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As long as we’re conducting experiments on the familiar C major prelude…

Some years ago, Don and I heard Angela Hewitt play a marvelous concert of Bach and Messiaen. (There’s a combination!) She gave the most unusual performance of the C major prelude I’ve ever heard: very fast, very light, either a bit of pedal or just a superhuman legato (don’t remember which), and certain notes voiced to give the rapid running pattern some shape. It was almost impressionistic.

Now if there’s a right way to play this prelude, this is definitely not it. But it was really quite a marvelous treat to hear something so familiar in such a surprising new guise; if it wasn’t “right,” it sure was good!

Here is an imitation — a rather poor one, I’m afraid — of my memory of that performance:

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude 1 (in C major) à la Hewitt
Paul Cantrell, piano

Don and I both immediately ran off to get her recording of it, and were immediately disappointed: she played the piece in a completely ordinary way. It was fine; it just wasn’t at all the daring version we’d heard live. I came up with two theories about this:

  • She came up with the novel interpretation in the few years between the recording and the concert, or
  • afraid of critical reaction, she played it safe on the recording and left the risk-taking for the live performances.

I don’t know if the second theory was true here, but it’s definitely true in general: musicians don’t want to give critics anything to criticize, and thus focus first — particularly on recordings — on having no mistakes, no risks, nothing extreme, nothing wrong. The result of this is the current glut of recordings that are perfect but not very good.

To heck with that! Give me risk-taking! I’d rather hear performances that miss the mark half the time than the bland, play-it-safe perfectionism we usually get.

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.

Here’s an amusing little idea Joel and I came up with while talking on the phone. Why did I do this, you ask? Because it’s the internet. Because I can.

Mystery recording
Paul Cantrell, piano

The first one to figure out what’s going on here gets … um, actually I don’t have a prize. Sorry. Still, try to figure it out!

If you want the full surprise effect, play the song without looking at the title.

Crystalizing, particle by particle.

Paul Cantrell, piano

That’s the last of the January improvaganza. I’ve been composing day and night (and it’s a perfect night for it tonight: new snow and a near-full moon!), and that will yield some new recordings just as soon as I manage to get some of these new pieces learned. But next time, I have a quirky little treat in the works for you. No, no, it’s a secret. Only Joel knows.

A sudden outpouring with no resolution!

Paul Cantrell, piano

I sat down and played this once, then for some reason started it again a couple of times — perhaps trying to find a resolution that wasn’t there to be found. But I ended up using that first take after all.

It somehow reminds me of GMH:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

  Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

  Selves—goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

(Here’s the whole poem.)

I can’t decide: is this one emotionally charged, walking in an unfamiliar place, breath held? Or is it something moving without human intention, like water flowing beneath the ice, seen through human eyes?

Paul Cantrell, piano

Hmm. I think this one went on too long, but I do like the ending.

Shelter. A safe place.

Paul Cantrell, piano

I’m returning from Colorado tomorrow, but it will likely be a while before my piano is back in tune and I’m recording again. Will the blog go silent, you ask? Fear not! I recorded a little round of improvs a few weeks ago, so that’s likely what you’ll be hearing here for the next couple of weeks.

When I post a bunch of improvs in a row like this, part of me cringes at them starting to feel like filler material — but I set out to post recordings twice a week, and by golly, I’m sticking to that! So I hope you can enjoy these pieces for their emotional variety and in-the-moment rawness as you await the Return of the Composer. If nothing else, you can enjoy the names, which Wyoming provided and my parents helped me select.