Adventures with Beethoven and Kutiman

In an era in which we need Facebook to draw our attention to our best friends’ birthdays, it seems out of context, even silly, to celebrate the birthdays of composers who died years ago. But this month, 246 years ago, L. van Beethoven was born. Though we are not Facebook friends and it is unlikely that he is in a place where he can appreciate a late celebration, – I feel a need to mention this important date. I will also allow this to be an opportunity to tell you about a short video I made some years ago, titled Beethoven 5th – What We Have In Common:

It was in 2010 – I moved to the Netherlands, thinking I would stop playing Cello (I did not), and begin studying electronic music (I did).
Daunting doubts about classical music were troubling my mind day and night, as I stopped believing that what I was doing so far had anything to do with creativity. I felt everything was the same: we play the same music over and over again, perfecting each note and each phrase, only to achieve identical results. These doubts were given dramatic words in my head. I felt I was being told a vicious lie: that classical music, being this profound, even sacred art, is also the highest expression of creativity. Yet, I felt it was not true. I felt that we, the performers of classical music, were repeating ourselves and were putting unimaginable efforts into perfectly resembling one-another. I felt we were un-innovative people, and therefore, not professionals in the full sense of the word. The big problem for me was that I was (still am) convinced, that the highest expression of any talent, knowledge or professionalism, is, in fact, creativity – the ability to invent something new, using your knowledge and skill. All of a sudden I found myself unable to sit down and practice as usual.

It was around that time, when I was first introduced to the mind-blowing art of Kutiman, namely to his project Thru—you. Not at all surprising that I thought it was a work of genius (nor was I the only one who did), given my affection to collage art, which I expressed upon these lists on several occasions. Thirsty as I was at that time to discover expressions of originality, Kutiman’s art dazzled me, being a genuine invention – no less than a new form of art making. Almost as if he was playing God, he used the most underestimated materials lying around to make people who never met each other play new compositions, the fruits of his creative mind. A masterwork of a curator, composer and a skilled film-editor:

Also around that time, I began toying around with Ableton Live – the first (and so far the only) software, which allowed me to experiment with electronic music without panicking given my miserable technological skills.

Summing up all these events, I found myself searching YouTube obsessively, collecting recordings of one of the most famous, most played works in music history – Beethoven’s 5th symphony. I collected orchestras and conductors, famous and unknown, rock and country interpretations, arrangements of all colours and moods – all playing these notes, known to almost every person in the Western world.

A heavy folder of YouTube material was growing on my desktop. I was curious to see how difficult it would be to cut a small section from each recording and mix them together. How much would I need to interfere in order to make it a homogenous performance? Would I need to change tempi or pitch? Would I need to normalize dynamics? Would I need to choose carefully which section do I use from which recording?
I started placing the videos into Ableton, thinking this is going to be a terrific way to practice my editing skills and testing the software’s endless possibilities for sound-manipulation.

But it took no time at all.

The recordings fit together magically. There was no need to interfere, no need to manipulate, no need to choose carefully. I quickly realized that I could take whichever sections I wanted from whichever recordings, switch between them, mix them together – it all sounded perfectly fine. It didn’t matter much, whether it was Karajan or a mediocre conductor. It certainly didn’t matter who were the musicians sitting in the orchestra.

Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending.

When the sequence I was working on reached the repetition mark at the end of the exposition, I turned to deal with the non-classical recordings I had on hand. That is where a banjo joined the party, an electric guitar and a panicked piano-duo. Within these, I stitched-in footage of spoken comments and questions.
Finally, I followed Kutiman’s steps and edited these dear people, whom I never met and who never met each other, bringing them to perform together a new invented piece.

When I published this video, most of the reactions I got were amused. When I showed it to Barenboim, one day after a rehearsal with the West-Eastern Divan, he too, laughed in amusement. When I watch it today, I also laugh – it is funny, to see Karajan collaborating with a Tuba-Banjo duo. But back then, I was most of all deeply troubled by how easy it was to make; how uncomplicated it was to break down a masterpiece into a reckless sequence, which should have made no sense at all, yet sounded just fine.

On the description section of this video, I wrote “An attempt to express some passing thoughts, mainly about inspiration and interpretation.” I was thinking a lot in those days about interpretation and its meanings; about creativity and originality; trying to figure out what is it exactly, that thing I was practicing all those years.

I promised a happy ending: I did not conclude from this work, that all recordings of Beethoven 5th sound the same. I did not conclude that people like George Szell, Toscanini and the musicians of great orchestras were overrated. I didn’t, not even for a second, doubt the value of the master-piece I was interfering with. Partly because deep inside, it just didn’t feel like the right conclusion, and partly because I kept in mind the following:

1. If you record a single note, played, for example, on a piano, and you use technology to cut the beginning and the end of that note (in professional terms: you ruin the envelope of a certain timbre), you end up with a sound which cannot be defined – you can no longer say whether it is a piano, a trumpet or a computer-generated tone.
2. The sound quality of YouTube recordings are rarely good enough for a fare analysis. This is true especially for old recordings, and especially for old, live recordings of classical music.
3. Computer editing is a powerful tool which can make the world seem very different from reality.

By taking these interpretations and cutting them into pieces, I was putting them out of context, much like the destruction of the envelope of a single tone. Doing so, I severely blurred the differences between each performance. I took recordings, which were, in most cases, of poor sound quality to begin with, and edited them in a way which makes them seem much more similar to each other than they truly are.

And so, my conclusions from this Beethoven’s 5th journey, was that the interpretation of classical music is a serious, complex matter, and that evaluating the details which differentiate between one recording and the other, requires an attentive, sensitive listening.

I am very much aware of the fact that for many, this might seem a naïve, perhaps even obvious conclusion. But I needed this journey to reevaluate the wisdom and beauty in this form of art. Happily ever after, this helped me a lot to find my way back into classical music.

A few last remarks.
It seems to me that a masterpiece is one that shines no matter how you perform it, with which instrument or with which levels of talents. I am convinced, that humour compliments most works of art, and that we live in a world rich in content in a way even Beethoven might have found overwhelming.