Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chopin and The Karate Kid (Vol. 1, No. 4)


“You have to play the pauses” – says the distraught American teacher to his scatterbrained Chinese student, after she rushed through a beautiful melody without paying attention to proper phrasing and expression. She played all the notes mechanically, like a music box. Her technique was spotless, immaculate, but there was no soul in the sounds she made. The adolescent performer, Mei Ying, a young girl played by Wen Wen, appears in the newest re-incarnation of The Karate Kid (2010), directed by Harald Zwart, with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan as the stars.

It is hard not to smile when hearing the melody Mei Ying plays, in the context of this film: the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. Posthumous, by Fryderyk Chopin, scored for violin and piano. Chopin composed this piece in 1830 and dedicated it to his sister, Ludwika, but did not publish it. The Nocturne first appeared in print 26 years after his death. However, it was not written for the violin.

Apart from an early Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 8, and using violins in his orchestral works, Chopin did not write for the violin. Even in the Trio, he thought after hearing it a year later, using a viola instead of the violin would have been much better, as it would have better blended with the cello. This he confided to his friend, Tytus Wojciechowski in a letter of August 31, 1830 (letter no. 63 in the new edition of Fryderyk Chopin’s Correspondence, edited by Zofia Helman, Zbigniew Skowron, and Hanna Wroblewska-Strauss, University of Warsaw, 2010).

What we hear in The Karate Kid is a transcription of a piano piece for violin and piano made by an experienced film composer and arranger, Craig Leone, who also penned film scores for Ghost River and Orbit: Journey to the Moon. The first time the soaring melody appears, marked “Lento, con gran espressione,” the girl is accompanied by her teacher playing the piano. Mei Ying is late to her practice and she still does not understand what she plays, her teacher complains. No “grand expression” here. The teacher certainly is not pleased – so much is at stake at her recital. She is set to win admission to a prestigious music school in Beijing, but she has to work hard, much harder, to have a chance.

The second time we hear Chopin and Mei Ying’s violin is at her "recital" (actually, a competition). Mei Ying runs in late, after spending a carefree day with Dre Parker (Jayden Smith) at a traditional festival instead of practicing. Everyone is anxiously waiting, then Mei Ying takes up her bow and the magic begins. The graceful, expressive melody captivates the audience. A string orchestra of Chinese youth plays the accompaniment of the “left-hand” chords and arpeggios expanded to symphonic proportions. (The violin part is actually performed by Alyssa Park, a skilled actress-musician who appeared in many films as violinist or violin teacher, or recorded soundtracks, including The Soloist, American Teen, and Inside Man.)

While running around the festival with her crush, Dre, Mei was having fun, but did not waste her time. She was learning from “the Karate Kid” himself what he was just taught by his master, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) about living in the present and letting go of anxiety and tension. The passed-on lesson worked: Mei Ying did “play the pauses” and the intense beauty of her tone and expression made all the difference when the timing was right. She won her scholarship, but Dre lost, being banned from any further contact with her by her ambitious, affluent parents. (The reversal of this ban is implied in the final sequences of the film, after the momentous tournament victory of the young kung-fu student.)

“Playing the pauses” means, in lay terms, “tempo rubato” – the flexible give-and-take of minuscule fluctuations in rhythm that make music “breathe” with life, instead of sounding stiff and rigid. The emotional impact of rhythmic fluidity in a continuous, arching melody was summarized by one anonymous YouTube user who said, “this song makes the soul weep.” A Nocturne is not a “song,” but Chopin was the king of “tempo rubato” and “stile cantabile” (the singing style). There’s more to learn about it in a book by Richard Hudson, Stolen Time: The History of Tempo Rubato (Clarendon Press, 1997).

Why score Chopin for the violin, though? Why transform a piano work into a violin concerto? Is there no other piece for violin and piano in the repertoire of thousands that could be used here? Why this particular Nocturne? I have not talked to the director, so I do not know for sure. But this is THE Chopin year. And this is THE Chopin piece for filmmakers, since it appeared in the opening of The Pianist by Roman Polanski (more about this later). Well, you may guess “why” use a transcription, when you hear the first competitor for the scholarship during the concert: a pianist playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee, originally composed for violin and piano, but transcribed for piano solo by Serge Rachmaninoff. Absurd as it sounds, this buzzing portrayal of an insect should be noisily flying under the violinist’s bow, but instead it is mired in trills on the keyboard. Why not something else for the piano? A piece originally written for this instrument, perhaps?

“Transcription” is the key here, what we are witnessing is a “remake,” or a series of “remakes.” I believe these transcriptions are all tongue-in-cheek references to the core existential fact about the film. Called The Karate Kid like the original Karate Kid on which it is based (1984), the film is set in China, not in Reseda, California, and the martial arts it depicts are Chinese “kung fu” not Japanese karate. Incidentally, the Asian releases have titles reflecting the actual content of the film, leaving behind the historical reference to the first version of this coming-of-age story: The Kung-Fu Kid in China and Best Kid in Japan and Korea.

From Japan to China, from karate to kung-fu, from a piano nocturne to a slow movement of a concerto for violin and orchestra… Remakes, all remakes. A new version is bigger, “better” than the old one. While the orchestral transcriptions of Chopin’s Nocturne were done by Craig Leone, the film was actually scored by James Horner (who got two Oscars for his music to Titanic, and scored over 100 films including Avatar, Braveheart, two Zorro movies, and Apollo 13). In a feature about the music for this film, the director, Harald Zwarts, said that he wanted to have an “emotional score” using “several significant Asian instruments” and that he selected Horner because his music could both depict this “big, epic, traditional China and have the tiny small emotional moments.”

Horner admitted that it would have been very easy to just have a lot of songs instead of an orchestral score. The songs are there, of course, including the official theme song, “Never Say Never” sung by the teen star-of-the-day, Justin Bieber with Jaden Smith, and a gaggle of other hits-in-the-making packaged together in the film’s soundtrack CDs by Sony Pictures – Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rain, Lady Gaga...

As far as I know, the violin transcription of Chopin's Nocturne is not included in those materials. The powerful presence of the well-known, romantic melody is felt in the moment it appears in the film. Its emotional impact stems, in part, from the meaning associated with this nocturne since its appearance in Roman Polanski’s Oskar-winning The Pianist (2002). Based on a true story of a Polish Radio pianist, Władysław Szpilman and starring Adrien Brody, The Pianist begins with a radio broadcast of the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (played rather fast by Janusz Olejniczak) which is interrupted by German bombs falling on besieged Warsaw in September 1939. The pianist first refuses to stop playing and leaves the studio only after being thrown down onto the floor by the force of explosion. At the end, having miraculously survived unspeakable horrors, the Polish-Jewish musician returns to his instrument and plays the same melody that he rehearsed silently in his mind during the years in hiding while his family and friends were killed and his home destroyed. Beauty transcends it all…

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Since The Karate Kid does not use Chopin in marketing materials, here is the trailer to The Pianist with the Nocturne: www.youtube.com/watch?v=itR0-I9idXk.

Claudio Arrau’s 1960s version of this Nocturne is slow, imaginative and rich in rhythmic and expressive nuances.

Adam Harasiewicz recorded the Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor in 1968, and his version is slightly faster than Arrau’s. It is delicate and forward moving, effervescent and elegant.

Janusz Olejniczak who plays the Nocturne in The Pianist, has the least amount of tempo rubato and rhythmic irregularities. He also plays it much faster, with accelerated “flights of scales” at the end.

(c) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk

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PHOTO CREDIT: Austrian postcard with a portrait of Chopin by Eichert. Vienna: BKWI (Bruder Kohn), c. 1900-1910. The series also includes a portrait of pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Maja Trochimczyk Collection.

4 comments:

  1. Very interesting! Here's a little "story" about Chopin's "soul" music: A number of years ago Chopin/Mozart pianist Lili Krauss stayed in my home while performing with the Ft. Lauderdale Symphony (now defunct) and practiced every day on my piano. ("You should hear me on a Steinway. I sing!" she said.) I was playing a lot of both Chopin and Mozart at the time and asked her to autograph pages in my music books. Her comments: Mozart is better because Chopin is too "emotional." Well, duh! That's what makes his music so good!

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  2. very interesting, I find many similarities with visual arts, playing pause is a bit like working with negative space, leaving certain areas in a painting untouched so the painted areas will define them
    for more visual arts check my blog:
    http://artsurreal.blogspot.com/2010_05_01_archive.html

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  3. Nicely said Maja! It reminds me of what I overheard once at the Magic Castle. Most people who do magic are "mechanics," that is they go thru the process and have the steps and the process correct but. . . it's that "playing the spaces" extra part that makes a magician.

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  4. I think it is great that Chopin's music was incorporated into the plotline of the movie and will now plan to see the movie when it gets to the UK. The NY times review http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/movies/11karate.html?scp=1&sq=karate%20kid&st=cse
    indicates the movie is a bit of a mixed bag, but I am intrigued. The question still remains as to why Nocturne was not included in the soundtrack to the film? Was it a belief that it would not appeal to a young, 'modern' audience? This would be a shame, especially since orchestral music has so well been incorporated in other contemporary movie soundtracks with great commercial success. Adagio for Strings, for example, is what people probably most remember from both the Platoon movie and subsequent soundtrack and is now a staple of many pops concert performances.

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