Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Hypnosis of Bach's Art of Fugue

A little over a year ago, I was driving along unsuspectingly when I switched on the car radio. Immediately I was taken, entranced by the incessant, interwoven lines of a four-part fugue played on the organ. I knew it could only be Bach, and moments later, when the original theme emerged in sustained and soaring whole notes in the soprano line, I knew it was from the Art of Fugue. Somehow, I had never heard any except the first, second, and fourth movements, or "Contrapunctuses," from one of Bach's last, culminating masterpieces. Sitting in city traffic is not usually the time or place we associate with profound experiences, but such was the power of Contrapunctus 9—and of Glenn Gould's playing—that I'll never forget those few minutes.

I went home and listened to more of the same recording, and was shocked at what I'd been missing. I know a lot of Bach's music, and have been lucky enough to perform a good chunk of it as well: the Well-Tempered Clavier, many of the dance suites, the Italian Concerto. When I played the Goldberg Variations, I kind of thought I had conquered the most difficult, the most complex, the pinnacle of them all. Little did I know the Art of Fugue is like the Goldberg Variations on steroids. In the words of Angela Hewitt, "it makes the Goldberg Variations sound like child's play."

So when a fellow pianist proposed last spring that, together, we learn the whole thing, I enthusiastically-and-somewhat-naively accepted the challenge. Over the next month, I'll attempt to describe the piece and my experience grappling with, learning, and playing it.

These pieces are different from anything Bach wrote. They are beautiful, yes, and they can entertain, certainly. But at their best, they overwhelm, they awe, and they mesmerize. 

Of course, if you don't know this music, what are you waiting for?  Go listen

The whole project consists of eleven fugues, plus four canons, plus six more "mirror" fugues, plus the final, colossal-yet-tragically-unfinished quadruple fugue, all labeled with the somewhat more generic Latin "Contrapunctus," for "counterpoint."

Why the obsession with fugues? Bach was the unquestionable master of counterpoint. No one has been (or will for all eternity be) able to combine music of multiple independent parts to better entice and challenge the human brain. That's why listening to Bach's music can sometimes be "difficult": there's usually no one thing going on (no "melody") that draws your ear to the exclusion of other parts of the music; there is, rather, a bunch of melodies all at once, constantly vying for your (and the poor keyboard player's) attention.

But the payoff is enormous. To the extent that our enjoyment of art comes from subtly recognizing patterns, contrapuntal music provides a whole layer or dimension on which to built those patterns. And fugues—pieces defined by one (usually) to a few recurring musical ideas, twisted and transformed to varying degrees of recognizability—provide the perfect medium for a true craftsman to demonstrate his mastery of counterpoint. And Bach was the greatest craftsman of all.

The first fugue is smooth, filled with a feeling of emptiness and desolation. It never departs from the key of d minor yet never stands still, continuously in flux, with no clear structural boundaries or moments of repose. It is in one sense the simplest piece of the whole set, yet it is mysteriously elusive. Whereas the other fugues will draw heavily on increasingly elaborate technical feats of fugal style—stretto, inversion, augmentation and diminution—as well as an elaborate chromaticism that was a hundred years ahead of its time, this fugue is propelled by nothing more than its simple subject, which serves as the inspiration for all that follows.

After that, the the music grows in technical and harmonic complexity, as well as sheer density, culminating—at least temporarily—in the obsessive, relentless and truly manic Contrapunctus 11.

The four canons and six mirror fugues are even more esoteric in style, but underscore Bach's incredible ability to mold his music to his thematic ideas. (The mirror fugues, by the way, are kind of exactly what they sound like: each has a right-side-up version, and an upside-down version, to be presented separately in their completion...pretty incredible!).

But none of them matches the dignity, solemnity and profundity of the final fugue (Glenn Gould's all-time favorite, by the way)....

Perhaps it is not the easiest piece to become acquainted with, and doesn't exactly make for easy listening. But be careful: the Art of Fugue is apt to consume you as it has done for me over these past couple of months. And the best is yet to come!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Alex Ross Missed the Point

Having just read Alex Ross's typically eloquent essay from last week's New Yorker (hoping my opinion is still relevant a week later), I can't help but wonder whether he's missed the point.

Ross talks about the joys of scanning his collection of CDs, of reading the old liner notes, of the personal connection he feels to each recording by virtue of its real, physical existence. He laments the economics of online streaming, where royalty payments are so pathetic, only the artists who have no need for them can hope to earn anything from them. (Aside: I was legitimately excited last month when my Spotify income surged to $1.95.) Certainly, he realizes that not everyone agrees: "If I were a music-obsessed teen-ager today, I would probably be revelling in this endless feast, and dismissing the complaints of curmudgeons."

But the problem of the cloud reaches deeper than Mr. Ross realizes. All nostalgia and ethics aside, listening to music from the cloud changes the perceptual experience of listening. Technology has shortened and divided our attention in many ways, and listening to music is no exception. And that's bad news for classical music in particular.

CDs, LPs, and cassette tapes: music in these forms is (or was) a commitment. You made a decision to buy a recording and spent your hard-earned money on it. Any time you wanted to listen, you had to decide that you would listen, what you would listen to, and physically go through the motions of starting some sort of listening device, while remaining in the same place for the duration of the recording. Listening was expensive, not just because it cost money, but in the cost of setting it up and parking yourself somewhere to hear it (or carrying around a massive portable player).

One of my very first recordings was a cassette of the Bach inventions. Cassettes were terrible, of course, but they were great because I couldn't skip ahead in the tracks: they forced me to listen all the way through.

At that point I probably only had three of four classical recordings to choose from (along with a handful of Madonna and Alanis Morisette tapes).  Every time I bought or received a new CD, it was an event! I always listened religiously until I knew the new recording inside out.

Sometime in middle school, I jumped on board the technological bandwagon (at the time, this consisted of acquiring something called a "MiniDisc") that allowed me to splice different parts of different CD tracks together. I thought this was great! I could finally take my favorite moments of every piece of music and listen to them next to each other, basking in the continuous ecstasy of musical climax after climax. But of course, things didn't work out that way, because a musical moment's power comes with context. Much of the power of the end of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, or Mahler's 2nd, or any piece, comes from all the buildup before it, and trying to cheat my way to that kind of musical epiphany was shortsighted and naive. 

In college, I swung back in the other direction. Having bought a record player and inheriting a bunch of my parents' old records, it was like elementary school all over again, and I could listen for long stretches of time. Maybe listening to LPs was a waste of time at a university (sorry parents!), but once I went through the tiresome routine of removing a record, cleaning it, and putting it on, I was certainly going to try my best to enjoy it and absorb everything it had to teach.

Listening today takes neither time nor money. MiniDiscs never rose to popularity, but what replaced them is more efficient and much easier to use (and much, much cheaper). On its face, this seems great! I doubt I ever would have bought six different recordings of the Marriage of Figaro, but I do have them all in my Spotify. But every time I want to listen to something new, the number of choices is mind-boggling. And humans don't always deal with choices intelligently. If I don't like something new right away, I don't usually follow through and listen to it again, the way I always would with a new CD, until I was absolutely sure I didn't like it.

Streaming makes it easy, too easy, to listen to music. We can listen any time, anywhere, for whatever tiny duration we choose, without taking our attention from whatever other task we might be engaged in.  If you're listening to Ke$ha and Taylor Swift, that's probably okay. Pop music can survive a five minute attention span. But "classical" or "art" music requires sustained engagement and attention in order to be fully appreciated and understood.

Cloud listening has the potential for good, but it doesn't lend itself to true listening. Unfortunately, that's what classical music depends on. The only solution: fight back against our habits!