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 To review quickly, this arrangement (minus a few 2020 tweaks) was originally made last March, inspired by a differently mischievous left hand part added by composer David Bruce.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...

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