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...]

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