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...

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