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Bach WTC Book 1 Prelude 1, à la Hendrix

So here’s the deal with the mystery recording (Ahree got it right):

It is, of course, a familiar Bach prelude. I learned to play the piece backwards — that is, playing the notes in reverse order — recorded it that way, then reversed the recording. Got it? So even though you hear the strange sound of backwards piano, growing instead of decaying, the notes come in the right order. Here’s what I actually played — and here’s the final backward-is-foward result again:

Mystery recording
Paul Cantrell, piano

Jimi Hendrix used to use this same trick, most notably on the masterpiece Castles Made of Sand. Unlike him — he was reportedly able to think the music backwards in his head — I worked out the backwards prelude on paper, a task which Sibelius made much less tedious. I cheated a bit on what music theorists would call the literal “retrograde,” changing where the left hand notes start…er…end in order to make them sound like they’re starting in the right place when listening backwards.

An interesting phenomenon, the one Joel and I were discusssing that lead to this idea, is that the music doesn’t make sense backwards. Listen to what I played, that is, the prelude with all the notes in reverse order. It keeps seeming like it’s about to start making sense, but it never quite does. You might think that this is only because the piece is so familiar, or because the tonality and musical language are so well-established, but that’s not it! Joel and I were discussing Niobrara — just to be silly, I’d asked if the piece played backwards would be “Ararboin,” so Joel actually tried playing it backwards, and found just the same thing: even Niobrara, which is barely tonal, quite unfamiliar (I made it up on the spot!), and rather meandering, keeps sounding like it’s about to make sense but never does.

Is it that piano just doesn’t make sense when you play it backwards, Joel wondered? Having the notes swell up instead of decaying prevents our ears from finding musical sense? No, I claimed — and today’s recording is the evidence. The Hendrix-style prelude definitely sounds weird, but it makes sense. With the piano forward but the notes in backwards order, it doesn’t. QEF.

So what’s the deal? Why don’t the backwards versions make sense? Music has syntax. Even all those funny improvs do. Backwards work doesn’t syntax the, language verbal with as and. It’s hard to pin down exactly how musical syntax works; in fact, I don’t think anybody’s really managed to do a satisfactory job for music in general, just rough ideas for certain specific styles. But even if we can’t express the syntax as a set of rules, we can sure tell when it’s out of whack!

It’s yet further evidence for one of these little speeches I keep giving: the point of music is not understanding the experience — which nobody, nobody really does — but the experience itself. Your experiential mind knows things about music that your reasoning mind does not.