Jennifer Gersten is a freelance writer and musician.
You’ve Heard This One Before: When Classical Composers Use Samples
Monday, March 13, 2017 - 01:04 PM
The history of art is a rogue’s gallery of sloppy thieves. Though artists often wallow over whether they are being original — the Bard himself moped in the Sonnets about whether he was capable of leaving a mark that was his and his alone — each has perused the work of her predecessors and decided, consciously or not, what to steal. Her fingerprints are everywhere.
In music, the tradition of “sampling,” or using fragments of others’ recorded work, is time-honored. Rap, pop, hip-hop—across genres, musicians and composers have founded their practice on embracing the music of others. Who Sampled, a log of what samples comprise what music, provides the sort of long-term dissection for which your nauseated biology-lab self so longed. Classical music, likewise, thrives on samples (and has yielded what may be our most notorious sample, Pachelbel’s Canon). Take a listen to how composers have paid their respects to their predecessors.
Italian composer Luciano Berio took the name of the third movement of his Sinfonia (1970), “In ruhig fleissender bewegung,” from the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) — as well as a chunk of the way it sounds. Rising out of the din with which the piece begins is, in fact, the Mahler copied note for note. The orchestra proceeds to romp blithely through fragments, some obvious, some buried, of, among others, Berlioz, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berg, Stockhausen and Beethoven (the opening is actually a few choice measures from Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra). Over this, the voices mutter, sing and bellow the words of Lévy-Strauss, Beckett, and Berio himself; in the fourth movement, they say only the syllables comprising “Martin Luther King.” (Michael Hicks has done admirable work in identifying its various quotations in this analysis of the score.)
The result resembles a symphonic Wikipedia search, starring Berio as the curious clicker. Listen below to a performance by the Orchestra of the Academy of Saint Cecilia, Rome featuring the Swingle Singers, who premiered the work.
Caroline Shaw, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Partita for Eight Voices, based her in manus tuas (2009) on a motet of the same name by the 16th-century English choral composer Thomas Tallis (listen to it here). As she writes, the piece is meant to evoke the “sensation of a single moment of hearing the motet in the particular and remarkable space of Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut.” Cellist Hannah Collins performs in the video below at WQXR:
In Absolute Jest (2012), John Adams places a string quartet in front of an orchestra in a rousing palimpsest of Beethoven’s Quartets Op. 131 and 135. Adams’ nods to his own Chamber Symphony and Grand Pianola Music, as well. The work is at once devotional but also wholly the composer’s own. Here is Adams himself conducting the piece, played by the Yale Philharmonia featuring the Brentano String Quartet.
The second movement of Charles Ives' Sonata No. 2 (1914-1917), “In the Barn,” is a jigsaw of American hymns and folk tunes that includes “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Sailor’s Hornpipe,” and “Money Musk.” To his first and third violin sonatas, Ives left copious notes, but he believed the titles of the second spoke for themselves. As indicated, the piece is an inebriated hoedown that is perhaps best performed as one. The evocative performance below is by violinist Kathia Zinn and Illya Filshtinskiy of aTonalHits.
“Motown Machaut” (2005), by Eve Beglarian, does what physicists have thus far failed to facilitate in arranging a meeting between 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut and Marvin Gaye. The piece has the lazy, Motown-inspired swing from Gaye’s “The Bells” and the meditative bent of Machaut’s Tels rit. It's available here, with the score, on Beglarian’s website.