Friday, September 04, 2009
Interpreting Avant-Garde Music
I'll leave writing a detailed review of the music that Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, and Roscoe Mitchell played at the Chicago Jazz Festival earlier this evening to Michael, and will spend my two cents on the person interpreting the concert visually for people who could not hear the music. This was my first purely instrumental concert with an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing. I imagine an instrumental concert is quite a challenge for an interpreter.
Michael and I arrived early enough to hear a set played by the Jeff Parker Quartet, and ensemble I particularly liked because the keyboard player played a Hammond Organ. I noticed the interpreter, who, moving to the rhythm of the music, tried to transmit what she heard in the music through gesture. She did a fine job, and seemed to be having a great time.
When "The Trio" came on, a different interpreter came to the corner of the stage. This person seemed baffled by the avant-garde music that this group of musicians played. Eventually the first interpreter came back to the stage, and tried her best to translate electronic sounds and extended instrumental techniques, set in a format that lacked both regular meter and harmony, into sign language.
Some of the sounds these musicians made during their 50-minute set are very difficult to describe by using words. I didn't see the interpreter use signs other than signs showing which instrument was playing to describe what was happening in the music (and there was a lot happening in the music), and use facial expressions to transmit some of the emotional expression. The musicians themselves were improvising in such a free way that it was difficult to figure out where phrases were going before they got "there" (and they stood remarkably still on stage: this was a concert, not a "show"). The addition of sampled sounds (including train sounds and nature sounds) from Lewis' laptop added a great deal to the texture, and it sometimes took a while to figure out exactly which sounds were made by the instruments and which sounds were made by the laptop.
I thought she did an admirable job, and seeing her there started me on a train of thought (yes, my mind did wander once in a while during the performance). I began thinking about the ultimate value that a savvy interpreter could add to the experience of the ASL-informed members of an audience for new music, both hearing and non-hearing. S/he could give verbal descriptions of the contours and textures in the music, much the way a film voice-over script gives aural commentary on the visual happenings in a film for people who are unable to see.
It is difficult to do with improvised music. The interpreter must be quick with his or her commentary, but with music that s/he could study beforehand, and relate a commentary in real time, an interpreter could add something quite special and useful. It could even work for avant-garde music from earlier times, like Haydn and Beethoven!