Rewriting the Past and Calling it History at What Price?

Rewriting the Past and Calling it History at What Price?

How would you feel if the author of that recent bestseller you just finished reading decided to change the middle three chapters of the book? Would the book you had just finished reading have somehow become invalid?

A lot of composers revise their music all the time and think nothing of it, even after it has been published. Bruckner was notorious for rewriting his symphonies over decades. Stravinsky famously reworked the last chord of The Rite of Spring in 1947, apparently, in part, to reclaim copyright on a work that had become public domain. But can we claim that revised chord to be revolutionary for 1913 when it was informed by post-WWII hindsight? This month, La Monte Young is presenting a new version of his revolutionary 1958 String Trio, now in just intonation. Does it matter that he didn’t originally conceive this landmark work that way? Isn’t the 1958 version, the composition that began minimalism after all, the landmark? If so, what is the historical significance of the new version?

Perhaps the most drastic example is Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara who wrote a Fourth Symphony which was premiered and subsequently discarded from his catalog. Years later, when he wrote a Fifth Symphony, he claimed another earlier work “Arabescata” as his rightful “Fourth Symphony.” The work has since been described as the only total serial symphony to be composed in Finland. It’s a masterpiece, but in all honesty, he didn’t conceive of it as a symphony when he originally wrote it.

Nowadays, thanks to digital technology, even a recording isn’t sacrosanct. Collectors have to hunt down original vinyl pressings of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention albums to hear what people who bought them heard back in the 1960s since Zappa “corrected the mistakes” when they were re-issued on CD. The latest vinyl re-issue of NWA’s “landmark” 1990 gangsta rap album Straight Outta Compton was remixed in 2002. Can a remixed version album still be a landmark?

We all know the old debate about whether or not Ives touched up his compositions to make them sound more “ahead of their time.” How important is when something was done? Is that the most important part of what makes it historical? Does it ultimately have anything to do with how it is appreciated in future generations? Is preserving a revision ultimately lying about history?

As a period-instrument loving historical purist I’m somewhat upset by all of this, but I’ve tinkered a little bit with old compositions sometimes too. I’m sure you have too.

Are there fault lines that shouldn’t be crossed here? If so, what are they?

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4 thoughts on “Rewriting the Past and Calling it History at What Price?

  1. ezequiel

    Rewriting the Past: a comment
    You raise some interesting points. But, as I see it, the real “question” here has to do with intrinsic value as a function of time, or rather as a function of historical context. I would suggest that ultimately “when” a work was done is only truly relevant to the work’s contemporaries. As soon as we have gained sufficient historical perspective then it is the work’s intrinsic values and not it’s position vis-a-vis a tortured understanding of “historical transformation” that becomes important. When confronted with an artistic expression from, say, 1745, our response does not really change should we learn that said work was in fact authored in 1715, or 1770. We may revise our understanding of its historical significance, if we are into that kind of exercise, but the actual perceptual impact of the work, if we are honest, should remain unaltered. Because in the end, a work’s relationship to its time is not essentially a matter of “surface” but it’s point of view, which expresses itself in more ways than just the choice of syntax; and a work’s relevance, to use that unfortunate notion, is not determined by the historical significance of its vocabulary but rather by its depth of human experience.

  2. JohnClare

    You raise a delightful topic (as per usual). Not to overly simply things, to me it is “does the end justify the means?” The basic question arises, though, is the thought of being revolutionary the genius or when it is revised, the end product make the piece revolutionary? And how about the compositional journey that the composer comes to to get there. Verklarte Nacht is still a masterpiece even though later Schoenberg wrote his Piano Pieces, Opus 11 – and if he would have revised either, would that change them in your eyes?
    Then there are all the ancedotes about Brahms changing a note here and there, very slowly, and it is well crafted. Does the end (of The Rite of Spring) justify the means? By the way, I think we should start planning now for the 100th anniversary of the Rite, with an “original instruments” performance – authentic with a crowd yelling and riot, recorded digitally!!!
    Anyway, back to the topic, if a composer “admits” to the later revision, doesn’t the cloud of revolution disapate?
    I’ve had an interesting conversation with Alvin Singleton about composers basically working on a single piece their entire career, always trying to find “that” solution…

  3. sgordon

    One of the convenient things about recordable media – and by that I mean everything from notes on paper to an mp3 file – is that the past is never lost. A Frank Zappa may choose to re-record segments of works to remove the “mistakes”, but since those works were already released into the world in their original format, we never really “lose” them. Maybe original copies of Burnt Weenie Sandwich and The Grand Wazoo are more expensive today (and harder to find) but they still exist, and likely there will always be bootleg pressings of them for those who’d like to hear the uncorrected proofs. Stravinsky adding a chord to the end of Rite no more invalidates the original than, say, Iceburn’s reimagining of it. Is LaMonte Young’s new JI version of his string trio any different than any of the the 8,307 different versions of Pärt’s Fratres? Think of it as “more to love”.

    Doesn’t “updating” a work gives us a better view of the artist? In addition to seeing their work develop over time, we can see them revisit the same works at later dates – to be able to compare two different works from different eras of a composer’s life is interesting – but to be able to compare two versions of the same work is even more illuminating into the artist’s development and growth. Perhaps it is just the artist’s urge to be able to do something new with an existing work –

    Of course, there are situations when the revamping of a work tells us more about the times than the artist – witness Spielberg’s new E.T. where the guns have been digitally replaced with walkie-talkies. Sometimes it’s simply that an artist wants to take an idea further – Gavin Bryars’ extended Jesus’ Blood, which I’d never trade for the original, shorter one. Or, like, Zappa, maybe an artist feels their original vision was compromised – due to time constraints, their record company breathing down their backs, lack of access to the right technology, the community mores of the day… there are any number of reasons why it could happen.

    There are other cases: the famous diaries of Anais Nin, who regularly rewrote lengthy passages so they would reflect not how she felt about people at the time she wrote them, but going so far as to change her first impressions of people if her present opinion of them had changed (to the point where one critic referred to them as “liaries”), and some say to make her youthful writing appear deeper and more profound – to make it seem she was the wordsmith she would be in her 40s at age 11!

    Still, it was her decision as an artist. And what was released was what she wanted released, even if it wasn’t fully what she claimed it was. I don’t think there’s anything tremendously wrong with that, nor do I think it hurt anyone in the end – Gore Vidal’s bitter whining aside, I doubt Nin’s ever-changing opinion of him affected his book sales. (his transformation into a pseudo-intellectual Jewbaiting bore, on the other hand…)

    But enough about words, let’s talk sound – I don’t think remixing for CD, as opposed to the type of “remixing” in which new music is added, or the original tracks are cut-up and rearranged, is re-creation. It’s just taking advantage of the additional fidelity. Many albums, on first transfer to CD sounded like crap. Analog sound accentuates different frequencies than digital does – sometimes a work needs to be remixed just to make it sound the same. Anyone who made the mistake of buying the first MCA issues of The Who’s catalog on CD knows what I’m talking about. The 2002 edition of Straight Outta Compton is just that – a remaster – with a couple of tracks (Dopeman and 8-ball if I remember right) remixed to boost the bass a little. The songs weren’t changed, there were no new chords added.

    There are exceptions to all that, of course – Ted Turner’s plan to colorize old B&W films which he owned the rights to is a good example, since it was change without the artist’s consent, coupled with his intent to shelve the originals. Thankfully the market turned it’s back on that abomination.

    It seems to me that for the most part adverse reactions to “change” are mostly overreactions based in nostalgia. And the idea that our impressions of a work are more important than the artist’s vision is a whole other can of worms – though I do believe that the audience is integral to the artist, tha’s taking things a bit too far.
    What’s the point of all this blather? I suppose it’s just a long-winded way of saying “I have a copy of Burnt Weenie Sandwich already. I’m not worried.”

  4. bdrogin

    Anyone who wants to listen to Gershwin the way it was originally performed, please raise their hands.

    Yeah, I’m glad I caught D’Oyly Carte before they went bellyup (although the web indicates someone revived them a few years later), but I think that re-orchestrated version on Broadway was okay, too.

    OK, I don’t want anyone touching my Weill, but I take that very personally. Oh, wait, millions have touched his “Mack the Knife,” it made him independently wealthy. Oops.

    Barry Drogin
    Not Nice Music


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