Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Meanings of Counterpoint

Part of the elusive nature of retiring to "do" music is figuring out what "doing music" exactly means. For some time, I've found myself reading books and articles that tackle some aspect of this question. Most recently, I finished David Yearsley's book, Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint, which dovetailed nicely with my ongoing obsession with Bach's music. Yearsley examines some of the issues that enervated critical musical discourse in the early 18th century, and suggests how Bach's music may have been a response or commentary on these issues, using canonic aspects of Bach's late works (Musical Offering, Art of Fugue, Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch, but surprisingly, not so much from the Goldbergs) as examples.

Since I'm not an academic, some of the historical issues seem relatively minor, such as the relationships between learned counterpoint and alchemy. More interesting were the connections between Bach's compositions and Frederick the Great's autocratic regime, and what all this might suggest about Bach's politics. Yearsley's take on the famous visit that led to the Musical Offering was very different than other accounts I have read, particularly James R. Gaines' work Evening in the Palace of Reason. Gaines posited a world-view conflict between a traditional one where God provided the order and reason for being, and the Enlightenment one based more on rationalist principles, with Bach representing the former and Frederick the latter of these views. The opposition was reflected all the way to the personal relationship between the two men, with the royal theme being designed specifically to thwart Bach's contrapuntal and improvisational skills. None of this tension is present in Yearsley's interpretation of events. Yearsley believes that the Musical Offering dedication expresses general agreement with Frederick's absolutist project, and that the royal theme 'encouraged extended contrapuntal treatment.' Ultimately, these kind of historicist readings really say as much about the commentator as they do about Bach, as Yearsley recognizes in his final chapter, which deals with Bach's legacy as a "German" composer in the early years of the 20th century.

Equally interesting is the way Yearsley imagines Bach's response to the mechanistic debates that were raging in musical and philosophical circles. In the 1730s and 1740s, the inventor Vaucanson displayed a faun automaton that played the flute in a realistic manner through an ingenious use of bellows, levers and pulleys. The machine fit into contemporary discourse about whether humans have souls and therefore a spark of the divine, or are simply machines. Although the specific terms about the debate have changed, we still have conflicting explanations about the way the world works between religious and secular writers, and we still have debates about man-as-machine, exemplified in works like A Thousand Plateaux. In music, the mechanistic debate focussed on canons, which were often presented as puzzles or generators that required an active participation and allowed for multiple solutions. Yearsley suggests that Bach's canons explore the tension between mechanistic and more organic approaches in the canons in the Art of Fugue.

Where Yearsley's book resonated with me was his presentation of the political and philosophical aspects of a musician's world view. As musicians, how do we correlate these views with our music? It seems easy to be political in pop music, where words are of paramount importance (e.g., Dixie Chicks). But how about instrumental music, and music that claims to be in the "classical" tradition? Certainly, alternate forms of music distribution are political decisions, as witnessed by the RIAA lawsuits and increasingly onerous copyright legislation. Other than on-demand CDRs for friends and family, I haven't created a public presence for my electronic pieces, which (so far) have been arrangements of classical works and extended drones. Part of the purpose of this blog is to explore why these two forms of music are so important for me, but I suspect that they both are related to withdrawal from the world, rather than engagement. Sort of goes along with the whole "retirement" thing. Plus, it's really difficult to impute a political direction to most instrumental music.

As far as much and machines, most musicians interact with the mechanistic computer, ubiquitous in most music-making today. My piano is being rebuilt this week, so I've had to find other outlets for creating music. But really, even the piano is a pretty incredible machine. My technician was at the factory recently, and the complexity of the piano's inner workings are staggering. Anyway, I've always wondered whether I could take a contemporary piano score, for which no commercial recording exists, and "perform" it sufficiently well with the computer. I've already come to realize that I won't be able to play every piano piece that I'd like, and in fact, the process of selecting a piece to perform, that may take months to gain sufficient mastery, produces a certain degree of anxiety for all the unchosen pieces. For the standard repertoire, I can listen to a recording and decide whether the effort is worth while. But what about new music? Well, I'm creating a prototype this week. For me, the trick is to use the machines to make music that doesn't sound like it was made with machines — therein lies the skill of the musician.