I have basically three ways I like to compose. My most productive way is to sit at the piano and just start messing around until I notice something worth expanding upon. I also try to compose while sitting in a coffee shop or on the train straight onto my little iPad. This is sometimes wonderfully fruitful but also the way that produces the most crap. I occasionally also take some piece of music I like, or gets stuck in my head as a starting off point and see if that will inspire something I can call my own. That is how this piece came to be. Bizet’s Habanero from his opera Carmen got stuck in my head one day so I thought I would see what would happen if I used that as a starting point. This melody is some 8-9 years old but I still think it is very pretty so I finally made the effort to lock it down on paper.
It makes me wonder, why can’t music at least this nice pop out every time I sit down to compose.
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Little Fugue in g minor
Bach’s music shouldn’t work.
He was, like several other Baroque composers, highly prolific. A good portion of his output was for teaching purposes, another hefty portion were written for weekly church services. Without the aid of computers and printers he wrote music so theoretically perfect at such a brisk clip it is hard to fathom that all of it is also, unlike all the rest, profoundly beautiful and timeless. I find however, very little of his music particularly catchy.
Bach seemed to thrive in the rule riddled world of baroque composition. No other period of music has had so many rules, and unlike any other period, to break those rules is unforgivable, anyone who couldn’t manage all the rules would have promptly been over-looked and forgotten. The composers since then were much more likely to even flaunt their disregard of the rules, attempting to blaze new trails, but that was simply not tolerated during the baroque period.
In eighteenth century counterpoint you have to keep track of how every note interacts with every other note, horizontally and vertically on the paper. You have to have a firm grasp of all the rules associated with contrapuntal composition, you have to be sharp enough to keep track of how each note interacts with every other note in all the various voices of the composition, and to top it all off, it has to be beautiful, or it was a waste of time. There really was only one composer out of thousands who tried throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries who really managed this to perfection. We trained classical musicians could give you a list of others who wrote some really fantastic baroque music, but it is only Bach, we in general, really care about it.
But Bach’s music shouldn’t really work. Pages of angular melodies and counter melodies made up mostly of quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes. Mostly, baroque music is great for training musicians, the more time you spend playing Bach, the better your Chopin will be, and it can be really nice background music. But just as Bach is supremely wonderful to listen to, it is also mindbogglingly stunning to study his scores. There is no other composer you can simply geek out to just by looking at the score. The technical prowess is second to none. It seems to me so completely impossible that such a huge output of music by one person in one lifetime can be so theoretically perfect while also being so profoundly beautiful, maybe interesting and compelling, but not so incomparably wonderful.
Back in 18th century counterpoint class I was often driven to the brink of madness trying to complete my counterpoint composition exercises. I have never wasted so much paper as I did in those classes. Every time you put pen to paper you have to go through a process of checking how that note interacts with every other note you have already written. You may want the next note of your melody to be an f# for example, but the rules forbid it, and if you insist, then you have to erase something you have already done. The process is constant checking and rechecking, erasing and experimenting. Like doing the hardest sudoku, and when it is finished, realizing you have just created roughly ten seconds of utterly mediocre music. It is truly maddening. Mozart had it easy by the time the baroque period ended and the classical period got into full swing. They were much more free by then to create music based simply on what sounded pleasing.
One day our counterpoint teacher teased us with what is possible if we master these rules. He turned down the lights and cranked up a recording of Bach’s little fugue in g minor for organ. A real masterpiece, and maybe, even a little bit catchy.
The real thing, just beautiful:
If you would like an example of how classical musicians sit around the proverbial fire and contemplate the sheer madness/genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. Picture grown men walking around a car show mouth open. 🙂
Words cannot express the absolute genius of that one page.
I spent the 90’s pretty much only interested in classical music. I quickly became a classical music snob once I got turned on to Beethoven and Rachmaninov for good. It wasn’t very difficult at that point to leave the hard rock I loved from high school behind as the 80’s degenerated into the over the top big stadium hair bands. At some point everyone seemed to reject that music as grunge and rap emerged so confidently shortly thereafter.
I did one day however, happen to see Nirvana’s video for ‘smells like teen spirit’ at a friends house, I found it quite mesmerizing. It remains one of the few pop songs from the 90’s I enjoy, and it turned out to be sung by an enduring pop icon, surely enduring for more than just the obvious reason.
I have now seen several pianists do their own interpretation of the piece on YouTube. Of all the videos I have seen I find the most interesting to be Brad Mehldau’s interpretation of it in a live recording from a concert in Vienna.
That video has sadly disappeared.
Brad Mehldau’s solo recordings are quite captivating as he jazzes up some beautiful and beloved pop songs. I can warmly recommend his cd ‘Live in Tokyo.’
Well, while you are at it, check out Eric Lewis practically destroy a grand piano slamming out his own variant of the piece.
So I thought why not try doing my own take on the classic. As I try out various songs and melodies as an improvised fugue some melodies go easily into a fugue and others I struggle with and many I give up on. The beautiful melodies from ‘smells like teen spirit’ it turned out seemed to be begging to receive a contrapuntal treatment. I especially appreciate the opportunity to get away with some parallel fifths. 🙂