Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Bach Day #11: Chaconne at a glance

[UPDATE (4/23/20): The page debuted below has been updated quite a bit, with many new navigation features. Check it out. The original version of the page referenced below is here.]

Well, it's been an exciting few days here at MMmusing, trying desperately to get this final project finished in time for Bach's "new" birthday. As I understand it, Bach's birthday was properly referred to as March 21 during his lifetime, but some sort of calendar adjustments mean that if we were to count back from now, we'd find he was born on our March 31 in 1685. And that gave me this lovely excuse to indulge in a lot of Bach blogging over these past eleven days during this odd time of quarantine. I won't deny that there's something particularly satisfying about spending time grounded in this music during times of uncertainty. (Of course, all times are uncertain.)

The project I'd most hoped to get off the ground has been bugging me since about three years ago, on Bach's old birthday, when I debuted a one-page version of the great Chaconne in D Minor. I've always found it appealing to be able to look at something monumental like this in one glance. Here's an absurdly bird's-eye view:

Absurd and wonderful. Such shape and character.

But since then, I've wanted to build a page around this image that would do something. Alas, all I have to offer is a prototype for now, but I'm pleased with where this stands since I basically had nothing as of yesterday.* I was able to build off the structure of my Musical Manipulatives (still kind of prototype stages as well), so I didn't have to reinvent the JavaScript wheel, which is good because my knowledge of JavaScript is pretty half-baked. I could tell many stories of the heartaches I experienced just in the last 24 hours getting this far, but somehow I have a workable thing. 

I don't know that it will be of much use on cellphones, and I certainly haven't yet been able to cross-test it across browsers, but on Windows Chrome, it does pretty much what I want for now. When you go to the page, you'll find a simple design (needs a little tweaking) with a play button in the upper right. Start it going and you'll see somewhat larger versions of the music in the upper frame. (Timings could also use tweaking - this was just a one-pass attempt to approximate.) Click on part of the music below and, hopefully, the outstanding performance by Ray Chen will magically jump to the correct part. That's pretty much it for now, but being able to "hold this music in virtual hands" this way is really fun.

The Lilypond-generated score(s) could use a lot of tweaking as well. Because Bach often writes up to four voices on one staff, decisions about how to show that are very tricky, and I've mostly just gone with defaults for now. So, I've got much work ahead.

But why spend more words on this now when the picture on the page linked below is worth so many more words?

Happy Birthday, Bach!


* 6 hours ago, I was pretty sure this blog post title would be "Bach Day #11: IOU," as there were some technical hurdles I didn't think I'd surmount. Also, 30 minutes ago, I was pretty sure this blog post title would be "Chaconne à Son Goût," until a quick Google search told me another Bach had made the same joke before.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Bach Day #10: Giving Up?

Well, I'll admit this Day #10 of "The Eleven Days of Bach" has left me a little empty-handed in terms of new material. I thought and thought about what I should feature from the past - not Bach's past so much as MY past. And I finally decided I might as well follow my heart. Here's something I wrote in a blog post about six years ago.
....although I'm still not sure what my place in the musical universe should be, I feel pretty sure that I'm the only person in the world who would have made THIS video:

So, if I didn't post this today, who would? I'm still rather proud of this elaborate viola joke which involved me re-writing a Bach prelude to incorporate "Pop, goes the weasel," playing it as badly as I could at half-tempo on the cello, and then doubling the speed to make it sound like...well, a viola.

You're welcome. I'll try to redeem myself tomorrow.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Bach Day #9: My Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring

I'm keeping things simple on this Second Sunday of "The Eleven Days of Bach," and to be honest, after managing to get the new version of Bach's Canon per tonos up and running and fixed, etc., I'll probably keep it simpler for these last three days. I had one other major project mentally in the works, but I think I'll need more space and time to get that finished.

Having focused the last two days on one of Bach's more forbidding compositions, today features what is surely one of his most accessible and beloved tunes, the ever-popular Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring - but with a twist. The funny thing about that work, which is originally from the Cantata 147, is that though it is a setting of a chorale melody (basically a hymn tune), the tune itself is quite simple and not that interesting. The "melody" everyone knows is the running triplet accompaniment which Bach wrote to adorn the chorale. Though it is too busy and fast-moving to be very singable, it combines pattern and variety in a way that is memorable and has become iconic.

Back in 2011, I debuted a two-piano arrangement of another simple hymn tune, A. J. Gordon's "My Jesus, I love thee," which uses Bach's "melody" as accompaniment, but with additions made to move from a 3/4 to a 4/4 context. You can read more about this arrangement here, featuring an impromptu home recording with my young violinist daughter. A couple of years later, she and I performed it in recital in a new version adding my wife on cello:

Although it is obviously a distortion of Bach's original, I think the "idea" of the Bach is maintained and it was interesting to experiment with the malleability of the original material. The moment I'm most pleased with is at 3:08 in the video above when, over the familiar pedal tone, the third phrase of the hymn tune is stretched out in running 8th notes across the triplets.

That's it for today. No 30-minute videos, no pitch-bending distortions. Just a little Bach twisted into something new.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Bach Day #8: Listening to Math

Today I spent a fair amount of time fixing a couple of mistakes that had been hidden (from me) in yesterday's 30-minute version of Bach's Canon per tonos from The Musical Offering. I noticed one mistake while listening to the WHOLE thing cooking breakfast, and a friend with a very good ear noticed the other. It's rather crazy that I tried to get that complicated project online so quickly, but it's the way I tend to work; if I didn't do it this way - I probably wouldn't do it. I'm sure other little things could use fixing as well, but hopefully nothing major. So, first of all, here again is the latest "corrected" version:

The main thing I wanted to add today is that, as much as I admire Bach's craftsmanship, I can't really say I think this is a great piece, which is one reason it has surprised me that my earlier version has been so popular on YouTube. And I doubt Bach would argue. It's more puzzle than art perhaps - not that the worlds are mutually exclusive.

Just look at how simple the original is on the page:

That's all there is to it, though the second canonic voice is not written out, nor are the modulations. Bach wants the user to figure out how the music goes. But as music, it's rather perplexing. Of course, it doesn't help that the whiny theme Frederick the Great presented to Bach is so unwieldy. The music of this canon is overindulgently chromatic, the cadence into the repetition is hardly satisfying (which means it never really feels resolved), the rhythm is odd, with lots of offbeat notes that sound less like syncopation and more like general disorientation, and the general tone is one of restless busyness.

I've always found it comical that Bach appended the following to this puzzle: "As the modulation rises, so may the King's glory rise." OK, but it does not sound very glorious. The fact that the top voice is mostly descending doesn't help. (As with the Shepard Tone principle, the descending melody helps camouflage the tonal motion upward.) Of course, paying tribute to the King's theme is a way of glorifying him, I suppose, and it's Frederick's own fault that the tone is so somber. (To be fair, the clumsiness of the theme was perhaps part of the challenge in the first place.)

But I DO like this canon! I like a lot of things that are odd, and the fact that this sounds kind of like someone working out a math problem isn't so bad. (I also like math.) One can hear a kinship with some of the harshly intellectual music of the 20th century from the likes of Babbitt and Boulez, music that is uncompromising in its commitment to its own logic. When I listened to the whole 30-minute version this morning, I found it soothing and stimulating, an interesting combination. Eventually, that sense of never arriving becomes its own strange comfort.

Unfortunately, I did have one more thought - which I only later realized I'd seen executed elsewhere. It occurred to me that another "solution" to the ever-rising problem is to slide downwards continuously over each 8-bar group. By sliding down a whole step over this time, we end up magically where we started. Since Bach called his piece a "Canon per tonos" ('tonos' referring to movement by a whole tone), I'm calling this "Canon per microtonos." I did NOT spend a lot of time on it, but imagine an instrument in such bad shape that the strings are constantly loosening. Wait, you don't have to imagine!

I'll admit that I had a vague sense of déjà vu that I'd thought or heard of this concept before. I finally did a search and remembered that the remarkable Stephen Malinowski had done much the same thing, though using synth strings, with his Musical Animation Machine. That version is arguably more successful at disguising the pitch drop, though I like the clattering harpsichord - and everyone's already used to harpsichords being out of tune!

Maybe you'll need something to cleanse the ear after that, so here's one last possibility. Just let the music rise until it disappears. It turns out that using the basic synth built into Finale, it can go pretty far up using the piano sound, and it becomes quite charming and ethereal. (WARNING: I also found my head hurt a bit after listening to this...]

Friday, March 27, 2020

Bach Day #7: Bring out the Canons!

So I've been blogging and posting multimedia for more than thirteen years, and honestly there were a few times that I thought I would hit the big time. Not yet! However, my two steadiest performers over the years (the "big guns," one might say) have been two relatively simple animations I created of canons from Bach's The Musical Offering, so I knew they'd figure into these eleven days of Bach.

In fact, of the almost 900,000 YouTube views I have as of today, more than a third of them are for a video of the endlessly rising canon, the "Canon per tonos." (The title "per tonos" refers to the fact that this canon rises by a whole tone each time through.) To my great surprise, this video has amassed more than 340,000 views. My version of the crab canon has just over 200,000 views, so together, that's well over half of my YouTube audience.

Both videos are, from my point-of-view, more notable for audio tricks I played than for the animations, adorable crabs aside. For the crab canon, a single melody played against itself backwards, I actually recorded the melody only once and then reversed the audio to create the second voice. A YouTube commenter alerted me not too long after I'd posted it in 2008 that it had a wrong note in the score and recording. Ugh. Fortunately, that only took me a little over ten years to fix. That wrong note has been seen and heard many times!

As for the endlessly rising canon, I used a technique suggested by the great Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach. Because the basic structure is that the 8-bar canon modulates up a whole step each time through, a performance taken to its logical conclusion would actually run out of playable/audible pitches. Hofstadter's idea was to use the Shepard Tone technique by which the constant, gradual introduction of a lower octave occurs while the original octave fades out above. If executed correctly, the listener doesn't really notice the switch, but finds that the music, having risen an octave, is right back where it started. Here's a version of a Shepard Tone illusion created by a Wikipedia contributor:

Notice that the tones seem to be descending continuously, but they never run out of space. The effect is often compared to a barber's shop pole. Of course, applying this effect to a musical composition is something quite different.

My first attempt "to Shepard" Bach was posted more than twelve years ago, and though I'm pleased with it, I've always intended to fix some things. Among the problems with the original are a few misspelled enharmonics, the stubborn refusal to change clefs (resulting in some wacky ledger lines, although it makes the overall "rising" effect clear), and most importantly, the failure to go beyond two full times through the sequence. In the decade that has passed, there are far more novelty YouTube videos that go on for hours, and this was an obvious candidate for that approach (though I stopped at half an hour).

So, the truth is I had all these thoughts three or four days ago and figured it wouldn't take long to make a new version. As with so many projects, I mapped it out in my head and thought, "just do this, this, and this" and I'll be good to go. But I've realized that, though it's a straightforward project in many respects, the details, details, details kept multiplying. I also had to make choices about how much I wanted to copy things I'd done in the first video and where I wanted to do something different.

The two biggests tasks were recreating the score (in my beloved Lilypond) and making a new recording. I actually thought about sticking with the original acoustic guitar version, as it has a nice mellow quality that's suitable for endless listening. But I thought it would be more fun to try something new, since that video is still available. After a lot of experimenting, I felt the virtual harpsichord provided the most authentic and satisfying effect, though the sound is perhaps a little more annoying. I mean, it's a harpsichord sound. (I'll leave the Beecham jokes out of this.)

Creating the cross-fade effect is trickier than it sounds, and after much tinkering, I was also reminded how different the results can sound depending on the dynamic range of the speakers being used. But I think I've settled on something that basically does the job. It really does keep rising without going anywhere, though it's not so hard to hear why that's happening.

As for the score, I struggled over many decisions. Unlike the previous version, I finally decided NOT to use key signatures. Bach's version only shows 8 bars, which clearly start in C Minor, but with no signature. He doesn't even include the middle voice! The performers are supposed to add in the canonic voice, which follows the lower voice by one bar and a fifth above, and then work out the transpotions for each repetition.

Although key signatures are a nice way to signal change of tonality, the music is so chromatic that it actually reads a little more smoothly without key signatures since so many notes end up changed anyway, especially as the modulation is prepared for the next key. Also, after flirting with the elegance of alto clef, which mostly works beautifully for the middle voice, I finally decided to stay with treble and bass clefs only, with discreet changes along the way, simply because more people read each fluently. I did keep a couple of quirky features from before: the barlines do not connect the staves (it just looks cleaner this way) and I kept the little cue note at the end to show the new tonic that is coming.

Well, that's surely more than anyone wants to know about the endless hours I put in this week creating this endless video, so perhaps I should just finish with the video. Tomorrow, I'll write a bit more about the work itself. If the last two days focused on Bach at his most jovial, this is surely Bach at his most austere and cerebral. And, spoiler alert: Frederick the Great's theme (on which all of The Musical Offering is based) is....not that great. But we know Bach liked a challenge....

UPDATE: The morning after posting this I listened to the whole thing while making a big breakfast - and discovered a mistake (a volume irregularity in the middle) ! It has now been fixed.

UPDATE #2: There was another mistake, but thanks to the great ears of a great friend, it has been fixed as well, along with a few other minor stylistic tweaks. Putting something this complicated out so quickly is kind of insane, but it's how I roll.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Bach Day #6: Pass the Popcorn

To continue with some of the levity from Day #5 (there is more "serious" Bach ahead), I'll just do a quick re-share today. I mentioned the C-sharp Major fugue from Book II of The Well-tempered Clavier yesterday. It's a piece I "discovered" a few years back when I was looking for a church postlude in D-flat Major, and I turned from the Book I fugue I'd known well to this delightfully compact, intricate romp, which is full of surprises.

When I wrote about it several years back, I quoted my blogger pianist friend Erica Sipes' vivid description: "The fugue reminds me of popcorn popping...starting with a kernel or two as the oil heats up and then speeding up as they all start popping." This image ended up playing a big role in one of my most elaborate Scratch projects, a little program that plays and plays with this fugue. You can change the tempo, change "instrument," put in temporary ritards and accelarandi, invert the whole thing, make it play with all three voices in different keys, play microtonally, etc.

The whole time it plays, popcorn kernels are randomly popping, which is a nice analogue for how little outbursts of fast notes pop up all over the score. And speaking of the score, you can switch back and forth between score view and popcorn view and, yes, when the music inverts, the score inverts as well. Honestly, I'd forgotten how much this silly little program does, which is a nice analogue for how much Bach does in this silly little fugue.

Here's a straightforward "performance" of the fugue by my program:

...and you can go to this fancy page in which the program is embedded with lots of instructions to let you create mayhem.

P.S. Bach's wig in the Scratch program is one of my better creations, by the way.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bach Day #5: LOL

A couple of my Bach projects are dragging along more slowly than expected - music is hard! - so I'm going to lighten my own spirits on Day #5 of 11 with the silliest, most humorous music by Bach that I know. Yes, he wrote plenty of jaunty gigues and other dances which have lighthearted qualities, and his counterpoint can be effervescent. For some reason, for example, he seemed amused by C-sharp Major and wrote two of his giddiest fugues in that key:

[By the way, though I like Glenn Gould's approach to the Book I fugue, he plays the Book II fugue at a slower tempo than I could've imagined. It's SO slow, it's still kinda funny.]

Anyway, this is a lighthearted post about some music by Bach that is not just light or fun. No, this duet from the Cantata No. 78 "Jesu, der du meine Seele" is really laugh-out-loud silly, especially in this fantastic recording by the American Bach Soloists.

The text in English is as follows (translation by Pamela Dellal from the amazing Emmanuel Music archive):
We hasten with weak, yet eager steps,
O Jesus, O Master, to You for help.
You faithfully seek the ill and erring.
Ah, hear, how we lift up our voices to beg for help!
Let Your gracious countenance be joyful to us!
The way the two soloists chase each other around is clearly a whimsical take on the idea of following weakly in Jesus's steps. Perhaps not every recording/performance is quite on the same Goofy Greats level as the one above (and I mean that with all respect and admiration - just listen to their way with "zu dir"), but I do find the tone and bounciness of this music to be an outlier for Bach. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because I love his more typical fare, but it's nice to hear him letting his powdered wig down a bit.

The combination of that non-stop bouncing bass line and those twirling vocal lines makes the music seem a bit simpler and sunnier than so much Bach, even though there is still lots of cleverness in the construction.

I suppose maybe there's a certain kinship with the wonderful Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (Desert Island material for sure) with its follow-the-leader soloists and simple bass line [listen starting at 48.12 here].

But as joyful and cheerful as that music is, it's just a little too dignified to be ridiculous. I'm glad Bach left behind at least one bit of music that cheerfully crosses that line!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bach Day #4: Orpheus in the Underworld?

Well, life definitely caught up with me today, and although I did get some work done on something new, it's not quite ready yet.

So, we return to the winter of 2009 and a Bach recording I've always been pleased with. As described in this post, the recording was made pretty informally, with a few tidying-up edits made later. It was originally posted without score, which I added in 2011. The video only shows the orchestral score, from which I more or less made up a version (it helps that the keyboard part covers much of the material). Someday I should create an honest-to-goodness notated piano version, but that will have to wait.

The music is better-known as the slow movement of the composer's Violin Concerto in A Minor, but there is a harpsichord version of this concerto in G Minor. As so often happens with Bach, music that seems perfect on one instrument can turn out to be pretty satisfying on another as well. Here's what I wrote about this back in Aught Nine:
I hear the slow movement of this concerto as a sort of "Orpheus Taming the Furies" dialogue. True, the orchestra isn't as gruff as in the famous "Orpheus" movement of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, but there's a stubbornness in Bach's bass ritornello that the solo passages seem intent on melting. The final solo statement is a miracle of sweetness and simplicity, so perfect that there is no concluding ritornello. It's less a victory than it is a unification of opposing forces. Honestly, I can't really put into words what happens in this musical dialogue, so I figured I'd just play it.
There are many compromises at play here. First of all, all those long, suspended notes the violin sings can really only be imagined as sustaining that way in a piano version. Second of all, I didn't have an orchestra available when I slipped into the recital hall early this morning, so it's just a dialogue between my two hands, not a violin (or piano) vs. orchestra. I did my best to incorporate the orchestral violin parts, but I'm inconsistent about that. Third, I only had about 15 minutes, so I just sat and played, and when I had a couple of slips, I backtracked a little and then stitched things together later this afternoon. It's far from perfect. But, whatever. I really love the way it sounds this way, and in some respects the fragility of the piano sonority just adds to the impossibly beautiful writing.
In 2011, when I added the video, I also added this comment:
I remember that when I first heard this music years ago, I found the repetitiveness of the bass line to be a bit annoying; but perhaps it's supposed to be that way, and I think it's quite telling that the R.H. melody gets the last word.
I've also always been puzzled by that rhythm in the bass - the stubborn "Furies" rhythm. Although I believe it should basically be played as written, the fast notes always somehow feel more like triplets. I think I'd thought that's what they were from a recording I'd heard before I ever saw the score.

I can't really put my finger on what I mean exactly. I actually tried having a synth record this with a rhythm halfway between the "16th + 2 32nds" and a triplet, and I also tried just adding a tiny bit extra to the triplet (so that each measure ends up being a tiny bit longer), but I couldn't generate what I was hearing. So you're just stuck with my performance! Perhaps after three days of me bragging about robo-performances, it was about time the computers lost one.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Bach Day #3: Bach to Bach

I promise not every day of this 11-day Bach-a-thon will be about the Preludio from the E Major Violin Partita, but we'll take one more "trip" in that direction today, and then head down another little stream tomorrow. (Bach, of course, is German for brook.)

Before getting to today's admittedly silly bit of play, I thought I'd reflect a bit on some bigger picture questions about WHAT WE ARE DOING. I think about this probably way too much, the written and unwritten rules that govern how we think about classical music, and the ways in which I love and fight against those rules. "Playing Bach" does not normally mean treating the great master's exquisitely crafted compositions as so much silly putty for one's own repurposing pleasure. Rather, "playing Bach" generally means trying to recreate as closely as possible the musical ideas Bach had in mind. And I do still find satisfaction in that. 

But I also find a lot of satisfaction from recomposing and distorting what's on the page. Of course, it's worth remembering here that Bach himself spent a lot of time reworking compositions by the likes of Vivaldi and Marcello (Alessandro & Benedetto!), and though my post-modern reworkings may seem to be in a different spirit, they are grounded in the joy of conversing with the past. Bach's music is conversational in so many ways. (It's also often improvisational, which naturally invites conversational feedback.) Counterpoint, his great specialty, is itself a kind of conversation, but there's also something conversational about the way his melodies unfold. I almost literally hear them talking to me and saying, "what's your response?" (Ok, that's not really true, but it sounds cool.)

There's also something usefully strong and resilient about music that is well-known and strictly patterned, because experiments with such music can use this familiarity and structure as a center of gravity. Although I'm not such a big fan of wildly dissonant music in general, I really enjoy bouncing dissonance and complex rhythmic tricks off of music that our ears can hold on to, as explored in the annotated video I posted yesterday. (As I've discussed before, Timo Andres' Mozart concerto distortion is a great example of this kind of thing.)

Here's something I wrote back in 2011:
...though I am clearly sympathetic to postmodern deconstructions of how we hear and experience the world (e.g. Bach's music sounds greater and more meaningful to us than it otherwise might because of cultural conditioning), I'm surprised at how often postmodernists just leave these deconstructed messes behind as if there's something wrong with loving something for culturally embedded reasons. I think this lies at the heart of what it is to love classical music (or just about anything we love via culture) - this big sense of connected-ness, the way in which one musical work calls out to another, the way in which we listen within these wildly divergent but related frameworks.
I think my point is: 1) I'm happy that there are so many scrupulously faithful recordings and performances of Bach's music in the world, even if their existence flows in part from some arbitrary ideas about what being a musician should be; and I'm happy in part because 2) the existence of that enormous galaxy of all things Bach provides a stimulating jumping-off point for all sorts of post-Bach things.

And that could be a book. But for today, here's my latest attack on the Kapellmeister. 

Having created an independent left hand to go with Bach's solo violin line, I couldn't help but think about pitting Bach against himself. Fortunately, the wonderfully magical Lilypond makes it easy to invert, reverse, and otherwise manipulate musical ideas, so it didn't take so long to create this two-part invention:

There were a lot of choices to make, the most important of which was to create a counterpoint that is a completely exact inversion of the original. This means that harmonically things go to pieces almost right away, and in fact, I did experiment with tweaking the inversion to make more sense, but....that was gonna take a LOT of work, and I wasn't sure it was worth it. I love the zany interplay that happens here.

I won't go into all the technical stuff, although I was surprised to realize how well it worked to put the lower part in C Major. (Technically, it's E Phrygian, a notoriously intense mode, which explains a lot about the results here, but the key signature is the same as C major!) Inverting the steps of a scale in E Major results in the following natural set: E F G A B C D E. Once I realized that, I knew I had to stick with this pure inversion rather than some wimpy modal alterations. Notice there is not a single accidental in the lower part until the first accidental shows up in the original in m. 19. The spelling choices are odd in many places (check out the E-sharp vs. E-flat in m.34 and following!) and not what would be done in a proper score - but they nicely represent the inversion principle. As with my arrangement posted on Sunday, this is not really music made for human hands.

I also gave up and put some long stretches in alto clef (!) because some of the more expansive passages simply wouldn't sit well in treble or bass, and the purist in me wouldn't let any of the mayhem be tempered by register shifts. Because I chose the inversion split-point to be the E above Middle C, this also means there's a significant amount of "hand" crossing. For better or for worse, this is what was meant to be.

There are some delicious dissonances in places like mm. 32-33, and and maybe my favorite moment is m.78 in which the crossing parts end up just trading notes completely - so it just sounds like one buzzing minor 7th for a whole bar. I have some small regret the climactic cadential chords in m. 134 are a complete disaster, but there was no turning back at that point.

So that's that, although I should mention some previous MMmusing two-part experiments that are echoed here:

  • Bach Doubled - a Courante and its Double combined.
  • Re-Inventing Bach - inverting, retrograding, and retrograde-inverting a famous Bach invention.

Note sure what's coming up tomorrow, but I will leave this poor Preludio behind...

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Bach Day #2: Left-handed Complement

So I've made it to Day 2 of my 2020 Bach-a-thon, just under the wire again.

Today's subject is: ME! Or rather, to discuss a bit more what it is I've done to Bach in the video I posted yesterday. To review quickly, this arrangement (minus a few 2020 tweaks) was originally made last March, inspired by a differently mischievous left hand part added by composer David Bruce. Bruce's basic goal was to bring out some of the inherent metrical ambiguities hidden in Bach's original work for solo violin. [Again, here is a really fun playlist, beginning with Bach's original, and continuing through many varied re-interpretations.]

The original Bach is composed almost entirely of running 16th notes in 3/4 time, but there are several passages in which the note groupings can be interpreted as something other than steady groups of 4 (which is the main topic that drew Bruce to his project). I know this well, because I've heard this piece hundreds and hundreds of times (my two daughters have each learned it), and I regularly experience cognitive/metrical dissonance because I lose track of the downbeat.

Here's an example of a passage in which my ear/brain almost always shifts the barline over by one 16th. Starting around m. 20, as the lowest note in each group of four gets lower and thus stands out from the three preceding, it just starts to feel like a downbeat. I've tried to illustrate what happens with this little video. It first shows (with aggressively accented beats) where the groupings actually fall. The second version shows one of the places where my ear will experience a shift and start hearing the downbeat one 16th note early. What's interesting is that I rarely experience this as if I've been cheated. It's only when the end of the passage comes, going into m.29 that I'm aware of an extra 16th note - almost like a record skipping. That's a lot of words, but maybe this makes sense:

David Bruce claims that most of his compositional choices are based on possible implied groupings in Bach's original. When listening to his version, I found myself skeptical in many places - but I also liked the places where the Bach seemed to be twisted beyond its own internal logic! So, the point of my own project was to be continuously disruptive, with all sorts of metrical tricks along the way. There are triplets that start on off-beats, downbeats shifted into odd places, rhythmic groupings of 3, 4, 7  16ths notes, etc. The process was honestly rather casual and improvisational ("hmm, let's try this") and took a LOT less time than it has for me to engrave the results. Rather than try to write about all of the choices, I made an annotated version that over-explains much of what is going on here:

There's a lot more that can be said about all of this, but I've got nine more days of Bach blogging to go. I will say for now that my "arrangement" is not necessarily intended to be performed by a human pianist, though I don't doubt there are those who could manage just about all of this. I might try to learn it at some point (I've managed the first 30 bars or so before), but part of what I love best about this is the absolute steadiness of Bach's right hand as essayed by my computer. When I listen, it's especially fun to try to keep the original 3/4 meter in mind - kind of like trying to organize an image fractured by a trick mirror.

Also worth noting that one of the most enjoyable things about this project is getting the notes to look right on the page (including for the "rhythmic feeling" demo above). There are choices I've made that would make this harder for a pianist to read - but that make it easier to see what's going on. That's an interesting tension in itself. More tomorrow...

Saturday, March 21, 2020

I'll be Bach

Well, this day has almost completely gotten away from me, so the bigger post I'd had planned for Bach's birthday will have to wait. But, good news. Whereas I've spent most of my life thinking of March 21 as Bach's birthday, I guess there is also reason to celebrate on March 31. I mentioned this on Facebook, and a friend said he and his family had taken to celebrating eleven days of Bach, from the 21st to the 31st. Brilliant!

So, I'm gonna try to Bach-blog every day to the end of the month (giving me a flimsy excuse for my post title), beginning today with a new little reveal.

This "adaptation" of a famous Bach work actually debuted last March with not so much fanfare. In short (with more explanation to follow tomorrow?), I simply added an intentionally disruptive left hand part to a solo line originally written for one violin. I really liked the way it came out, and have listened to it happily many times, but had posted a version that only shows the original violin part. Because my left handed addition plays lots of metrical tricks, it's not so easy to notate, and it was only on March 1 of this year that I set out to make it look right. There were lots of interesting and unusual decisions I made along the way, and what you see below combines my interests in arranging, deranging, engraving, and score animating.

As I'll discuss more, it's not necessarily intended to be performed by a person which is one of its disruptive features. But it makes my brain dance in satisfying ways, and though it is not pure Bach, it definitely flows from a love for what his music does to my mind. Happy Birthday, Bach!


J.S.P.S. Might as well include this as well:

Oh, and a playlist that shows the many, many ways this music has been re-imagined.