15
Jul 02

THE BALANESCU QUARTET – “Autobahn”

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THE BALANESCU QUARTET – “Autobahn”

The Balanescus’ severe and beautiful string arrangement of “Autobahn” sparks familiar questions: what is the point of a ‘cover version’? What makes a good one? Can a distinction – for once – be made between songs written specifically for a particular singer or group and songs written for themselves, so to speak, perhaps by a professional songwriter? ‘Standards’, you might say. These cannot, strictly, be ‘covered’ – there need not be a dialogue between one version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and another – and yet there almost always is, at least for the listener aware of multiple versions.

On the other hand, I have downloaded several performances of “Send In The Clowns”, and I have my favourite, but none of them require any of the others to exist. The interplay between them is delicious, but it feels like ‘The Song’ exists beyond that interplay – though, of course, the lack of ‘original’ means that the ur-“Send In The Clowns” I am sensing is a composite made up out of presences and absences in the versions I do know.

Whereas without “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk, there would be no “Autobahn” by the Balanescu Quartet – and this fact goes beyond the simple decision by Kraftwerk’s songwriters to record the piece rather than offer it to other artists. The existence of a second “Autobahn” does not (for me at least) create an un-hearable ur-“Autobahn”, a phantom perfected version of the song. This is because the Balanescus’ performance exists in relation to Kraftwerk’s like a close-up exists in relation to its parent photograph: an aspect of the whole is concentrated upon and magnified.

In this case the aspect is Kraftwerk’s relationship to Europe and its artistic and cultural history – a relationship nodded to in “Franz Schubert”, and brought to the fore by the Balanescus, who find in Kraftwerk’s apparent futurism the ancient, restrained sorrow of the European string quartet. But this sorrow is there in Kraftwerk already. Still, this act of magnification, this slight change of emphasis, seems to me all that can and should be attempted by a ‘cover version’: not reinvention, but a discreet shift in perspective.

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