Thursday 29 April 2021

Science Fiction, AI, music and collaborative creation: the Lim Fantasy of Companionship for piano and orchestra

Lim Fantasy of Companionship for piano and orchestra - Signum Classics
If we watch one of the classic Broadway musicals, then whose work are we seeing? 

With a work like My Fair Lady the creators are usually listed as Lerner and Loewe. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the book and the lyrics, whilst Frederick Loewe wrote the music. And of course, with many musicals there are three names, book, music and lyrics. But they are not the only ones responsible for creating the work. The work's original director and producers would have a big say, so after pre-Broadway tryouts many musicals had extensive surgery, which means that their final shape is a group affair.

With Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark, the book is by Moss Hart, who also directed, lyrics are by Ira Gerswhin, and the producer was Sam Harris. The musical features three extended dream episodes, mini-operettas, but Weill planned four of these and one was dropped, whilst the show-stopping patter song 'Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)' was added specifically because Danny Kaye had been cast as Russell Paxton and Kaye was good at patter songs!

But this fails to include another important member of the team. Kurt Weill was unusual, he did all his orchestrations, and virtually all the other Broadway composers relied on an orchestrator. The orchestrations for My Fair Lady were done by Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), a great musician who effectively created the mid-century Broadway sound, working with everyone from Jerome Kerne, to Gershwin, to Cole Porter, to Rogers and Hammerstein, to Lerner and Lowe. To talk about the Broadway musical from this period without mentioning Robert Russell Bennett is to miss out an essential component of the creative team.

There is a similar collective spirit, this time more deliberately so, in the Yellow River Concerto which premiered in China in 1969. It is the result of a group of composers arranging an older work, Yellow River Cantata, into a concerto, but in fact the presiding genius was a non-musician, Madame Mao. She initiated the project and, after the premiere in 1969, it was she who ordered the revisions to create what is now the standard version. There are a number of Chinese works from this period which are collaborative (and political), largely because of the power of political thought in the country at the period, the distrust of individual action and the emphasis on the collective.

Yet, somehow we remain somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of group creation in classical music. We might cheerfully list a whole group of names as co-creators in a Motown song, but we seem to have a need to assign a classical work to a single creator. So that we usually refer to Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark despite the complexities of its creation, and many commentators still seem uncomfortable with the idea that Claudio Monteverdi's final opera, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, which premiered in Venice in 1643 when the composer was 76, is in fact the product of a number of musical minds with the elderly composer guiding a group of younger composers.

Perhaps it is all Richard Wagner's fault. He is responsible for so much of our opera going; the popularisation of using a pit, the idea of sitting in the dark and concentrating on the performance, and the idea of the composer as a single presiding genuis (Wagner planned, wrote the librettos, wrote the music and was involved in the first performances at the festival he created).

Which brings me, in a very roundabout way, to the Lim Fantasy of Companionship for piano and orchestra

Artwork from CD booklet (Credit Woven Design)
Artwork from record booklet (Credit Woven Design)
This new work for piano and orchestra has just received its premiere recording on Signum Classics with Tedd Joselson (piano), Matthieu Eymard (voice),  London Voices, London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Arthur Fagan. The work's originator is Dr Susan Lim, a surgeon whose partner in the operating room for over a decade has been a robot surgeon, and Lim is a specialist in new disruptive technologies.  

So the work is Lim's fantasy, the idea of ALAN an inanimate AI with a craving for a soul and synthetic DNA. For Lim, ALAN is a plush baby lion, and the images in the record booklet offer a very specific visual realisation of this fantasy which may not appeal to everyone.

But, most importantly, Lim is not a composer so the creators of the this work are many, and various. Lim was joined by Christina Teenz Tan as co-creator, whilst the music derives from a number of sources. The work started as the idea for a musical, with Matthieu Eymard (from France), Ron Danziger (from Australia) and Joi Barua (from India) coming together to compose 15 songs to lyrics written by Christina Teenz Tan and Susan Lim. It was when Manu Martin was orchestrating these songs that the idea of the orchestral fantasy developed. It is composer Manu Martin who has drawn everything together, orchestrating the songs, writing new music and pulling the various threads into a single thirty-something minute work which follows Lim and Tan's six-act scenario. 

The result is very much akin to a film score, a rich, multi-threaded tapestry which moulds itself to a pre-existing story. You can follow the narrative in the music, and Martin's writing has a filming vividness to it with a brilliance to his orchestrations. Despite Tedd Joselsen's billing, this is not a piano concerto, and the piano part is concertante at most with showy passages but also sections where it slips into the background. I did wonder whether the piece might work better as a concert work if it was developed specifically as a concerto with a single protagonist.

Perhaps the most important thing about the Lim Fantasy of Companionship for piano and orchestra is not so much who created it but its message. It is the musical embodiment of Susan Lim's vision of companionship for the future, the idea that 'human engineering of the inanimate may ultimately produce companions previously unimagined'.

Lim Fantasy of Companionship for piano and orchestra - Manu Martin composer, Susan Lim & Christina Teenz Tan creators, Tedd Joselson piano, London Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Fagen conductor, London Voices, Matthieu Eymard solo voice - SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD670

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