the cmrc blog

Lost in Translation: a miscellany


Big Tam’s bakery, somewhere in Glasgow. A clear, crisp, mid-January morning: puddles litter the street outside and the shop window glows warm and friendly in the sunshine. A Customer enters, examines the treats on display beneath the counter, then jabs her finger at the glass.

Customer:    Izzat a doughnut or a meringue?

Big Tam:        Ah yer deid right hen, it’s a doughnut.


Around this time last year, I was asked to write a piece of music which responded to the colour white, the ceramic art of Edmund de Waal, and the poetry of Paul Celan. I described the experience here, highlighting the difficulties of taking a concept out of its home domain and trying to realise it in another medium. But perhaps rather than labelling this as a problem I should more properly have celebrated it as a fundamental aspect of the creative process. One doesn’t (unless one is the demiurge, or Xenakis) create ex nihilo, one reacts, relates, distorts, adapts, retells, transforms, translates.

Or at least I do: I don’t think there’s any music I’ve written where there isn’t something outside the piece which I’m trying to bring into its orbit, something external I’m trying to capture in new sounds. It is variously some text, an image, a physical sensation or memory; it may be another piece of music or moment of music, or even a memory of a gesture of a performance. Whatever it is, I become obsessed with translating it into my musical language. Essentially, it allows me to compose.


(Actually that Xenakis remark is way off – his work seems to me musically almost without precedent, but translation is at the heart of some of his most celebrated pieces, particularly where physical masses are modelled in sound.)


Why call this process translation? Why not just a ‘response’? Essentially, because I’m not responding: I’m making the original part of me. I re-make it.

Translation implies fidelity, but is predicated on change. The tension caused by the inability to replicate across different languages / media / performance situations / instrumentations / time-periods is, I find, fantastically creatively productive. It can suggest new ways of hearing or moving in music, new types of (dis)continuities, new grammars, new timbres. If you demand that musical translation really works as music in its own terms (and I do demand this), what emerges is no mere copy. In order to be true to the original – to make like the original a living, breathing work of art – then the incompatibility of media inevitably results in distortion, misreading, misremembering. Fidelity requires disfiguration.

But what is it, precisely, that I am being faithful to? What are the crucial features of the original that must be maintained? What is its essence: what is critical, what secondary? For the simultaneous translation of a politician, or the dissemination of a sacred text, the bounds are tight; but for creative work there’s a lot more wriggle room. Or, rather, there’s scope to choose what is important to you, and to hell with what the originator intended. (In the nicest possible way.)


It’s funny when you’re that originator. I’m currently trying to figure out what I need to do to shift my trio Visiones from clarinet, cello, piano to violin, cello, piano, with the added strangeness that both non-keyboard parts were basically written originally at the viola. So I’m making a violin translation of a clarinet translation of a viola mess, and trying to unpick what I was wanting from that original viola part while remembering that what became Visiones is the clarinet distortion of that viola thought. My publisher expressed some surprise that I was considering rewriting the piece, as the final section in particular has music that’s very particular to the clarinet as an instrument. But it seems less problematic to me, since that clarinet writing was just one realisation of a particular musical situation: there are plenty of other possible realisations, and in this instance it’s not the notes that matter.


It’s not the notes that matter. Grasping this idea is one of the secrets of successful orchestration, I keep telling my students. Orchestration is a type of translation, I think, and the sounds must be made to sound well in their new tongue, otherwise there is no point in translating them at all.

(Except of course pitches do matter, but you need to know how and why and whether they can stand being shuffled about a bit or completely replaced or whether it needs to be precisely these pitches at precisely these places. When you understand their mattering – and how their mattering may change in a new context and new timbre – that’s when you can really have fun.)


What the wild flowers tell me: Puccini vs Clanger. (Also: I <3 Michael Palin.)


There is a particularly interesting body of work that invites the viewer/listener/reader to reflect on the act of translation, where translation becomes an essential aspect of the aesthetic experience. At its most cheerfully banal in parodies, or in one song to the tune of another, there are many other more subtle examples of this feature. In fact, it’s frequently present in the title of an artwork: more than just a name, it tells us what the piece is, which is often also something that it is not.

So when de Waal presents us with epyllion (2013) or three sounds (2015) or composition for three voices (2015) he is inviting us to read his ceramics as poetry, or hear them as music, asking us to engage in a translation from static sculpture to dynamic sound as a way of experiencing his art. At times he is even more specific, with Ice, Eden (2013) and your hand full of hours (2013), being just two of several works that share titles with Paul Celan’s poems; or with Lichtzwang (2014), which not only takes the title of Celan’s final collection but also the form of an open book. Placed on a wall in the Vienna Volksgarten’s Theseus Temple, this is sculpture become sacred text.

These translations, the tension between the is and the is-not, initiate rich networks of reference that are key to the artworks’ meanings. Celan plays the same game himself in the poem Psalm, and this is also what I have tried to do in my Psalm (after Celan). It’s a gift of a title, of course, in that it refers to a musical genre as well as a specific poem, and so allows for multiple simultaneous translations; the challenge is to hold these all in balance and make something that works on its own terms.


Genre as translation. Each new work in a genre is a translation of the strange composite that forms the basis for the class. In the best examples, the child changes how we understand the original. The model is enriched and transformed by its descendent, just as the ‘copy’ relies on the prototype to formulate its referential network. (I’ll certainly acknowledge more than a little Bloomian apophrades here, though I don’t see why anxiety needs to enter into it.)


All the above is trivial. And translation probably isn’t even the most useful word. Here’s the real, practical magic:

I translate the touch and feel and energy (and yes, emotion) of music in my mind’s ear into dots on a page. A performer translates this static visual representation into physical gestures which in turn generate audio stimuli. The listener translates (and let’s be honest, confuses, conflates, ignores, reorders, wanders off, returns, remembers) these percepts within their inner world of imagination. Translation is difficult; it takes effort and engagement because it is necessarily creative: never mere replication, it always involves making something new; meaning is constructed not deciphered.

And it binds us together: I am making something from what you have offered me and it’s both yours and mine now.


Parliamo Glasgow?

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