Sunday, March 10, 2024

Bach: Composition by Decomposition

In school, this old boy taught himself musical composition by taking traditional compositions, decomposing them, and studying their components.

Here's biographer Christoph Wolff (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, 2000) describing Bach's process. "One of his study methods consisted of taking a given model and turning it into a new work, not by arranging it but by appropriating the thematic material, subjects, and countersubjects and rewriting the score to create a different piece—a new solution to what he took to be a musical question. And in the process of recomposing, he discovered new thematic connections or contrapuntal combinations as well as new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic features" (p. 93).

Examples of exercises include a decomposition of Dutch composer Johann Adam Reincken's Hortus Musicus, which runs over an hour and is available HERE. Compare this to the fruits of Bach's study, the five-minute Fugue in B-Flat Major (BWV 954), his Sonata nach Reinken [sic] in A Minor (BWV 965/2), and his Sonata in C Major (BWV 966/2).

It stands to reason. Bach learned to compose by decomposing other music and studying how that was composed. Then he made his own early music from recombination.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (1971)

Though released in 1971, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is his effort to take the temperature of the late sixties. But the overall message of the music, struggling to overcome corrupt systems in desperate times, possesses a thematic resonance that we can still feel.

Some tracks on What's Going On clearly mark the epoch. "Inner City Blues" complains of how authority "judges us simply 'cause we wear our hair long," a clear allusion to the flower children and hippie counterculture. The "picket lines and picket signs" in the titular "What's Going On" are clear references to protests against the Vietnam war.

And yet there's an obvious sense in which the lyrics of the album are broader and speak to people everywhere at any time. The apotheosis of the bigger message is "Save the Children," which contains a refrain, repeated later in the album as a leitmotif, "Who's willing to try / to save a world / that's destined to die?" Gaye is saying that the future of humanity is at stake in the decisions we make now, not only the now of 1969 or 1971 or 1975 but of 2023 and 2024 and beyond.

Every day we rely on systems that protect us as well as harm us, and not only us but the prospects for any future humanity. We use electricity that is powered by coal, a finite resource that must be extracted from the earth, and we know this extraction harms the human bodies who must remove the coal as well as the surrounding environments. We know our abundance of cheap goods is sourced from an international supply chain dependent on the cheap labor-power of people who are barely surviving. We know all this. An album isn't going to change any of it. But good art like Gaye's can nevertheless serve as a reminder of the problem. And we do need constant reminding, since forgetfulness is the norm.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (1967)

Can't beat Aretha.

I watched a documentary a while ago where she recorded a concert in a church and it was wonderful. She's a dynamic performer whose stage presence comes off stronger and more impactful than it does even in those albums.

That's not to disparage the albums. I think this one, I could listen to regularly. Which reminds me: I want to buy CDs. I've said that. Maybe another time.

Do you ever put on a record like Aretha Franklin? Might be a break from some of those contemporary, millennial Nashville artists you listen to. Actually, I'm not knocking. I bought a Hayes Carll record because of you and I'm grateful and I don't regret it. But Aretha, that's the ticket.

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Beatles, Revolver (1966)

This is a manic-depressive Beatles. When the album begins, it seems as though they're merely out of touch. The leadoff is "Taxman," George Harrison's lament that he must pay a lot of taxes now that he's a superstar. But then "Eleanor Rigby," "I'm Only Sleeping," and "She Said She Said," where John Lennon says he was only ever happy when he was a child.

The manic side of this is, of course, "Yellow Submarine," "Doctor Robert," "Got To Get You Into My Life." Hearing the sad songs counterpoised with the happy ones, I wonder what it must have been like to be a general music lover and putting this album on the turntable. The sixties, man.