David Power – (arr.) Art Decade

How do you ensure that the music you create will still be performed live – long after you have gone? For the great classical composers of the past, this was not a problem. Notate the work, get it published and sit back and enjoy the seemingly endless stream of performances. The jazz and folk communities do things differently – they keep the music going as a largely oral/aural tradition, freely reworking and developing the material as required.

But for pop musicians things are more problematic. Much pop music is indeed of an ephemeral nature so perhaps longevity is not an issue, but there are nevertheless a significant number of works that deserve to be kept alive through live performance. Take, for instance, the works of David Bowie. During his lifetime he continually breathed new life into much of his glorious back catalogue through extensive touring and performing. But now he is no longer with us, what next? Yes, he has given us the definitive recorded performances and there are doubtless hundreds of tribute bands churning out cover versions of varying quality … but this important canon of music deserves something more. It deserves arrangers and performers who are prepared to distill the essence of this music to give us fresh interpretations and reworkings – not only keeping the music alive, but also providing new insights and perspectives.

Cue David Power and his fine arrangement of ‘Art Decade’ from Bowie’s album ‘Low’. David’s reworking of this piece, as performed by the Delta Saxophone Quartet, is a tour de force. It cannot have been easy to arrange this particular Bowie/Eno collaboration; there is no notated version to refer to, the instrumentation often comprises heavily processed instruments and various synthesiser lines which can be hard to pin down and untangle.

An arrangement of this sonically rich piece for an acoustic ensemble is always going to be a challenge, but when you have sopranino/soprano/alto/tenor/baritone saxes and clarinets/bass clarinets at your disposal, solutions are perhaps possible. In this case, more than possible. All the melodic layers are indeed there, but the triumph is with how these instruments are able to capture the  richly evocative backdrop of synthesised sounds. This arrangement brings out the power and majesty of the original and, more importantly,  provides opportunity for live performance in the future. ‘Art Decade’ is no longer destined to become merely a museum piece –  it remains a living and breathing entity.

I’m sure others will go on to arrange the works of David Bowie for various performing groups, but whether they will capture the essential qualities remains to be seen. To succeed, they will need the necessary musical skills and very good ears and, crucially, an understanding of what Bowie’s music is really all about. And, as David Power has shown us, that understanding comes with an appreciation of a profound spirituality which underpins so much of Bowie’s best work.

[Visit our ‘Links’ page for access to David Power’s website]

10 thoughts on “David Power – (arr.) Art Decade”

  1. Someone on Twitter reflects (in a friendly positive manner!) on the ‘audacity’ of reworking Bowie in this way, which got me thinking about the whole business of arrangements. Only last week, Ms Gaga was criticised for singing the National Anthem at Biden’s inauguration in 4/4 time (mostly) instead of the more conventional triple time. Bob Dylan’s original demo for ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was a waltz and more recently, we have Michael Dollan’s fine version of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ in triple time. The fact is that really good music can take this sort of manhandling. Look at how Bach has been treated over the years – from Swingle Singers, to Walter Carlos to Jethro Tull. It always sounds good!

    So I now look forward to a version of ‘Art Decade’ in triple time. What a great idea for a performance! Pop classics reinterpreted as waltzes for a tea dance in an art deco cafe setting. I can already hear David Power sharpening his pencil as I write …

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  2. It’s a subject close to my heart – the adaptation of works, and a very present issue for me. And the comment about ‘audacity’, touches a nerve a little – I shall explain…

    Recently I have actually been working towards a ‘covers EP’, featuring tracks I have adapted. This has been an illuminating and frustrating process – initially I thought I simply needed to get a mechanical license which is merely a case of payment – however it seems these are only valid for a ‘straight cover’ – even a minor change such as changing gender of lyrics is not covered. It therefore became clear that because I had made significant changes (change of meter, structural arrangement, instrumentation and composition of new melodic and harmonic parts) that instead I would need permissions for an adaptation (sometimes called a derivative version) – which must be sought directly from the publisher…

    But how does an independent artist do this? Well, by researching, and confusing oneself initially – and I must say, the MU weren’t able to advise when I called either! I discovered via my research that the PRS holds a database, which when accessed gives contact details for the publishers – who all have their own processes – essentially a form is filled in, and a demo sent. But here is where the problems start. Initially I had no response, i then followed up and had mixed results – and this is just by way of correspondence, not the actual permissions…

    Several weeks later, and several emails to each – I currently have permissions for 1 of the 4 (requiring me first to record a final version and provide an ISRC code); have had a ‘wait and see’ from another saying the artist themselves must review it and therefore it could take several weeks; no response from whatever still from another; and most crushingly a polite but firm ‘no’ from the fourth – which unfortunately was due to be the star of the show. In this case the rights are held by the estate of the composer and they are ‘understandably very protective of his copyright’.

    As you would expect, a great deal of work has gone into crafting my versions- in fact they are all built from the ground up – working solely from chord charts and using the original vocal melodies I built my own backings and structural arrangements to suit my own ear (I didn’t actually ‘learn’ any of the original accompaniment, or even listen to them as reference once I had established the vocal melody). It is frustrating and disappointing, and ultimately not comprehensible to me that permissions be denied – and feels disrespectful that no explanation is offered, and no appeal possible.

    At present I’m deflated – the ‘no’ has scuppered my plans, and this is despite asking for no share of royalties, and being confident that the work is good (the smattering of peers who have heard the work in question agree, so it’s not just hubris here!). The decision without rationale feels arbitrary and I can not help but wonder that if a major label were backing me, or if I were a household name then the ‘no’ would be a ‘yes’, as it would then likely generate large amounts of income?

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    1. This must be very frustrating, Michael, and you have my full sympathy!

      However, there is no need to let all this fine original work of yours go to waste. When I’ve been in similar circumstances (usually with written material that has been rejected) I’ve simply reworked it a bit to make it suitable for another publisher – and the modified work has gone ahead.

      So with your songs, I think the solution lies in the problem. Keep all the original strands in your arrangements, remove the copyright sensitive layers and replace with further original material. This will include lyrics, original song melodies etc.

      If you want to keep an association with the source song, you could always acknowledge them as an inspiration. Classical composers do this all the time and it has become something of a tradition – Hommage to Debussy etc. So your proposed EP could still go ahead as a mix of creative arrangements and “songs inspired by …”

      Worth considering?

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  3. To this question “How do you ensure that the music you create will still be performed live – long after you have gone? ” I would first ask the question “why would I want this ?”. Do I feel that what I have made is so important that I feel that the world would be a poorer place without it? I’m not talking about anyone else and I don’t subscribe to the oft talked about “test of time” argument. But, I tend to think that anything I create is for now. If someone else wants to take a part of it and do something with it in the future then that’s fine. If someone wants to take a part of it now and make vast sums of money for themselves then that’s another matter.

    I also think it’s important not to conflate “robustness” with “quality”. Some musics are very “robust”, Bach is a good example as David mentions. Some musics are much more “fragile”. I’ve heard many performances of Ligeti’s Atmospheres and have many recordings. Some have been utterly wonderful and others (in my view) “terrible”. The recordings don’t really work for me as the air doesn’t move in the right way even when I listen on very high-end speakers or headphones. To me, this is one of the greatest pieces of orchestral music ever written but can so easily “fail” to work. Some music is much more dependent on context than the arrangement of sounds.

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    1. Good initial point, Duncan. I should probably reword that opening sentence to read “How do we ensure that the best music of our time will continue to be performed live into the future?” Not so much for egotistical reasons, but so that future generations also have a chance to enjoy the art of our time – as we enjoy and benefit from the art and culture of those who have gone before us.

      Recordings do that up to a point, but the point I am making is that it is with live performance we best realise the creative energy in the music, by breathing new life with our interpretations and sharing these with others. And I really like your distinction of robust and fragile musics. Some music needs handling with care!

      I confess I don’t understand your point about taking others’ music in order to make ‘vast sums of money for themselves’. I’m sure the intentions and expectations of those under the spotlight here are much more about understanding and celebrating some of the great music of our time.

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  4. David, the bit about other people using something I have made to make huge sums of money wasn’t entirely serious.

    I do think notions of “greatness” are often problematic. Much as I love lots of “old” music I sometimes wonder whether we might benefit from NOT playing it for a while? Making space for something else. I don’t think we need to worry about Mahler, Bowie and so on… we DO need to worry about other voices that are unheard.
    I also think that one needs to consider the affordances of the contexts in which music is heard (thanks to Dr Faultley for introducing me to this last year, i’ve been searching for a way to talk about it). If we consider a recording to be an inferior version of a “live” performance then we will always be disappointed. Some music is best recorded, some music is best “live”, some music is best listened to on your own in the dark on headphones and som best at 2am in a crowd of sweaty people.

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    1. Great, some real discussion – thanks, Duncan!

      I think the reasons many of us want to go on playing and listening to Bowie etc at the moment, are more to do with the enjoyment we get out of doing so, rather than keeping it going for its own sake. And unless you establish worldwide totalitarian states there is no real chance of preventing people from listening to whatever music they want. So if an elderly person living a lonely life in reduced circumstances derives pleasure from listening to her old Elvis recordings, she should surely be allowed to go on doing so. And if so for her – then so for others. So there’s no good reason for not playing David Bowie at the moment. If we enjoy exploring his music through playing, listening and arranging, we should feel free to go on doing so.

      I agree – unheard voices are important, which is why we need to go beyond worrying about this issue and move towards doing something about it. Which is why in the Cafe, in our own small way, we are playing great music by the likes of Kennedy Taylor Dixon, Leah Kardos, Michael Dollan, Jessica Koch, Corey Mwamba, and many more to come including Stephanie Phillips, Georgia Denham and Berke Can Özcan. Singing their praises, playing their music and making some noise about it. And it works. A few more people are listening to music they would never previously have come across – and they are enjoying it. So the more of us who are digging out the good but less well known stuff and sharing it, the better.

      Regarding your final point – is there really just one best way to hear a given piece of music? And if so, who gets to decide what that one best way is? I think the problem is that you have to take into consideration the requirements of the listeners. And this is where things get messy. Because the person who enjoys listening to opera in the kitchen on the radio might possibly feel uncomfortable and perhaps a bit intimidated by having to go to a formal concert hall to hear the same work. In my own case, I enjoy listening to some electronic music but there is no way you are getting me into a crowded club in the middle of the night to listen to this stuff. I used to think Sgt Peppers was best heard on vinyl on a decent hifi system, but I must confess I got a real buzz out of hearing a group of schoolchildren performing most of these songs in a school hall a few years ago. And then there are times when I might enjoy listening to ‘Art Decade’ on the car radio in a queue on the motorway, or with my feet up on the sofa with headphones and a glass of beer or in a music concert in a church in York listening to a saxophone quartet arrangement. No best for me with these scenarios – I enjoyed them all.

      And I don’t see these conditions changing any time soon. People will go on being more or less free to listen to whatever music they want in whatever way they want – whenever they want. Cultural heritage and legacies tend to steer their own pathways. That’s what makes the whole business so interesting …

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      1. I would never suggest that people don’t listen to things they like. But, I do suggest that listening to music you don’t know (or even don’t think you like) is worthwhile. I’m not for once minute suggesting telling anyone to do anything (the are far too many people with that tendency in charge of all sorts of things as it is!) I do wonder how people work out what it is they “like” in the first place. As with politics, I’m very wary of people who appear to be certain of things. What I would like to see is a greater understanding of how music can have many functions. I sometimes feel that, despite the wider range of musics available via the internet many people (and often those working in music education) listen to a narrower and narrower spectrum. Maybe making things “easy” makes them equally “easy” to ignore ? When I was 17 a friend (who is now a musicologist) got the train from Liverpool to London to go and see the premiere of Stockhausen’s INORI at the RFH, we travelled back on the last train and had to sleep on the station platform before being able to finally get home the next morning. Not quite Bach going to hear Buxtehude but the effort required sometimes adds something and a focus.

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  5. Duncan makes a good point about “… a greater understanding of how music can have many functions” This is something I’m going to think about more.

    I also agree with you about the narrow spectrum of music in some education settings. Small steps being made to raise the profile of women composers and we are seeing slight progress in including works by BAME/BIPOC composers on some exam specs. But it does feel a bit tokenistic … still a whole lot of Pachelbel Canon going on.

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