Imaginary Music

When I was in elementary school I was obsessed with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It was the first piece of classical music I fell in love with. I first encountered it in Ravel’s orchestral version, as I think most people do, and was astounded to learn, years later, that it had been originally composed for piano solo. I borrowed the music from my piano teacher and tried to learn to play it in high school, despite the fact that it was far beyond my technical abilities at the time, an adventure which ended when I tripped and slid while running while carrying the score, tearing holes in both the score and the skin of my hands. I bought a replacement score to give back to my teacher, which turned out to be a piano reduction of the orchestra version (!), but which my teacher graciously accepted anyway.

And then many years later, I discovered a version of Pictures for—solo guitar. That blew my mind. Playing what, to me, was still at bottom an orchestral piece on the piano was weird enough—but guitar? There are only six strings! How was that even possible?

Here in the age of YouTube, that question is easily answered:

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But  now I’m more interested in the ways that the “real” versions of music shadow the other versions that so many of us make or listen to. I’ve been thinking about this because of my new job at Pace University, as a staff accompanist/coach in their Musical Theatre Department. The students I’m working with are practicing musical theatre literature; but instead of a pit orchestra, they have me. And I’m not even playing a piano, but an electronic keyboard; a pretend piano, if you will.

Musical theatre accompanists are different from classical accompanists in that we often make up large chunks of our accompaniments on the fly, adapting them from what’s on the page; but any pianist playing a reduction is in the same boat. You’re pretending to be a whole orchestra (or band). What a strange thing, to be pretending while you’re making music. The singers or instrumentalists we’re playing with are pretending too, maybe even more than we are; and that strikes me as even stranger.

Whether you hear the “original” version somehow behind or in-between the pretend version depends on how well you know each version. When I first heard the guitar version of Pictures at an Exhibition, every moment was a comparison, since I had long since memorized the orchestral version. I still can’t quite listen to the guitar version on its own terms. There are a lot of musical theatre songs that I learned from playing auditions—or, in the case of songs from shows my parents didn’t own the cast albums to, from the piano/vocal arrangements in Broadway songbooks. To me, those piano versions are  the original versions, so when I run across an orchestrated version of one of them, as happens from time to time, that’s a shock.

Things are even weirder in the pop world, where bands cover other people’s songs all the time. There’s a Beatles cover band called The Butties (“together 4 times longer than the Beatles themselves”) that I once heard play a Beatles tune that I’d somehow never encountered before. That was disorienting. And I listened to Jonathan Coulton’s version of “Baby Got Back” before I heard the original. (I know, I know; I live under a rock.)

I keep hearing it said that all music is in dialogue with other music; I always imagine stately halls where the pieces (wearing robes and sandals) talk to each other in hushed and dignified tones. But all that dialogue really takes place in people’s heads, which means very little of it is hushed or dignified, and there are as many dialogues as there are people. And if every piece of music other pieces of music looking over its shoulder and breathing down its neck, then maybe all music is pretend music to some extent.

You’ll excuse me. I have to go play some show tunes on an electronic keyboard now.