Translation and Interpretation, Part 2

In part 1 of this post I mentioned some interesting similarities between translation and interpretation with regard to musical performance. Clearly they are not equivalent in meaning but they overlap, and it interests me when and why certain distinctions are made. One small example is Bourrée II from Bach’s fourth suite for solo cello: it’s a piece that needed some “translation” before I could interpret it.

Here is the piece as Bach composed it:

Click here for an mp3 I made (after you download it, change the suffix from .pdf to .mp3). This was done a bit quickly and it’s a little noisy but you’ll get the idea. It’s best to listen to it with headphones rather than through computer speakers, owing to the low, muted bass notes.

This is a polyphonic piece: there are two distinct contrapuntal voices (and, from an analytic point of view, the top voice can be further divided in places). The voices are clearly notated in mm. 1-2 (despite some missing rests), but less so in m. 3, for example, but are no less aurally distinct. In terms of performing the piece, I wanted to explore distinguishing the two voices as clearly as possible—sounding almost as if there were two performers, or perhaps rendered in a keyboard-like manner. One way to do this is through articulation: the notes belonging to the bass voice are played soft and staccato, while the notes of the melody are being played legato. This is where, for me at least, some translation was required.

Why “translation?” This seems to be the appropriate term with regard to questions of technique. As it’s written this piece is meant to be bowed, but my intention was to play it on bass with right-hand pizzicato. Furthermore, my interpretation—one that emphasizes the polyphonic nature of this piece—required technique-related decisions that were even further removed from the original. But in order to arrive at this interpretation, there were certain physical limitations that couldn’t be ignored (fingering, etc.). So in this case, necessity was the mother of translation.

Notes belonging to the bass voice were played with my thumb and muted with my palm. But the melody notes are just one string over, so I had to be careful not to mute those along with the bass notes. Last, managing those two elements made it increasingly difficult to maintain correct intonation (it’s a fretless bass).

Here are mm. 1-4 notated as I’m attempting to perform it:

As you can see and hear, notes in the bass voice are played staccato with quarter-note rests. The melody is very similar to how the original is written, but I’ve held over the E-flat from bar 2 to bar 3, sustaining the syncopated melody against the plodding bass. It’s a freedom I’ve taken in my interpretation, but it was provided for and inspired by, my translation.

With regard to this example then, it seems that “translation” is the more appropriate term for bridging the differences between the two more disparate domains—in this case, a bowed cello performance vs. a pizzicato bass performance. And “interpretation” applies to what both domains have in common—the score—whose meaning (or information, essence, data, etc.) is preserved between the two.

P.S. You’ll notice that the bass note in the pickup to m. 5 is missing. It was a casualty of preserving the rest of the fingering. I suppose you could say, it was “lost in translation.”

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4 Responses to Translation and Interpretation, Part 2

  1. Elaine Fine says:

    This Suite was actually written for Viola da Gamba, which is tuned in fourths and has frets! The contrast between “legato” and “pizzicato” is really interesting sounding on the electric bass.


    • Sean says:

      Yes — I’m just referring the collection as it’s commonly known, and using the cello as the common point of reference.

      I played a tenor Viola da Gamba as an undergrad in our collegium (as a volunteer, for 2 years), but that was my only experience with a bowed instrument. Lucky for me, the tenor part was usually the cantus firmus, so all I had were the footballs!

      The tied frets, gut strings, and the Florida humidity made it very challenging to play in tune, but we sure had a lot of fun…


  2. A reader from Paris says:

    Even if Bach’s Suites inherit from the style of French viola da gamba writing in the 17th century, they were actually written for the cello; but not exactly the instrument we usually refer to as a cello today, rather a smaller instrument (more or less like a 5-string violoncello piccolo: see the 6th Suite) probably held on the right shoulder (“violoncello da spalla”). A recent revival of this long-forgotten instrument produced some interesting results; have a look at some videos featuring Sergey Malov playing such a cello da spalla on YouTube:

    As a matter of fact, nothing but lack of imagination prevent cellists to play some movements of the Suites pizzicato. A few years ago, a cellist named Myles Jordan recorded (on a violoncello piccolo) a CD experimenting this with the Courante and Menuet I from the 1st Suite, and the Bourrée I from the 3rd (he only recorded Suites #1-3). Samples here:
    Try track #3, the Courante of the 1st Suite, really beautiful played this way IMHO (I’m not a musician, only a passionate listener). The tempo may seem surprisingly slow, but the treatises of Bach’s time describe the (French) Courante as a relatively slow dance, unlike the (Italian) Corrente.

    Plucking instead of bowing the strings was a practice well-documented on the viola da gamba (one of the many connexions between the lute and the gamba in the baroque era). The great catalan gambist, Jordi Savall, made a transcr– sorry, a translation of the Bourrée II from the 4th Suite to be played pizzicato on his instrument; I’m quite sure you’ll be interested in this one:
    It’s the last track of the CD.

    Thank you for your fascinating blog (and sorry for my deficient English). If you’re looking for books on Nadia Boulanger in French, I would be glad to find them for you.


    • Sean says:

      Thank you, reader from Paris, for your thoughtful comments. I watched all of the Malov videos, and was especially taken with the Courante from the Suite in D Major. And thank you for bringing my attention to the Savall recording. I only listened to the preview, but his rendition of Bourrée II sounds very interesting, especially as he begins to ornament during the repeats.

      À l’avenir, vous êtes invités à écrire en français si vous souhaitez, même si mon français est limité. Mais, je dois dire, que votre anglais est superbe.

      Bruno Monsaingeon a écrit un livre à propos de Nadia Boulanger. Il a également réalisé un film. Je pense que c’est peut-être le seul documentaire à son sujet. Le titre de son livre est «Mademoiselle». Y at-il d’autres livres que vous recommanderiez?


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