Saturday, May 21, 2011

Keyboard Music for Solo Instrument

One of the more fascinating sequences in Michael Lawrence’s BACH & friends documentary finds Richard Stoltzman in a church sanctuary with extremely live acoustics performing what appears to be his own transcription of the “chromatic fantasia” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 903.  This is probably one of the few occasions in which I felt that those church acoustics were actually enhanced the qualities of a really dense melodic line;  but I realized that this was not the first time I had heard an effort to reduce this particular instance of “all-finger” keyboard music to a single voice.  Trey Gunn had a rather awesome arrangement of his own that he would play on his own Chapman Stick in performances with Robert Fripp, one of which was captured on video.  This is clearly elaborate multi-voice music;  but the multiple voices can be embedded in a single melodic line, as we encounter in Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin.  Indeed, that spirit probably motivated Zoltán Kodály to do his transcription of the fantasy for solo viola.

All this reminded me of a far more impressive effort to transcribe keyboard music for a single-voice instrument.  Lewis Porter’s biography of John Coltrane has a quotation from pianist James “Hen Gates” Foreman about one particular episode on the road with Trane in 1949.  This is the part that leapt out at me:

He took my Hanon and Czerny piano exercise books, and some kind of way he was able to finger his horn to play these notes.  I couldn’t understand that.  In fact, all of the musicians in the band were amazed.  They couldn’t believe that he would make a lot of the notes.

Did Stoltzman know that Trane did this?  If so, I wonder if it inspired him to attempt the same!

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