By Ricky O’Bannon
There is something so musically fascinating about a great cover song.
It reminds us that musicians very often see beyond genre or stylistic trappings of a particular song to the musical DNA: chords, melody, lyrics. Where we might see only a final product, great musicians might see the starting place and the decisions the original artist made as well as different directions they might have taken.
Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams made pop charts history when seven of the tracks off his song-by-song cover of country-turned-pop-star Taylor Swift’s album 1989 debuted on Billboard’s “Hot Rock Songs” list. Like any story that gets Internet traction, Adams’ cover effort has been dissected by writers and commentators arguing about everything from whether the successful album reveals something about gender politics in the music industry to whether the rock fans of Adams or pop fans of Swift should feel more vindicated. But beyond the (sometimes interesting) noise, most critics have agreed that the cover is successful because it finds new and interesting musical colors in the songs, and perhaps most importantly, it is sincere.
Sincerity is often less fashionable than irony, and the world of cover songs is littered with irony. Punk bands cover Britney Spears, metal bands cover NSYNC, and then there is whatever it is lounge singer cover artist Richard Cheese does. Ironic covers tend to be one-note. They’re fun for those on the right side of the joke (which is usually another genre poking fun at top 40 lyrics), but they don’t really warrant repeat listens in the same way a cover by an artist who sincerely appreciates their source material might.
Similarly the best covers opt to find new musical space within a song beyond just recontextualizing the original into the tropes of a different subgenre or just relying entirely on a dramatic change of mood. Writer Tom Junod called the latter “the wan cover,” which describes a habit of taking an upbeat pop or hip-hop song, slowing it down with whispery, overly sentimental vocals and down-tempo guitar. The first time you hear a saccharine indie rock version of a gangster rap song, it’s great, but that trick gets tired quickly.
Covers per se aren’t really common practice in the classical sphere the same way they are in rock music, but composers do at times look to pay homage and find new musical possibilities in other composers’ work. In those cases, the most enduring pieces are those that like a good pop cover show sincerity and love for the original source and that also go beyond just recontextualizing musical themes to find new possibilities.
1. Max Richter’s Four Seasons
When a pop cover song is truly successful, it makes us rethink the original. We listen closer to the melody or lyrics we know so well that we hear it ringing in our memory before it hits our ears. When asked why would he ever think of reworking Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, musician and composer Max Richter said that he wanted to reclaim the music for himself. “It's just everywhere. In a way, we stop being able to hear it,” Richter told The Guardian’s Tom Service. Like a word we hear or type so many times that it loses its meaning, music we know too well and hear too often can be hard to hear fresh. In Richter’s Recomposed, the overly familiar lines of the Four Seasons are audible, but they move in unexpected ways and are at times obscured to cause the listener to lean in, listen actively and hopefully better appreciate Vivaldi’s original notes we might take for granted.
2. Michael Gordon rewriting Beethoven
“It was kind of an overwhelming task,” composer Michael Gordon said about being commissioned to writing a piece that related to Beethoven in some way. The way Gordon approached the piece was to imagine he had come across the same musical ideas and materials that Beethoven had when figuring out how to write his piece. In some ways that mirrors the way Adams said he wanted to sandblast Swift’s songs from 1989 down to their core elements before building them back out. When Gordon approached Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, he said he was looking for a single idea from each movement to play with. In the first movement, it was just the opening chords that Gordon said just somehow mean Beethoven to anyone who hears them. In the second, Gordon wanted to play around with the iconic main melody, changing its harmonic end point and building it into a semi-canon.
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 (second movement)
Gordon: Rewriting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony
3. Louis Andriessen rewriting Beethoven
If in the classical world there is any equivalent to a punk rock cover of a pop song, the closest we might get is Andriessen’s somewhat irreverent mash-up of Beethoven’s nine symphonies for “orchestra and ice-cream vendor’s bell.” Andriessen calls it a “respectful parody” of Beethoven, but the Dutch composer (maybe best known for his piece Mysteriën) also says he admires Beethoven from the “first to last minute of my life.” Instead the target is the “bourgeois concertgoer or concert.” There is sincerity along with irony boiled into Andriessen's piece, which is created as a critique of symphony orchestras, their conventions and the way the demand of playing works from the canon can limit the available options for contemporary composers.
4. Hindemith’s metamorphosis of Carl Maria von Weber
One of the most common ways a composer might pay homage to another is through variations on a theme. Paul Hindemith chose some lesser known works by Carl Maria von Weber for his Symphonic Metamorphosis. What is remarkable about Hindemith’s take on Weber’s ideas is that often some of the most obvious musical elements remain recognizable even when the musical decisions underneath are entirely alien to the original. Hindemith playfully declined to answer anyone who asked just which themes of Weber he was cribbing, but scholars eventually figured it out.
Weber: Turandot incidental music (overture)
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis (second movement)
5. Steve Reich (and many others) take on Steven Sondheim
Earlier this fall, pianist Anthony de Mare released Liaisons: a 36-track album that asked contemporary composers to rewrite songs by Stephen Sondheim for solo piano. “I created this project because I wanted to show Sondheim’s influence on composers of many different genres and also to enhance and add to the piano repertoire with a whole new body of work,” said De Mare. The list of arrangers on the project spans several genres, but the amount of contemporary classical fire power (Nico Muhly, Michael Daugherty, Andy Akiho, Mason Bates, William Bolcom, Steve Reich) is impressive. Each piece displays a profound love of the source material while still showing off the composer’s individual fingerprints. One of the best examples of that is Steve Reich's contribution. Reich and Sondheim have a deep admiration for one another, and the minimalist arrangement of “Finishing the Hat” shows both that sincerity for the original while being something unmistakably Reich.
Sondheim’s Finishing the hat