Sunday, September 5, 2010

I had the nerve to write a fugue

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the midlife crisis kicked in. Just like trying to figure out exactly when a dream started. Yes, we saw Inception in the theater, and we liked it. As they showed in that movie, you have to know you're dreaming in order to care about when it started.

For those of you playing along at home, I dreamed music this morning, but thankfully I don't remember it — I escape another music dream without weird stuff I'm obliged to use. Gee, if I just weren't such a hardass. What's wrong with me, me?

If I were really looking for the incipit of my midlife crisis, I'd begin by diving into mid-2000 and rooting around a bit. After an unpaid semester leave in which I wrote some pretty good pieces and at least one truly awful one, Beff and I decided finally to plunge into the Boston exurbia real estate market, figuring we'd hit the market at its peak. We were wrong. The house we bought appreciated (on paper) by at least 75 percent before plunging back to about 30 percent (3 percent per year! Wow!), and all we were doing was just sitting here. Then taking a bike ride. Then sitting here. Then going to work. Then coming back from work. Then sitting here. Then going to the bathroom.

Soon after we'd scoped out the local restaurant scene, we were sitting in the Quarterdeck (now the Cast Iron Kitchen), and I took out a piece of paper and started writing down a list of music from my high school and college years that I'd soon be purchasing for our newly-organized pop CD storage units. Given that I missed most of disco while playing the role of serious composer guy, there was a gap to fill. Stevie Wonder was oddly thinly represented in the collection. But of course Earth, Wind and Fire and Tower of Power were represented encyclopedically.

Then, inexplicably, I wrote down Elton John's Greatest Hits.

I hated Elton John when I was in high school. During the rare times when I wasn't in the band room instead of eating lunch, I had memories of flocks of cool kids traipsing through the hallways singing the falsetto stuff from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in several simultaneous tonalities; I swear it was the same people who performed it at Spring Frolics (Bob Choiniere and I improvised some C jam blues blindfolded on Spring Frolics, but that's another story). Right around the time of our dinner at the Quarterdeck, I imagine the same kind of stuff had to be going on at Maynard High School with Bootylicious and I don't think you're ready for this jelly creating new polytonal realities.

Bootylicious was sufficiently omnipresent that Beff once uttered I don't think you're ready for this jelly dryly, in the same tone as she'd say the mail is here. I laughed heartily, liverly, spleenly, and especially lungily. I never, ever laugh appendixily.

I admit, though. In high school, if you knew the first two bars of Bennie and the Jets and could play them at the piano, you were instantly, if temporarily, popular. And I did.

I thus ordered about $220 in CDs from amazon, and so far the Elton John CD has only made it out of the case once, in order to be captured into iTunes. The playlist registers zero plays.

On the other hand, and non sequiturially, the most played track in my iTunes is God is a DJ by Pink!. The exclamation point is apparently part of her professional name, not a real punctuation mark.

And when the CDs arrived, Beff noted, "so how long is this midlife crisis gonna last?" I might have said "Burma!"

While rooting through my Finale files folder recently, I encountered Fugue.mus, created in October, 2000. I had only a vague memory of having created the file, and upon opening it, I saw that it was the 3-voiced (sic) fugue on an arbitrary subject (church picnic August 22, 1976) that I referenced in this post. I had obviously been doing a lot of playing and listening to Hindemith, especially to this piece. Entering my own ancient morsel into Finale was another manifestation of the midlife crisis, apparently.

For the opposite of entertainment for the reader of this post, I have dumped the fugue's MIDI into Vocal Writer, Swingled it up, and posted a blank movie of it. Ignore the direct octaves and other fugue faux pas's. And maux faux pas's.

From my vantage point — Lake Champlain and cows to the west, cows to the north, cows to the east, cows to the south — writing fugues was what composers did, and a lot. I was all over Hindemith at the time (and I sometimes got a little Hindemith all over me), so there were plenty of examples. Including the hilarious jazz-o-mundo fugue in the middle of the second movement of the Symphonic Metamorphosis. That the cool composers all dug dense, imitative contrapuntal writing was confirmed by the Vermont all-state band's performance of the Canzona of Peter Mennin.

The first piece on which writing was done by me when I was in college, and a freshman composition major, was a piano sonata, opus 32. Just like the Hindemith, the finale was a big fugue with multiple subjects. And then when I looked around — YMCA to the west, Fenway Park to the north, Symphony Hall to the east, no-man's land to the south — nobody was writing fugues. I stopped.

I withdrew the piano sonata less than a week after it was finished. Yes, at age 18, I already officially had juvenilia. I stopped using opus numbers. And I started writing dreary music like this (dreary is what the cool kids were doin', dontcha know). Wait. Is this when the mid-life crisis started?

Hindemith turned out to be a gateway drug for me. Even though I don't know exactly what that means, it's eminently quotable. Here it is in italics: Hindemith turned out to be a gateway drug for me. Here it is in red: Hindemith turned out to be a gateway drug for me. By imitating what I heard in his music, I acquired some craft, even though I didn't know it. And the fugue thing? It was fun while it lasted. But I moved on. And the craft shonuff came in handy.

As everyone knows — whether or not they have middle names — we're not exactly living in a Golden age of counterpoint. Fugues are officially dry and dull and academic. I know because I was given Fugue's business card by lots of mutual friends, and dry and dull and academic was the actual slogan, printed right there in italics under the mailing address. I did learn enough about fugue on the street to have a perfectly opaque response to my (79-year-old) grandmother when she asked me what a fugue is: a fugue is a procedure, not a form. Later, I made a cassette of Bach fugues and sent it to her her — she never opened it. She didn't know how to use her cassette player except to press «play» and «rewind» in order to listen to I Write the Songs over and over and over.

And when I was on the street and me 'n' my homeys were talkin' 'bout fugue, I don't recall ever hearing all the cool kids are writing fugues, man. Just the very last word. A lot. Sometimes only the last word, over and over, with long pauses. Then we'd read through the fugue treatise from the French Conservatory and say it over and over some more.

As the years passed, I did listen to and look at plenty of the fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier. Play through them at the piano? Not a chance. I also recall singing choral fugues with the NEC chorus and the BSO — notably in the finale of the Mahler 2 and Haydn's The Seasons. The chorus also did all of the Bach B minor mass with those glorious Kyrie fugues — twovum! Bach's fugues were so beautiful and masterly and well-conceived and mathematical that writing a good one seemed impossible and even making the effort seemed pointless. Of the many fugue movements that got studied (by me) in music lit, none were real, complete fugues — I'm talking the finale of the Jupiter, the beginning of the exposition of the Magic Flute overture, the scherzo of the Beethoven 5 — they were mostly fugue expositions or fugatos that, when enough stuff had accumulated to cause critical mass of texture, they stopped fuguing around, and the default bass-tune-accompaniment texture kicked right back in. The fugues we heard in the mod-music lit class — Symphony of Psalms and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta — same thing with Stravinsky. But at least Bartok carried the fugue through almost the whole movement.

In wikipedia parlance. Most fugues after Bach were stubs.

Then there's the Grosse Fuge. I might have to wait until my third midlife crisis to appreciate that one, I fear.

Good thing I've never had to teach a fugue class. Yes, such classes are still taught, and no, I have no idea at present how I'd teach one. I've never cared much to make a big deal out of the distinction between a real answer and a tonal answer. On the other hand, stretto is a lot of fun to say. I once asked a butcher (macelleria) in Panicale, Italy to slice more thinly by asking tagliare più stretto; he smiled. I have no idea what I actually said.

I did start to have an occasional compositional need for textures that would build in a way similar to that of fugue expositions. Not that there's anything wrong with that; I would do some sort of dissolution to a fairly still and sustained moment, and what the music seemed to call for next was a gradual build in texture to a fairly complex-sounding one.

The easy, common, can-do-it-with-both-ears-tied-behind-my-back way to do such a gradual buildup is to reverse-engineer in the manner of a gazillion pop songs. You create a groove (oops. I meant texture) from several pieces (bass, drums, guitar, guiro, claves, piano, ud, theremin, wine glasses, chest hair) and then introduce the parts one by one until everyone who gets a check for the gig is playing. Such as in this tune. Yup, it's quick and dirty, and since you start with the answer, it's a) like playing Jeopardy, and b) not like playing Jeopardy at all, and c) just a matter of pointing at whoever is going to start playing next. I can do that. I have done that. I have found, though, that this approach works sparzimistically to begin a piece, but isn't that good to do after a dissolution. I.e., it's fine as an introduction, and introductions are hard to put into middles of pieces. Just like it's pretty hard to begin a piece with the coda. Haven't done that yet.

I needed to graduate to building such a texture with similar-sounding and equally important lines with staggered entrances (staggered entrances of heartbreaking genius, as it were). There was no real fugato — since the lines were related gesturally but in no other way — but there was a similar effect to that of fugato. Such as in the first movement of this extremely difficult piece, beginning at 1:51. (see? It's in the middle!)

The big idea of this particular approach is, of course, make a-splode. Heighten the excitement in the music with all the independent lines going totally nuts until so much is going on that a strong articulation is needed to make it stop. The a-splode. I think I'm going to trademark that once this post is up. So get used to: make a-splode™ music.

A proper fugue, though. Much harder. What do you do after all the voices have entered? Yes, I know: episodes. It's in the French Conservatory's book, after all. Man ... man. And every sitcom has like 22 of them each year. What's attractive about episodes in fugues? Other than the inherent funniness of the word, that is? I suppose I like the dance of all the voices, always emerging and then going back into the texture, always mutating somehow. A little like whack-a-mole, I guess, but there aren't points scored for identifying which voice is temporarily prominent and hitting it on the head. And then maybe there's a stretto, then more episodes.

A fugue is a procedure, not a form.

And just because it's really hard; a proper fugue was to be my next trick. If it was easy, everybody would do it.

So when I was to write a piece for two-thirds of the Triple Helix — the two thirds that don't have to read tenor clef — my idea was to make it a prélude and fugue followed by a scherzo. So the title reads Pied-à-Terre (Prelude, Fugue, and Presto). Ross said I should add a fourth section called Changio. The guffaw that followed didn't make it as far as moi. Thus, it begins with a slow section followed by a proper fugue.

What did I know about writing a proper fugue? Other than what I did during my juvenilia period, all of that knowledge was yet in front of me. Luckily, there was enough unused space in my brain to store everything I had to figure out. And I feel the need to let you know that the music to the left is © by C.F. Peters.

Step 1: write a subject. Step 2: do fugue stuff with it. Step 3: hee hee hee, you're on your own.

I decided to be a bit fancy by having the second voice enter with the subject displaced a sixteenth note with respect to the beat. Surprisingly, I figured out enough things to keep the fugue going for two or three minutes — not a record, by any means — but I had to use strategy. One episode is in compound time that was set up by a metric modulation, there are two stretti, etc. And if the idea is that you can't wait for the scherzo to start, finally — I guess I accomplished that, too.

It turns out to have been a good strategy to make the fugue a middle attacca movement. I'm great at writing upbeats, but pretty limited at writing endings (I do a-splode™ and the fadeaway a lot). Since I didn't have to figure out how to end the fugue, I got to trot out my specialty upbeat recipe to end it. Big woo hoo there, pardner.

That beat-displacement thing in the successive entrances served me well when I wrote a three-part canon to begin the finale of Ten of a Kind. When I say served me well I mean the players had less of a sense of humor about it than I did. As in, zero.

The apotheosis of what I'm now going to call my fugue period (you can come up with your own name) — which came before my lunch period — was the Dream Symphony, about which I posted here. It's got a goofy fugue that simply interrupts scherzo music (the scherzo music picks up again after the fugue exposition is done); that goofy fugue returns as a very serious, luxuriant fugue in the finale — which is a slow movement! And the big climax of the piece begins with a fast fugue. A fugue! It seemed to me, in my limited experience, that to frame a huge climax with a device as formalistic and academic as a fugue would be even more expressive and tragic. I may have been right.

I called the fugue goofy not because it was totally Mickey Mouse (rim shot), but because a thrown bow and some pizzicati are parts of the subject. I figured that once all the voices had entered, the stereo thrown bows and plucks going every which way would be cool. I may have been right.

As to the climactic fugue (left). The notion that it spawned long lines in double octaves which themselves kept the fugue from going on — more tragedy, more expressivity. I may have been right. And the fugue excerpts here are © by C.F. Peters. About that I'm definitely right.

Thus ended my fugue period. Which turns out to have been a stub.

Fugatos (fugati?), though. I'm not above putting one in when the situation calls for it, as I did at 1:09 of this one. The ghost of Hindemith haunts me there, though.

Which I have decided isn't always such a bad thing after all.


Update Sept. 25 2010. Silly me, my fugue period was not over after the Dream Symphony. Duh, Stolen Moments, my "responds to jazz" piece from 2008, has fugues in each of the outer movements. Plus, Prélude #3, finished just yesterday, has a fugato in it as well. So as far as what we are not out of goes, it's the woods.