as of yet unreleased transcriptions CD project and the promotional video to go with it. The reason being I got involved out of friendship not professional ambition, or, for that matter, of any sort of financial death wish if you take into consideration how the recording industry is doing these days.
I first met the artist known as Mei-Ting in 1991. We were both taking an advanced graduate-level dictation class at the Mannes College of Music in New York, where I was finishing a MM in music theory. He was then just ten years old and, as you can imagine, almost unanimously hated (you would’ve hated him too, had you heard him say—while flawlessly writing down streams of atonal stuff—‘Hey, it’s so much more fun to use soprano and baritone clefs instead!’, don’t you think?). But I say ‘almost’ because he was also clearly an extravagantly gifted pianist, and so some of us felt that any jealousy was pointless, laughable even. (By the way, by ‘extravagantly gifted’ I don’t really mean that he could play double thirds at breakneck speed or any other contortionist velociraptor feats, but that the little guy could hear and do anything with an understanding shockingly beyond his years.)
To make a long story short, I’ve been actively trying to promote Mei-Ting’s career in any way I can for the last twenty years or so. I also happen to believe, perhaps a bit or even completely delusionally, that his coming to prominence would also be good for the music business at large, hugely caught up as it is these days with successful packaging instead of the real deals. An oversimplification, that last bit? You tell me, but be warned—it’ll take some convincing that things aren’t completely systemically so by now.
Let’s move on to the actual presentation now that we’ve gone over a little the background. It began by viewing the video of Mei-Ting’s transcription of Ravel’s La valse, which you can watch here:
I wanted to take up again the conversation that one of our postgraduate colleagues — Nia-Bethan Squirrell — had started with a PG Forum presentation back in November (2017), where she showed Salut Salon’s attempts at slapstick.
To recall: Nia had asked ‘Do we really have to go this far in promoting ourselves?’, and my general follow-up question was going to be something along the lines of ‘Indeed, how can we promote real artistry these days without falling into such gimmicks?’. But a consensus on the video came down fast before we got to discuss any of those issues: videos that long (it’s just under thirteen minutes) probably shouldn’t be used for promotional purposes, no matter how good they may be; it’s better to use thirty-second clips at most, and as varied as possible at that. Then instead of getting back to the above (admittedly quite rhetorical) question we somehow got to discuss a corollary one quite intensely: ‘How does one set oneself apart, then?’.
At the risk of sounding even more pessimistic about the situation than I had already shown, I tried to contend that if we’re all more or less consciously trying to stand out in what seems a hopelessly saturated market, doesn’t that also mean we’re actually doing things less and less spontaneously? I do realize that the problem becomes a circular one, and that there’s no sure-fire way to tackle these issues in today’s fragmented music world—that is, it probably just comes down to one’s own personal stance on the matter, and to pure luck. But wouldn’t you agree that true artistry should be about standing above marketing strategies and image consulting firms, somehow? In the end it’s us musicians who do the performing, isn’t it, so shouldn’t we keep a careful eye on developments such as this one? For that very same reason, the situation described above probably is, say, at least 51% our own doing. Oversimplification again? Well sue me if you like, but I rather we take responsibility than blame it solely on societal ills, audiences’ lack of interest, technology, or any combination of those.
But the conversation took really interesting constructive turns overall, and I do hope people got something out of it despite the improvised nature of the presentation. Huge thanks should go to Carlo Cenciarelli and the students who took part in it for their input, ideas, and suggestions, particularly Nia and Matt Lush (who mentioned the intriguing possibility of pursuing an ‘anti-marketing’ tactic) … I do plan to follow up on all of them! I also hope you enjoy the extra Mei-Ting material on this post—for one, Strauss’s gorgeous Beim schlafengehen didn’t make it onto an already too long CD, and so apparently it’s chosen to have its premiere here.
Mei-Ting’s Notes on his Piano Transcription of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse
My inspiration for writing transcriptions in general came about in 2000, after studying the Liszt arrangement of Wagner’s Overture to the Opera Tannhaüser. Being a young and easily impressionable pianist at the time, it showed me more possibilities of the instrument than I thought possible. I thought to myself, why not combine the two things in music that I love the most: piano, and operas? This led to my first transcription, the finale of Richard Strauss’s Salome. I guess one can also say that there was a bit of jealousy involved, that such great music was “relegated” to the realms of large orchestras. As for the aspiring pianist, we do not get to take part! So, I decided to remedy this situation, and I created an unplayable (to my mind) monster. Throughout the process, one problem after another popped up, particularly due to the specific harmonic and sound qualities demanded by Strauss, which led to extremely unconventional solutions. This interested me a great deal, and I felt that it finally allowed my creativity the full wingspan that it needed. So, I continued with other works.
Ravel’s La valse became particularly interesting to me because of the range of colors that his orchestration created. After having transcribed a bunch of Strauss and Stravinsky’s Firebird, I felt I was finally ready to give La valse another perspective besides Ravel’s and Gould’s arrangements. I won’t go into too much detail regarding specific devices used in the transcription, except to say that what is played and what is heard is often not the same thing, and obviously it is the latter that is by far the most important. In a way, these transcriptions mark a personal method of study. The process brought me a closer understanding of the music and I hope the arrangements might also give some pleasure, however slight (or perhaps perverse!), to the listener.