Fugue improvisation / Why?!?


Why improvise in a fugal style / why bother

Well, it all started with shame. The film ‘Shame’ that is. There have been a few films that have resonated deeply with me simply because of a piece of music within the film.
Such as ‘Talk to her’, the excruciatingly slow Spanish film, when the film seems to grind to a halt for an extended moment while a small band performs a heartbreakingly beautiful Cucurucucu.


Or the climax of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ where the action is set to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman.

In the film ‘Shame’ the main character played by Michael Fassbender goes out for a jog at night in New York City listening to Glenn Gould play the prelude of Bach’s e minor prelude and fugue from book 1 of the Well tempered clavier.

Such a great piece of music played by one of the few instantly recognizable classical pianists of the 20th century. I hadn’t listened to any of Glenn Gould’s Bach in a very long time, I was instantly drawn in, hungry to listen to more.
I try not to indulge in envy, but I guess I have to admit I am rather envious of pianists that can play both books of preludes and fugues by Bach.

Mostly though, I want to do something no one else is doing. Directly after watching that movie and being struck by that musical moment I for some reason came upon the even better idea of learning how to improvise in the style of a fugue. Absolutely crazy idea, only organists seem to attempt to do that, and to me those feel like rather half hearted attempts clinging to a raft of rules a good three hundred years old, and in my humble opinion, completely unnecessary at this point.

I am not trying to say what I do is better, simply, if I am going to spend, or potentially waste my time trying to improvise in a fugal style, as it felt pretty impossible in the beginning, then I at least want to have fun, most of all, to not feel bound by a books worth of useless rules. I want something that feels more organic, something more concerned with the horizontal flow of each of the various voices rather than the strict adherence to these outdated rules of how the voices vertically interact with each other and don’t break any of said rules at any moment throughout the piece. This becomes the overarching concern in the compositional process of fugues, and no one could follow rules while creating art like Johann Sebastian Bach. I never deluded myself into thinking I could achieve this level of theoretically sound contrapuntal voice leading while improvising. For now I am satisfied with being able to improvise in a fugue like manner while creating music that sounds organic.
Since ending my official piano studies around ten years ago and concentrating more on improvising, a love of playing the piano has returned and since deciding to try to learn how to improvise in a fugal style I can say a fire has lit in my soul. This will probably not bring fame or fortune, but I have never felt such bliss and peace, nor have I ever felt so present and lucid in the moment of playing. Maybe the opposite of the so called Fugue state.
So, why is it unnecessary to adhere to these 18th century counterpoint rules. Besides that era being long since gone you might wonder. I have two reasons for you to ponder.

If we assume these rules aren’t totally arbitrary, which they are, these rules are based solely on an analysis of how each interval in the chromatic scale sounds, which comes down to, to the ears of 18th century society, which intervals sound pleasing, more importantly creating a hierarchy of which intervals to utilize and which to avoid. For example, the intervals of thirds and sixths sound more pleasant than seconds, fourths, fifths and sevenths, that’s still reasonably true, but the unpleasantness of all the intervals has long since been demolished. We have chords built on fourths in jazz. Power chords, which are open fifths, in rock moving in parallel motion. Seconds and sevenths are wonderfully rich sounding intervals, dripping with resonance. And there is nothing diabolical at all about our six delightful and generous tritones. The old rule books for contrapuntal writing are essentially useless now, especially for improvising. We can’t keep track of how all the voices interact with each other in contrapuntal improvisation and still have the bandwidth left over to create something beautiful and organic, or at least I can’t. For my ears, I think that should be the primary goal.

I can listen in awe to organists on YouTube improvise theoretically correct fugues, it just doesn’t seem like fun to me. It may be a reasonable intellectual exercise, but that’s it.

The great teachers of the baroque period wrote entire treatises on how to compose and improvise in the established and correct manner, all based on a few notions of what sounded pleasing and displeasing to the tastes of the time. What is now acceptable and pleasing is completely different than it was at that time. Which makes those entire books useless now. Like poor Euclid, mathematicians need to grasp his contribution to math, but then quickly move on. So do we.
If I am ever asked to write a book on non-Baroquian counterpoint, it would basically say, spread out over the requisite 250+ pages, “do what you want as long as it sounds like you know what you are doing.”
The other reason is life revolved around the wealthy and royalty back then, you were either part of it, or wished to be. These were the people with the money to pay for music. But they had to keep out the riffraff. In music, the price of admission was the ability to grasp these rules and then write beautiful music quickly, that adhered to these rules. Thousands tried, really only one nailed it while another handful did some really fine work, the rest are long since forgotten.
Maybe, like the price of real estate in the finer areas or the price of a good college education is often beyond ridiculous, this is mostly to keep out the riffraff. The way to develop and keep up their elitist dominance over the music field was to make the price of entry too steep for all but the few.
For me now, to improvise in the style of a fugue, or if you insist I be more precise, more loosely in a fugue like manner, for I do not have any intention of following 18th century counterpoint rules, has become the most exciting, fresh and mentally engaging way for me to improvise. Perhaps most personally pleasing for me is simply because no one else seems to be doing it, for now that is enough why bother for me. 🙂