Transcriptions in Piano and Poetry

Why are there piano transcriptions but relatively few poetry transcriptions?

A splendid example of the latter is a recently posted performative transcription (2014) of “Thοse you see“/Αυτούς που βλέπεις (1963), a well-known song by Mihalis Katsaros (lyrics) and Mikis Theodorakis (music).* Delivering in a haunting Sprechstimme his splendid English translation over the first recording (1963), virtuoso poet and translator George Economou has transcribed the well-known song into a new and unique medium.

To put the question in general terms, why are there so many musical transcriptions but rather few literary ones?  Thinking about what Kostis Palamas called “ξανατονισμένη μουσική”/re-tempered music, my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, and I often wonder. Musical transcriptions (or “reductions” or “arrangements”) re-write for another instrument or ensemble a piece written originally for solo or ensemble. To take an eminent diachronic example, Bach transcribed both Vivaldi and many of his own compositions, and in turn his works have been transcribed by composers from Brahms to Busoni, Berio, and Birtwistle.  Recent representative releases include Avan Yu’s disk of 8 Winterreise and 10 Schwanengesang songs transcribed by Liszt, and Michael Gordon’s orchestral Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (2006).  For centuries, transcription has been ubiquitous, and even more so in musical genres other than classical ones.

Despite the tremendous admiration that composers, performers, and listeners have for classical music, their respect for its “masterpieces” does not stop them from re-composing them into another medium, mode, pitch, or key. Why can’t poets do the same with poems they admire, whether their own or others’, transposing, say, a sonnet to free verse, an iambic to a dactylic tetrameter, an Irish to a creole diction? To limit myself to Greek counter-factuals, why didn’t Solomos transcribe Kornaros, Elytis Solomos, or Aranitsis Elytis?

When elaborating on poems other than theirs, poets either translate them (Seferis called Transcriptions/Μεταγραφές his intra-Greek renditions from the ancient to the modern register of the language) or imitate them (writing à la manière de) but they rarely do what a musician does when transcribing a piece for two pianos, organ, guitar, or band. By transforming a piece and highlighting the operations of re-writing, transcriptions call attention to interpretation, blurring the boundaries between form and process, work and performance. Poetry may be recited, or more recently even improvised, but rarely transcribed. It may be that poets, their readers, and their editors resist adaptation because they have a quasi religious investment in the written text, like those who talk about various «people of the book» and believe in a self-authenticating, divined text-as-scripture.

In addition to Economou, other poetic exceptions that come to mind include Anne Carson’s «renderings» (to use Luciano Berio’s term) of ancient texts which read (or rather, sound) more like what Liszt called “paraphrases,” “reminiscences,” or “fantasies,” above all her dazzling, book-length transcription of the elegiac Catullus 101 in her Nox (2010).

In turn, Haris Vlavianos, the contemporary master of poetic transcription into Greek, who transcribed Catullus in his collection Adieu (2007), has included in the “Μεταγραφές”/Transcriptions section of his Διακοπές στην πραγματικότητα:  Ποιήματα – Σχεδιάσματα – Μεταγραφές (2009) boldly revisionary renderings of Carson’s work which infamously offended purists of influence and originality.  Last, George Prevedourakis’ Κλέφτικο (2013) transposed Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg to the Greek crisis of the 2010s, turning dystopic Ελλάδα into an exilic “Φευγάδα.”

June 3, 2014 and 2015

 

*  “Αυτούς που βλέπεις”

Ποίηση: Μιχάλης Κατσαρός,  μουσική: Μίκης Θεοδωράκης

Αυτούς που βλέπεις πάλι θα τους ξαναειδείς
θα τους γνωρίσεις πάλι
άλλον θα λένε Κωνσταντή κι άλλον Μιχάλη

Αυτούς που βλέπεις πάλι θα τους ξαναΐδείς
θα τους γνωρίσεις πάλι
σ’ αυτόν τον κόσμο θα γυρνούν
με περηφάνια πιο μεγάλη

Αυτούς που βλέπεις πάλι θα τους ξαναΐδείς
θα τους μισήσεις πάλι
έναν μονάχα δε θα βρεις
τον πιο μικρό, τον πιο πικρό, τον πιο αγαπημένο
τον μοναχό, τον δυνατό και τον αντρειωμένο

Αυτόν δε θα τον ξανεΐδείς να τονε βασανίσεις
και την μεγάλη του καρδιά να τηνε σκίσεις
αυτόν δε θα τον ξαναβρείς τι τον φυλάνε τ’ άστρα
τι τον φυλάει ο ήλιος του, τονε φυλάει το φεγγάρι

Αυτόν που `χει τη χάρη τον πιο μικρό
τον πιο πικρό και τον αγαπημένο
αυτόν μονάχα εγώ, μονάχα εγώ, εγώ προσμένω

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