Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
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Posts tagged “Bach”

As regular readers of In the Hands know, I’ve been working through my older recordings and applying my up-to-date mastering process — making them sound better, in other words. As I went through the list, I found that these two recordings make a nice pair. Arranging nice little transitions like this is one of my favorite parts of doing a concert. It’s the same little pleasure as assembling a mix CD or playing DJ: even the simple act of ordering songs is a kind of composition, and carries the joy of being creative.

The keys of the two pieces (E flat and A flat) are related and make for a smooth transition, but beyond that, it’s hard to pin down what exactly connects them so well. The deliberate, thoughtful way both unfold? The way both of them seem to talk? Their sense of intimacy? Those are all getting warm, but none of them really pin it down. It doesn’t matter, though — it is fine to be musically confident on intuition alone, and I say they fit. Phooey to the 20th century and its obsession with having a conscious rationale for everything in music!

When something musical works well, it’s natural to wonder why, and we learn a great deal in the process of trying to come up with explanations. But our musical explanations (like all models of reality) are always incomplete; good music remains half-submerged in the unknown, and thus always carries the magic shared by all mysterious things. This is the dilemma of a performer and, even more, of a composer: constantly dissecting, looking for order, developing explanations and rationales — and at the same time never losing sight of the incompleteness of these explanations, but embracing the unknown and holding on to the magic. The skill of smoothly changing frame between reasoning and intuition, known and unknown, dissected part and organic whole, is a core part of both composition and computer programming. Those are two things I spent a lot of my time doing, and I claim they overlap a great deal in the brain, in large part because of this “frame shifting.”

Oh, right, I had a recording to share. Enough philosophizing. On with the music!

Sinfonia No 5
Paul Cantrell, piano
Bunte Blätter No 6
Paul Cantrell, piano

These both come from wonderful sets of pieces — Bach’s two- and three-part inventions, and Schumann’s Albumblätter (“Album Leaves,” which is a subset of Bunte Blätter, “Colored Leaves”). I’d like to learn more of both sets (and improve my Bach playing in general, because it’s very weak). Too much great music and not enough time! What’s a fellow to do?

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.

I love the word "invention" --- it may capture what's going on in the pieces of music it names better than any title I know of. What's this? It's just an idea, a creative spark. Bach has fun, and he's sharing.
The first Bach of the weblog, one of his sinfonias (also known as three-part inventions). The three parts in this one are not obvious at first: the upper two voice are wonderfully intertwined, and do an intricate little tango together as third voice turns slowly underneath. I love the way it unfolds.