Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Fugue State: Day 1

Earlier this year, when I was having fun writing fugues and the blog was cruising, I'd had some thought about starting a podcast with the name "Fugue State." As you may know, fugue state actually refers to a psychiatric disorder, and though I don't want to make light of such things, a musical fugue can conjure up the feeling of hearing voices talking to each other. Maybe. Anyway, I have found that my mind enters an interesting state when writing fugues. I had thought of it as the title for a podcast because so many of my blogging/musical interests have to do with following an idea where it takes me and enjoying the collision/connection between differing ideas, musical or otherwise. A psychiatric fugue state is a kind of temporary amnesia, and experiencing a good fugue can certainly feel like being lost in thought. But that podcast hasn't happened, and I've since learned that the band Vulfpeck already gave one of their albums this title, so it seems less original now.

Though I haven't blogged yet this summer, I did undertake a fun fugue-writing project, and it's time now to mine that for blogging gold. At the beginning of the summer, I considered the annual problem of choosing lots of instrumental music for church when there is no choir around to sing the usual two anthems. In summer of 2017, as I wrote here, I featured a lot of "composer Sundays."
"This past summer, with choir on hiatus, I had a pre-July 4th All-American prelude-offertory-communion-postlude lineup of Ives, Copland, Barber, and Beethoven's Variations on God Save the King My country 'tis of thee. I also had Sundays of all-Bach, all-Mozart, all-Scarlatti, all-Ravel, and all-Shostakovich!"
For this summer, I decided to write at least one fugue for each Sunday based on hymns sung that day, and I now have a set of ten. Most of these were designed to serve as Offertory, which only requires about 90 seconds or so in summer, so I had a good excuse to write short fugues. For someone who's always been more of an occasional/accidental composer, it was a really good exercise to take on this challenge each week. It suited my procrastinating tendencies well since I generally submit work titles by Tuesday morning. This meant I could make myself commit to writing something that often didn't actually come into existence until Saturday night! (Ask my family...)

Although I tried to set myself various compositional challenges to avoid falling into the same tendencies over and over, I was a bit surprised at how many of the resulting fugues sound similar in many ways. Of course, there are some general principles of fugue writing that contributed to this, and I was also choosing to write in a mostly slow and contemplative style. My basic method is to write the kind of piece I wish I already had on hand, and even once I start writing, my process is pretty much: write a phrase, imagine what I hear next, try things out until something works, etc.

My plan here is to feature one fugue a day over the next week and a half. I'm not sure if they'll all be presented in the order I wrote them, but for Day 1 I begin with the first fugue from the project, based on a lovely Welsh tune with the lovely name Aberystwyth. Our summer hymn selections generally stick with tunes the congregation knows well, which means from a practical perspective that I've created a little repertoire of pieces I'll be able to use often. (All of these fugues are based on hymn tunes as they appear The Hymnal 1982.)

You can hear this tune here and you can see various uses of it in countless hymnals here. Although many of these fugues should work well on organ or piano, these recordings will all likely be made on my own not-perfectly-tuned piano because it's simply easier to do that way - especially since I'm something of a fake organist. Unlike past compositional experiments that I've featured on my Youtube page, I'm choosing to withhold the complete versions of these scores as I'm hoping I might get around to self-publishing them. However, for anyone interested, I'd likely be happy to send out complete scores. They are all fairly simple, and all still somewhat in draft form; but as a set, it's the kind of collection I wish I'd had on my shelf to begin with, so perhaps someone else will feel the same.

The most distinctive feature of this fugue is that the entire first phrase of the hymn tune is split so it serves both as subject and countersubject. In a fugue, the subject is the primary thematic idea which is treated contrapuntally among multiple voices. When the second voice enters with the subject, the original voice often continues with new material that functions as countersubject. In this case, the countersubject is simply the second half of the full opening phrase. This has the effect, especially for anyone who knows the tune, of making the second voice entry seem like it's coming in early - in fact, it does arrive earlier than is usual for a fugue since the second entry begins with the final note of the subject.

For contrapuntal purists, you might find that I don't shy away from parallel 5ths and octaves as much as I should, but I think this one is pretty tame in that regard. In fact, this is probably among the most conventional of the set. There are a few very quick modulations in the middle, though handled in a very standard sequential style. At about 1:13, the top voice clearly references the climactic phrase of the original tune, even though that's not part of the subject. (This is a technique I've used a lot in the past, for example at the 1:34 mark of this synthetically recorded Christmas fugue, but as the summer of '18 rolled along, I tried to avoid relying on this trick too often.)

I promise I won't write nearly so many words in the days head, but a new fugue will debut tomorrow, and hopefully that pattern will continue through mid-August.

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