Monday, July 27, 2009

More about arrangements

I found The Rehearsal Studio blogger Stephen Smoliar's comments about Villa-Lobos (which I referenced in my previous post about Miles Davis' Sketches in Spain) very enlightening. He has another Villa-Lobos post which goes into the arrangement issue in more detail. Writing about the Bachianas Brasileiras in general, and BB#5 in particular, Smoliar says
I like to consider any arrangement as a window into the arranger's own approach to listening, in the same spirit as the Villa-Lobos compositions (which are decidedly not arrangements). Nevertheless, every arrangement can never be more than an experiment; and not all experiments turn out for the best.
The Gil Evans arrangement of O Canto de Nossa Terra, the second movement of Bachianas Brasileiras #2, is definitely an arrangement in this sense. Evans was in a listening groove at the time: the source music for Sketches in Spain (both the Villa-Lobos and the Rodrigo Concierto de l'Aranjuez) was obviously important to Evans during the six months he and Davis worked on the recording. While part of my excitement about Song of Our Country on Sketches in Spain comes from just hearing Miles Davis' trumpet in these tunes, I do feel that there's something special about Evans' take on Villa-Lobos.

There's an interesting twist on the BB#2 arrangement, since the orchestral version we all know is itself an arrangement by Villa-Lobos. Three of the piece's movements, including O Canto de Nossa Terra, were originally written for cello and piano (the fourth was originally for solo piano). Here are Ricardo Santoro and Flávio Augusto playing the original piece:

There are two ways one can proceed from here. One relates to musical craft, while the other is more philosophical. Like Bach himself, Villa-Lobos was a practical musician. Both arranged and re-arranged their own music and others'; both had jobs that required them to write prodigious amounts of original music. Especially as he moved into the 1930s and his new job as head of Music Education in Rio de Janeiro state, Villa immersed himself in the folk music of Brazil. Villa's two streams of source music - Bach and Brazilian folk music - were transformed, in the 1930s and 1940s, into the Bachianas Brasileiras series and the Guia Pratico.

The second way of looking at the Bachianas comes from a source much closer than 18th century Germany: Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote this in Buenos Aires in 1935:

I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.


Reading, meanwhile, is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.

We can think, then, of Villa-Lobos reading Bach, and Gil Evans reading Villa-Lobos, and we can see both as being more resigned, more civil, more intellectual than the original compositions.

It was Ned Rorem who compared Villa-Lobos to Borges' Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, who told the "author" of the story,

"Thinking, meditating, imagining,... are not anomalous acts - they are the normal respiration of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional exercise of that function, to treasure beyond price ancient and foreign thoughts, to recall with incredulous awe what some doctor universalis thought, is to confess our own languor, or our own barbarie. Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be."


  1. Neil Gaiman wrote a little tale called "The Mapmaker", which begins:

    "One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless."

    Pierre Menard's Quixote is a perfectly accurate and perfectly useless map of Cervantes' original, but Borges finds a strange (and hilarious) value in that map. Besides the image of the Bachianas Brasileiras as a map of Bach's music, Gaiman's story adds two more metaphors. The Bachianas Brasileiras are Villa-Lobos telling the story of Bach's music, and they are Villa-Lobos dreaming Bach's music.

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