Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Juggler

DeVoto narrows our focus in his next entry, zooming in from massive forces - the chorus, tenor soloist, and orchestra - and the difficulties of blending text, drama, music, and religion - which it to say, from the complex interaction of text and music in Bach's reinvention of the Passion tradition - to one person, alone at a keyboard. For his fourteenth entry, we get

J. S. BACH "The Well-Tempered Clavier", Book I (1722); Prelude No. 2 in C minor

This is famous music, a mainstay of piano lessons for the last couple centuries. It is striking, though, how we have come to think of it today. There's a popular conception now that Bach (particularly his keyboard music) is music for mathematicians (e.g. "Gödel, Escher, Bach")- as though what we're supposed to hear in this music is some perfected expression of numerical abstraction, very cool and empyrean.

This has become an easy cliche. Soundtracks frequently employ a two-part invention or fugue to convey the idea of superb German engineering (men in white lab coats designing cars while listening to the Goldberg Variations) or superhuman powers of calculation (the mathematician filling chalkboards with equations, spurred on by the Art of Fugue).

It's also, in a similar vein, the music of the Machine. The tick-tick of the square sixteenth note rhythms are likened to pistons, clocks, or sewing machines- inhuman, tireless. Also, Bach's keyboard music is durable enough that it could survive transcription to early electronic reproduction- it doesn't require extensive dynamics or rubato to get its message across. This made it a popular choice for programmers who wanted to show of the musical possibilities of early computers. Walter Carlos paved the way for this using analog synths (a fairly 'warm' sound), followed by the first generation of home-programmed computer music (on, for instance, C64s) beeping out toccatas and fugues.* For a whole generation of people, in fact, this was perceived as the natural way to enjoy Bach- stripped down to its skeleton. I knew a guy in high school who said (proudly, thinking this was quite elegant of him) that he listened to a certain Bach MIDI file every day.

But how was it in Bach's era? He lived, after all, before the widespread tyrrany of the metronome, before the satanic mills and railroads. There were, of course, clocks -- imperfect, expensive clocks and pocket-watches -- but Bach's lifetime was still largely a time without engines, an age of horses and boats and candles and windmills.

So what do we make of the Prelude No. 2 in C minor, which consists of nothing but sixteenth-note figures in 4/4 time, perpetual motion? Was there a mimetic sense for Bach's audience- a galloping horse? I think the answer, if there is one, has been hidden by the keyboard music's gradual shift from personal entertainment to public. Today, we know these pieces best from the recordings of Igor Kipnises and Glenn Goulds- listening to it them a passive experience. In Bach's day, though, these keyboard pieces would have been the music of active personal amusement.

I found, in doing my analysis of this prelude, that I didn't really come to an understanding of the piece until I'd actually bothered to sit down and play through it six or seven times in a row. Listening to recordings and doing pencil analysis (I did these first, thinking I'd make short work of the harmony) missed the point- these are pieces for fingers. Actively participating in music of this textural complexity invites you inside it in a way that listening can't- when we hear it, we marvel at its rigidity, when we play it, it feels like a game. We 'get the jokes' so to speak, and the unexpected chromatic dissonances and changes in figuration give a tactile pleasure that completes the mental one. The sixteenth notes, then, are not a galloping horse or a spinning waterwheel- they're a juggler, keeping a lot of balls in the air at once.

So, what is there to say about the piece, harmonically? Nothing that would really convey what makes it enjoyable. The conceit works like this: every measure consists of a complicated two-voice figuration - played twice per measure - that implies a certain chord and a subsidiary, reaffirming chord made up from the internal passing tones of the figuration. So, in the first measure we get C G and E-flat in the main sonority, and passing-tone D and F which could imply either dimishised vii or ii. As the piece goes on, we realize that the first sonority of every figure is the 'tune'- a very simple tune that moves in whole notes (the rest of the busy figuration being the real interest).

The piece stays in C-minor for the most part, momentarily moving to the relative major for about five bars halfway through. But -- as any beginning composer who has tried to cut corners by repeating a figuration over and over knows -- this texture would get monotonous quicklyl without variation. So - and this is the 'clever' part that makes the analysis interesting - Bach starts to sort of mutate the figuration as he goes along. Starting around measure twelve, due to the presence of a minor second in the chord's construction (in this case a IV7 chord in inversion), it gets more ambiguous which notes are passing tones and which are part of the 'main' harmony for the measure. This ambiguity only increases as Bach employs increasingly dissonant chords. He also starts to make greater alterations to the structure of the figuration- suddenly we get opening pitches that are very low in the soprano voice (measure 19) which had previously always been the highest pitch in the figure. There's even a moment (you only really notice it while playing the piece) where the figuration isn't repeated literally within the measure.

And then, just when all this churning sixteenth note counterpoint has arrived at a very ambiguous G C E-flat A-flat chord (in this case it's like an altered i chord), Bach abandons the figuration and embarks on 3 bars of monophonic melodic arpeggios- bounding arcs that call to mind a violin cadenza. A second voice joins these arpeggios and we get some fancy sequence-heavy passagework that takes us through lots of dominant and diminished sonorities. All this makes the second half of the piece feel unbound and chaotic, like it's unravelling all the tension created in the opening 24 bars of strict two-voice sixteenth note perpetual motion. It continues in this cadenza idiom, finally ending the piece on a major I chord, having highlighted the dominant in the previous measures (he said, boringly). It's like - if I can stretch an analogy - the juggler has throw all the balls hard up into the air, but they've somehow landed to form a perfect circle on the ground.

Next post: more from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

*Bach keyboard music, of course, wasn't the only 'theme music' for computers -- especially as the genre developed during the '80s -- but its square rhythms and busy figurations certainly influenced the new music. Only in the last ten years has techno-derived music replaced Bach as shorthand for technology.


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