Saturday, March 9, 2019

Bach to the future?

Whether or not you agree with the UNDENIABLE fact that J.S. Bach is the greatest composer of all time, his music is surely the most durable and flexible of any important composer. His writing is undergirded by such beautiful logic that the ideas and structures seem to survive and even thrive in a wide variety of transcriptions. Today we'll put that to the test.

My composer friend Wesley has probably provoked more blog posts here than anyone not named Bach or Stravinsky. He sent along a video the other day in which YouTuber/composer David Bruce explores the rhythmic/metrical subtleties of the well-known Preludio from the unaccompanied violin Partita No. 3 in E Major. Bach's original is in 3/4 time with 16th notes throughout except at the very beginning and end. But the way in which those notes can be grouped is open to interpretation; the patterns often suggest accents that don't align neatly with the beats. This is explained quite well by David Bruce in this video, so I won't go into more detail about that here. (Actually, as it happens, my younger daughter has been working on this prelude for the past few months, as did her sister before her, and no matter how many times I hear it, I often find myself surprised at where a few downbeats land; Bach definitely plays with your mind here.)

A few days ago, Bruce posted a completely worked-out piano arrangement of the Bach in which the metrical groupings are shifted around quite a bit, with the left hand leading the way. You can hear a performance of Bruce's arrangement beginning at 1:18 in this video.

It's very enjoyable in a mildly mischievous sort of way and even includes a few bluesy passages. I wrote back to Wesley that though I thought the arrangement was very successful, I wasn't convinced that this was because Bach's music called out for these new metrical groupings - or that, even if that was the case, that the appeal for me was much more about hearing Bach dueling against these contrasting ideas. Remember, Bach is durable - almost bulletproof. I was almost immediately reminded of this Mozart concerto "arrangement" in which Timo Andres plays Mozart with his right hand and all manner of dissonant, modernistic things in the left hand. [Piano enters just after 2:30.] The result is wonderful - sort of like Mozart played through a Prokofiev funhouse mirror.

Earlier this afternoon, I thought I'd experiment with this theory and write my own "out there" left hand part to go with the Bach prelude. My initial goal was just to do 12 bars or so, but I found the process addictive. However, with a few exceptions, I decided to work mostly with the kind of rhythmic/metrical play Bruce had used and not indulge in much Andres-style dissonance. The main difference is that, unlike Bruce, I didn't spend much time worrying about whether Bach's patterns provide any justification for what I was adding. It was a thoroughly sequential process: I simply worked from phrase to phrase until I'd reached the end, and for now, I haven't tried to polish anything up. In some passages, my goal was explicitly to write something that pulls the ear two ways; in other cases, I was more intentional about interacting with the original.

The other main restriction I decided on was to keep the "left hand" part as a single melodic line with no chords - this was mainly because introducing the possibility of chords would've made for a lot more work! Also, I put "left hand" in scare quotes because I also wasn't really thinking about writing this for a real performer, though I'm sure there are pianists who could play what I wrote. For my purposes, I was perfectly content to let my computer's internal pianist do all the fingerwork. Remember, Bach is durable! Or not. You be the judge. (You only get to see Bach's notes - my score isn't ready to be seen.)

The most I can say for now is that it pleases me, though the recording could use a lot of finessing and the arrangement could certainly use some tweaking. It's not nearly as sophisticated as the Bruce arrangement, but it has more of the kookiness that I love. There's a giddiness about my version that amuses me every time I listen to it. (Yes, I laugh at my own jokes.) It's reminiscent of the playfulness found in the flips and reverses to which I once subjected an innocent Bach invention.

I should add that, among the many other more honorable arrangements of this piece (including Bach's own setting for organ and orchestra), the real standout is Rachmaninoff's imaginative reworking:

But he probably spent more than one afternoon on it...

[UPDATE: When I originally posted this last night, the YouTube version I'd uploaded had some buzzy audio issues, so I've replaced it with a cleaner version. The only sad thing is that I'd already gotten one dislike on the original - great art always mystifies some - so I'll have to see if I can earn some fresh dislikes!]


POSTLUDE: As I've suggested, this Bach prelude has been arranged for all sorts of different contexts. I've made a playlist here including versions for lute, guitar, Bach's own version for organ and orchestra, an arrangement of that arrangement for solo organ, arrangements for piano by Saint-Saens (based on on Bach's cantata version) and Rachmaninoff, and the version with Schumann's accompaniment with soloists on both violin and sax. If you go out into the wild, you can easily find versions on viola, cello, and who knows what else.

The ubiquity of these arrangements also reminds me that David Bruce's version (and mine, perhaps) falls into a fun category: futurized works in which a well-known classical work is given an accompaniment or reworking that intentionally adds a modernist twist on the original. I've made a very short playlist here which includes three takes on Mozart (by Grieg, the virtuoso pianist Arcadi Volodos, and the Timo Andres piece I mentioned) and Lutoslawski's 20th century variations on Paganini's famous variations. Obviously, there are many more works that could be added here, but the spirit of these pieces was on my mind while I was vandalizing Bach...