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…


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


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.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chopin Heard and Woven in South Pasadena

On April 11, 2010, at South Pasadena Library's historic Community Room, poets and pianists gathered to celebrate Chopin's birthday and share the treasures of Chopin with Cherries. The terrible tragedy of a Presidential plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, with the death of 95 victims on the previous day, April 10, darkened the mood. The tragic accident was acknowledged with a minute of silence.

Fifteen poets read their works in person: Millicent Borges Accardi, Peggy Castro, Helen Graziano, Laura Mays Hoopes, Lois P. Jones, Rick Lupert, Radomir Luza, Mira Mataric, Susan Rogers, Marylin N. Robertson, Russell Salamon, Kathi Stafford, Maja Trochimczyk, Erika Wilk, and Kath Abela Wilson. In addition, we heard poetry by: Lia Brooks, Victor Contoski, Emily Fragos, John Z. Guzlowski, Lola Haskins, Elizabeth Hiscox, Marlene Hitt, R. Romea Luminarias, Ruth Nolan, Dean Pasch, and Nils Petersen.

Chopin’s music was played by special guest artist, pianist Dr. Neil Galanter in the first half and students of Prof. Roza Yoder from Pacific Azusa University: Kristi Chiou, Staci Chiou, Sue Zhou, and Anna Nizhegorodtseva. An additional treat during the intermission was the unveiling of a new Chopin tapestry by Monique Lehman, created for an exhibition in Poland.

One of the guests, writer Frank Zajaczkowski, author of Passage to England among other books, described this event in his blog, My So-Called Paradise (April 12, 2010). Frank divides his life between the Caribbean islands and Los Angeles and many of his notes are about his island adventures, sailing and fishing. This is how he describes his adventure with Chopin:

Sunday at twilight. South Pasadena. The Library. Set in the middle of a small, verdant park.

The skies are cloudy; wind churns the dense trees. It is perfect stagecraft for the early evening poetry reading and piano recital inside the community room of this graceful building.

It is, of course, the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth this year, and tonight poetry will be read from a collected edition of tribute poems, Chopin with Cherries, edited by Maja Trochimczyk.

Mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, études, impromptus and préludes fill the small chamber at the hands of students and master pianists alike, with poetical interludes that link the voice and timbre of human longing and laughter through the evening and the centuries.

When at last we leave, Netty and I, the rain begins in earnest, determined to play its part.

Rain on, dark clouds. Blow strong, you winds. Ring out the stars in their elegant appreciation.

Some of the musicians and poets (L-R): Kristi Chiou, Stacy Chiou, Anna Nizghorodtseva, Russell Salamon, Neil Galanter, Sue Zhou, Mira Mataric, Erika Wilk, Lois P. Jones, Kathabela Wilson, Marilyn N. Robertson, Rick Lupert, Radomir Luza. Seated: Maja Trochimczyk, Susan Rogers, Monique Lehman, and Peggy Castro.

More photos from the event are in its Picasa Web Album.

(c) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chopin by Emma Lazarus (Vol. 1, No. 2)

Soon after Chopin’s death, his friend and rival, Franz Liszt established the topos of Chopin’s art as pure poetry in a biography published in 1852. In Liszt’s lofty language (co-authored by Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein), Chopin “moved among us like a spirit consecrated by all that Poland possesses of poetry.”

Via several English-language editions of Liszt’s biography and through the efforts of its American translator, Martha Walker Cook (1807-1874), the image of Chopin as a poet of sound entered American letters. A nearly forgotten writer and translator, Cook published essays in the Continental Monthly Magazine and served for a time as its editor. In addition to translating Chopin’s biography, she also translated works of Polish romantic literature including poetry by Zygmunt Krasiński. Her Liszt translation, dedicated to a forgotten Polish émigré pianist Jan N. Pychowski (1818-1900), was first published in 1863 and by 1880 reached its fourth edition.

American poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), knew this book and she loved Chopin’s music. Lazarus came from a prominent Jewish family and was educated at home in New York City where she was born. She knew many languages and had broad artistic interests; she wrote a novel, two plays, and translations of Jewish poetry. She also edited and translated works of Goethe and Heine for their first American publications. Her main title to fame is The New Colossus, a sonnet written in 1883 and partly engraved on the Statue of Liberty. All Americans know of her call to open the doors to freedom for all immigrants: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Lazarus’s poem about Chopin established a conceptual sphere in which to view Chopin’s oeuvre: a world of exalted spirituality, rich symbolism, subtle elegance, angelic sensitivity, and aristocratic sophistication. For instance, musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg’s study of gender issues in Chopin reception, borrows Lazarus’s phrases to capture the “effeminate” image of the composer. The four-stanza poem about the great composer, known for his perfectionist polishing of his musical gems, consists of four sonnets, each with a different variant of the rhyme scheme:
I. a b a b c d c d e f e f g g
II. a b b a c d d c e e f e e f
III. a b a b c d c d e f e f g g
IV. a b a b c d c d e f f e g g

Stanzas I and II are in the form of the English sonnet; stanza IV is its variant and stanza II has elements from an Italian sonnet, with its characteristic avoidance of the final, rhymed couplet. The long, ten-syllable lines flow smoothly, with rich imagery. For Lazarus, in Chopin’s music,
… beneath the strain
Of reckless revelry, vibrates and sobs
One fundamental chord of constant pain,
The pulse-beat of the poet’s heart that throbs.
So yearns, though all the dancing waves rejoice,
The troubled sea's disconsolate, deep voice.

It is hard not to cite the next sonnet-stanza in its entirety:
Who shall proclaim the golden fable false
Of Orpheus' miracles? This subtle strain
Above our prose-world's sordid loss and gain
Lightly uplifts us. With the rhythmic waltz,
The lyric prelude, the nocturnal song
Of love and languor, varied visions rise,
That melt and blend to our enchanted eyes.
The Polish poet who sleeps silenced long,
The seraph-souled musician, breathes again
Eternal eloquence, immortal pain.
Revived the exalted face we know so well,
The illuminated eyes, the fragile frame,
Slowly consuming with its inward flame,
We stir not, speak not, lest we break the spell.

The matter was set, then. Chopin was a poet of a very peculiar kind: “The poet who must sound earth, heaven, and hell!” (Lazarus). In attempting to thus define the poetic task of music, Lazarus had unknowingly followed in the footsteps of Polish romantic poet, Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883), who, in his masterly poem about Chopin’s piano, Fortepian Szopena, articulated the timelessness of perfection found in Chopin’s works, contrasted with the violent destruction of his instrument by the Russian soldiers. But this is a topic for another day…
Emma Lazarus's "Chopin" is reprinted in the section on Chopin's "Name" in the poetry anthology Chopin with Cherries: A Tribute in Verse (Moonrise Press, 2010). Finding this sophisticated contribution to Chopin reception was one of my greatest joys as the volume's editor.

(c) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk

Image credit: Postcard “F. Chopin Music and Visions” with a fragment
of the Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2 and a vision of
the Łazienki Palace in Warsaw. Published Nakładem Braci Rzepkowicz
in Warsaw, Poland, c. 1900s-1910s. Maja Trochimczyk Collection.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why Chopin with Cherries?

In 2010 the world of music celebrates the birthday of Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849), a pianist, composer, and "poet of tones" who inspired generations with the beauty of his music. I decided to add my little bit to this celebration and published an anthology, Chopin with Cherries: A Tribute in Verse which grew from a small chapbook into a volume of 123 poems by 92 poets in no time at all!

There are all sorts of poets and poems in the book and they share one important thing: love for Chopin's music which is heard, literally, everywhere, from the concert halls, to airplanes, and shopping malls (even without "gone Chopin, Bach soon"). Here, we'll trace the apparitions of Chopin's music in the strangest places around the world, like Japanese music boxes and computer games, as well as on concert stages of the world.

Chopin with Cherries brings together a variety of approaches and poetic forms, such as free verse, letter-poems, villanelle, sonnet, rhymed poems in couplets, prose poetry, and tanka. Some poets write about details from Chopin's life, women he loved, Wodzinska and Sand, as well as the circumstances of his illnesses and death. Others focus on his music - on its meaning as a symbol of fragile beauty in the modern world, or on the emotional impact of individual pieces.

The poets in Chopin with Cherries include: Millicent Borges Accardi, Austin Alexis, Lucy Anderton, Sheila Black, George Bodmer, Lia Brooks, Kerri Buckley, Allison Campbell, Peggy Castro, Sharon Chmielarz, Victor Contoski, Clark Crouch, Beata Pozniak Daniels, Jessica Day, Diane Shipley DeCillis, Lori Desrosiers, Charlie Durrant, T. S. Eliot, David Ellis, Donna L. Emerson, Charles Ades Fishman, Jennifer S. Flescher, Gretchen Fletcher, Linda Nemec Foster, Emily Fragos, Jarek Gajewski, Helen Graziano, John Z. Guzlowski, Lola Haskins, Shayla Hawkins, Elizabyth A. Hiscox, Marlene Hitt, Roxanne Hoffman, Laura L. Mays Hoopes, Ben Humphrey, Carol J. Jennings, Charlotte Jones, Lois P. Jones, Georgia Jones-Davis, Christine Klocek-Lim, Jean L. Kreiling, Leonard Kress, Emma Lazarus, Marie Lecrivain, Jeffrey Levine, Amy Lowell, R. Romea Luminarias, Rick Lupert, Radomir V. Luza, Mira N. Mataric, Ryan McLellan, Anna Maria Mickiewicz, Elisabeth Murawski, Ruth Nolan, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Rosemary O'Hara, Dean Pasch, Nils Peterson, Richard Pflum, William Pillin, Kenneth Pobo, Carrie A. Purcell, Marilyn N. Robertson, Susan Rogers, Alison Ross, Mary Rudge, Russell Salamon, Gabriel Shanks, Marian Kaplun Shapiro, Joseph Somoza, Lusia Slomkowska, Kathi Stafford, Maxine R. Syjuco, Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Margaret C. Szumowski, Katrin Talbot, Taoli-Ambika Talwar, Thom Tammaro, Mark Tardi, Cheryl M. Thatt, Tammy L. Tillotson, Maja Trochimczyk, Helen Vandepeer, Devi Walders, Erika Wilk, Martin Willitts, Jr., Kath Abela Wilson, Leonore Wilson, Meg Withers, Anne Harding Woodworth, and Marianne Worthington.

Why Chopin with Cherries, then? Instead of an answer, let me cite one of my own poems in the book:

A Study with Cherries

After Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1 and the cherry orchard
of my grandparents, Stanisław and Marianna Wajszczuk

I want a cherry,
a rich, sweet cherry
to sprinkle its dark notes
on my skin, like rainy preludes
drizzling through the air.

Followed by the echoes
of the piano, I climb
a cherry tree to find rest
between fragile branches
and relish the red perfection –
morning cherry music.

Satiated, sleepy,
I hide in the dusty attic.
I crack open the shell
of a walnut to peel
the bitter skin off,
revealing white flesh –
a study in C Major.

Tasted in reverie,
the harmonies seep
through light-filled cracks
between weathered beams
in Grandma’s daily ritual
of Chopin at noon.

(c) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk