Thursday, June 14, 2012

Genuine Imitation: Waldo de los Rios: "Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor"

When I was growing up, still a little girl in Los Angeles, there were three kinds of music I’d hear on a regular basis.  One was rock; one was jazz; and one was classical.  I would say that of all three classical has the deepest influence on what I hear and how I hear it; and the composers I heard formed my idea of what music should be like.  They weren’t the big names like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; they were Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky for the Russian side (big music, fearless and emotional) and Satie, Saint-Saens, Debussy and especially Ravel on the French one (more delicate, playful, elegant and yet also emotional).  Add Aaron Copland and Iannis Xenakis to all that and it's what I grew up on; fairly mainstream stuff, but overwhelmingly Romantic/Modern (as opposed to the really old school composers whose work is more genuinely 'classical' as such).  I did not hear opera as my parents just didn’t care for it; only in the 90s did I really become aware of any other classical composers, past or present*. This music went to places the other two kinds of music couldn’t quite reach, sublime places where out and out awe was the only response, beauty and life were celebrated in stirring ways.  Classical music has gotten me through more than one terrible time, in part because of its power and in part because I associate this large swathe of it with my parents; I respond to these composers as I would to early sights and smells, with instant familiarity.
And so I come to Waldo de los Rios’ “Mozart 40” with some ambivalence.  I have no deep attachments to Mozart, as such; but I imagine that he means as much as Satie or Mussorgsky do to me, and I can only wonder what those people would make of this.  A symphony reduced to a nice melody in a light pop format?  This must smack them as a kind of Muzakization of Mozart, a simplified version for those who like him well enough but don’t have the time to actually listen to the real thing.  Well, I can hear them say, maybe this might lead them to the real thing, or maybe it will just become background music on sports shows on tv.  The patisserie delicateness of the melody – it floats like a feather in the breeze – gets an acoustic guitar and drums added on, just to make foot tapping easier, I suppose. 
De los Rios wanted to bring this (perceived) old music up to date, which I guess is admirable enough, but something about it makes me uneasy.  Something as inherently pleasant and undemanding as the Mozart’s 40 lends itself to pop treatment, but apart from hapless visions of canapé hell at dinner parties where de los Rios’ album Symphonies for the 70s was most surely played, I don’t really know anyone who would actually want to hear this on anything like a daily basis.  Mozart doesn’t really need to be updated; the surge of popularity he got with Amadeus (an admirable movie, if not really that accurate) didn’t suddenly see people running off to buy this; they wanted the real thing, because they had an emotional attachment to it – understood what Mozart’s life was like – and responded.  Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” (1976) was also a one-off hit, a novelty, the sort of thing that was done because it could be done, as much as anything else; and I’m afraid that is where “Mozart 40” also belongs.  It’s modern, it’s ingenious, it brings Mozart into the same chart as (amongst others) Frank Sinatra, the Delfonics, Deep Purple and T.Rex; what he would have made of this I will leave to your imagination. 
For a moment in the spring of ’71 a song based on a symphony made it to #2 in the NME; de los Rios gained fame outside of his native Argentina**, and continued on for a few more years before succumbing to depression in ’77.  He was a composer of original works as well, it should be noted; but this was his biggest hit.  Like so many things in the 70s, it’s an update that must have sounded hip at the time, but the novelty and hipness wore off as the decades have progressed.  Like the previous song it was far more successful in the UK than in the US, which points to something – I’m not sure what- in the differences between the two nations***.  In the US I imagine folks would have prided themselves on liking the original version, thank you very much; in the UK it was a pleasant change, a nice arrangement to listen to while driving or cooking, adding a touch of class to the proceedings. 
As an American I have to side with the former opinion – yes it is earnest and “classicist” but as nice and at-the-time cool as this is, I can’t like it as much as I like the original, and if de los Rios ever did anything based on works I know and love well, I don’t want to hear them.  This may sound harsh, but when Rush Limbaugh is the only one to champion your work in the US (he featured this on his show in 2010 and it had a brief surge in popularity) it makes me wonder if this version – or any of his other works -  was ever necessary at all.  A cover of a previous hit song is one thing, but trying to update something that doesn’t need to be updated is bound to be a folly; pleasant enough to some, but not to others.
Next up:  the roots of rock, explained.      
*Mainly due to the excellent movie Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, and its equally great soundtrack, which I would heartily encourage you to listen to if you haven’t already.  As for early 70s composers, this is when Steve Reich and Philip Glass begin to get some attention.
**I should add that fellow Argentinian Gato Barbieri was finishing up his contribution to Escalator Over The Hill at this time and was about to start composing the music to Last Tango In Paris.  De los Rios also did scores for movies, but mostly did this neo-classical work.
***The two singles charts are growing further and further apart; by the time glam truly hits it big, they will have almost nothing in common at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to think I need to initiate a "Eurovision watch". Apologies for the repetitive nature of it all, but this has always struck me as an odd place for the man himself to turn up, even allowing for the kitsch factor of the grand old contest...