The Counterpoint of Being?
July 6, 2004 12:08 PM   Subscribe

This looks to be very good stuff, Gyan. Well laid out and easy to follow.

Hell, maybe even I will finally warm up to this cycle... I always found it the least inviting of all the big-name Bach packages. Goldberg, WTC I, and Musical Offering all seem so easy to love, while Kunst has always come across as more of a scholar's treasure. But it could be I never had anyone drag me through it so patiently as this.
posted by soyjoy at 12:25 PM on July 6, 2004

Here's the full Art of the Fugue in glorious MIDI.
posted by gwint at 12:52 PM on July 6, 2004

While reading Godel, Escher, Bach, I spent a lot of time trying to grasp what's so important about this fugue business. I asked friends with degrees in music to explain it to me, and I have yet to find a satisfactory answer.

Case in point:
"The Art of Fugue stands as counterpart to Bach's earlier Well Tempered Clavier whose double cycle of preludes and fugues in each of twelve Major, and minor, keys represents tonal miniatures wherein the primary relationships are procedural, not thematic. By contrast, each fugue of Die Kunst shares not only the same key, but also subject. The cleverness with which this subject is varied, then fugally revealed, represents a crowning achievement of western art."
Yeah, but what does it mean? Can someone please give an answer suitable to a classical music layman?
posted by patgas at 12:54 PM on July 6, 2004

"Tha Art of Fugue" is one of my favorite pieces, not just of Bach's, but in all of "Western Art Music". Perhaps because I have a soft spot for the fugue form, perhaps because of Hofstadter, but I don't really care why. It's brilliant.

I was about to write that I am going to read this link "cover-to-cover" but I can't think of a worthy equivalent. Start tag to end tag? Blech.
posted by billpena at 12:55 PM on July 6, 2004

patgas -- to me this piece is like Shakespeare's sonnets or Michelangelo's David; a master of the form exhibiting the utmost ingenuity within the confines of certain rules and elevating said form to its zenith. These days, we're so used to every great artist becoming so by breaking previously established rules, but many great artists became great because they knew that rules, confines, give you the liberty to express an artistic intent. My $0.02
posted by billpena at 1:03 PM on July 6, 2004

To elaborate what billpena said, what Bach does, is, say: " Rules!! Rules !!! You throw rules at me! Here!!! Begone with your rules..."
posted by Gyan at 1:11 PM on July 6, 2004

patgas - With all due respect to billpena, I realize it's hard to get into something on the basis of its ingenuity or excellence if it doesn't sing to you. No amount of understanding of what's going on is going to make you suddenly enjoy it. But fugue is a terrific form and can lead to some great, and very accessible, transparent and fun-to-listen-to pieces. Two opposite examples that spring to mind are #4 (C# minor) and #10 (E minor) from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In the former a very basic, easy-to-follow subject gets repeatedly drilled into your head while it's being developed and layered and eventually mutated into a whole different subject that takes over the piece like ivy. In the latter a very complex subject blazes through at breakneck speed, stopping off to play rhythmic games on the way to its next drive-by appearance. I don't know if listening to these will answer the "what does it mean" question, but they may at least help motivate you to listen further. And the more you listen, the more the music reveals itself to you.
posted by soyjoy at 1:17 PM on July 6, 2004

I like the Musica Antiqua Koln recording this is based on, but I love even better the one by Bernard Labadie and Les Violons Du Roy. I heard it while driving in my car, arrived at my destination, then sat and waited patiently to find out what recording it was so I could buy it.
posted by pmurray63 at 1:38 PM on July 6, 2004

I always liked the the challenge of a fugue (on piano) because you had to distinguish three separate voices - with two hands. It was hard but rewarding when you were able to control the weight of each finger with greater accuracy - and create the three voices. Well-Tempered Clavier rocks!
posted by ao4047 at 2:04 PM on July 6, 2004

A fugue is the musical equivalent of a kaleidoscope. Or a bunch of mad-scientist clones gavotting with each other.

As for patgas's example: WTC is a collection of one individual prelude and fugue, each with a different theme, for each major and minor key. AoF is one theme, in one key, fugued out as far as Bach could take it.

One day I will play all of them.
posted by casarkos at 2:42 PM on July 6, 2004

patgas: fugue imposes huge restrictions on the composer. You are to permute a theme in various well-defined ways, while adhering to classical standards of counterpoint and harmony, and yet somehow achieve a result that is pleasing to the ear. The intellectual horsepower required is formidable.

Counterpoint is also inherently fascinating to a certain kind of person. It comprises multiple melodies, each of which can stand alone, but which nonetheless sound good together. You can perceive each tune, or a harmonic whole, depending on what you're listening for. It's a total challenge for composer and listener.

Imagine the round tune Frere Jacque. Hum it to yourself. Now do it again, but in your head, bring in the second, and then the third voices. A lot of people can't even manage that.

Now imagine being able to do this in-yer-head stuff, to come up with a new tune that works this way, to write a countermelody that also sounds good, and to ring the changes on both tunes in a way that maintains your interest, the listener's interest.

I imagine that there's a lot of crumpled manuscript with blots and "Scheissdreck!" scrawled on it in Bach's handwriting that never got archived...
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:49 PM on July 6, 2004

Best Mefi-thread ever.

I like your rewording, i am joe's spleen. I was lucky to grow up in a house of good pianists, so I was able/was forced to hear large selections of the Art of the Fugue daily for most of childhood. If you listen to large stretches of the fugues, you begin to hear patterns and ideas. Certain turns of phrase seem witty, and I say that as a pretty poor musician.

Still, I can vouch for the experience of listening one's way through the Art of the Fugue.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:24 PM on July 6, 2004

My wiff says, patgas: "Basically what he has done is taken the same melody in the same key, and altered it in a variety of very clever ways so that it's a completely different piece each time... but it's the same basic melody."

Me: "So what does that mean?"

Her: frowns like I'm dumber than dirt...
posted by five fresh fish at 6:38 PM on July 6, 2004

(I'm fooling her, though: I've got the basic idea figured out. It's kind of like all the variations of "Roses are Red" that kids say. Ha. She thinks she's such a smarty-pants just because she has been studying harmony and counterpoint the past two years!)
posted by five fresh fish at 6:40 PM on July 6, 2004

(Come to think of it, there have been a few MeFi threads that are fugue-like...)
posted by five fresh fish at 6:41 PM on July 6, 2004

The coolest fugue is "Suit Fugue" (Dance of the A&R Men) by Kevin Gilbert. Really. Get it on Kazaa or
posted by 4midori at 10:12 AM on July 7, 2004

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