Feb. 14, 2017

Getting Started With Writing, Part XVII

(con't from Part XVI)
Composing the written page while seated at the instrument.
Should it be done? ...
I don't think we can glibly presume that J.S. Bach, for example, wrote all of his keyboard music without trying out at least some of the tricky spots at a keyboard as it was being written.
When we look at his WTC-1 (first volume of Well-tempered Clavier) he absolutely consulted the actual sound of his keyboards at least in fashioning his subjects (themes) because so many of them explicitly display his knowledge of the way the intervals contrast with one another, i.e., the notes he chose to put into those melodic subjects are derived directly from interesting subsets of the notes available in his own tuning.
Some of these preludes and fugues are obviously from a clavichord session; the way we know that is, they have physical puns in them on the way fretted clavichords handle multiple notes on a single string.
The way to know this is to play them on a fretted clavichord and see what Bach forces the fingers and the instrument to do, viz., hold a tied note while playing another different note on the same string, which only works in exactly the configuration Bach lays out in the music; he carefully worked around this physical situation with his composing, showing how it's negotiable.
And yet, describing J.S. Bach as a "Klavierritter" (a "knight of the keyboard," a pejorative term he himself used to describe those composers of his day who sat at the keyboard and always tried out each next chord or musical figure before committing it to paper on the rack above the keyboard) could be taking the facts a bit too far ... I find the familiar chess piece to be a reminder of this (photo).
To check out a few awkward or sometimes unplayable passages at a keyboard in order to correct them seems reasonable, perhaps more reasonable than a 21st century composer seated at a keyboard composing and musing that Bach must have done it the same way (the Knights of the Keyboard syndrome).
The compositional process in Bach's case was likely at times one of an improvisation to which he might return to the instrument a few times on different occasions until it took a shape that he could live with.
Then, in his attempt to make a first copy of it on paper without recourse to any keyboard instrument, other possibilities that he may have been hearing in his head would present themselves.
Even in his "truly original" compositions (those where he was not copying from another work by him which he was adapting and revising) where his handwriting shows that he was working very fast (where some of the fine details are not lined up accurately as they usually would be in a "clean" copy of an already existing work) he only infrequently finds it necessary to correct "false starts" or to try out a new form of the melody line in some vacant margins.
This implies that he had the composition fairly well in mind before ever committing it to paper.
Another type of compositional process may have taken place in the case of Bach: the unfolding of a germinal idea, theme, or concept may have presented itself directly to his mind with no need of any keyboard at any point along the way; we have no evidence of this, but the possibility might nevertheless exist.
Personally, I believe that, considering Bach's genius, he did not have to rely upon any instrument but could hear in his "mind's ear" the notes that he wanted to write and the relationships that each note had with each other, and then wrote it down on paper.
It can be argued that Bach's sheer mastery of the techniques of composition have never been equaled, with Beethoven running a very close second, but comparing and checking inventions at the keyboard sounds more like Beethoven than Bach.
Interestingly enough, Beethoven was also a legendary improvisor in his time, yet his compositional style is equally legendary in the opposite sense; he seems to have used every keyboard trick in the book to work out his piano compositions.
We can find no higher position for either composer in terms of mastery of expression of the soul.
I have always imagined Bach seated at his desktop with a piece of manuscript paper in front of him, picking up a pen, looking at the opposite wall or through the window and then starting to write down his invention, the structure of the composition (or on another paper) and so forth, until the whole score in outline was clear to him.
Lesser talents would have taken the long, drawn out, amateurish method of playing a passage then writing it down instead of the more fluid, flowing method of writing as one would write a letter to a friend.
This latter method offers the freedom of not being a slave to some instrument.
American composer Aaron Copeland learned to free himself from this instrumental slavery early on, and advised anyone serious about composition to do the same.
There is no doubt that Bach did not NEED to use an instrument in order to compose; if one knows the relationships of notes to one another one can write as one's mind's ear dictates.
So. Should composing at the instrument be done? ... using Bach, Copeland, and others as our models, the answer generally is "no" ... BUT, there''s a decided advantage in checking at the keys what has already been composed away from it, to verify its playability.
All of the scores offered pro bono for free download and printing on this web site (all 18 Opus numbers, to a score) were composed entirely in this manner, i.e., away from the instrument, with certain passages checked at the keys after the fact, to verify their playability [see menu bar, Free Stuff]
The result is a compact catalogue of works in which the composer's mind was completely free to develop the possibilities inherent in the thematic material of the various pieces, unencumbered by the limitations, if any, of the instrument at hand or the performer's technique.
We can say one more thing about Bach's compositions: they're entirely free of any innovation, but utterly new in originality.
The self-imposed restrictions of Bach to keep to the traditional rules of composition forced him to become the author of such outstandingly innovative music that nobody after him was ever able to follow in his footsteps.
It was within the "confinement of the law" that he burst out with unprecedented creativity, which proves, against all expectations, that the "finiteness" of the law leads to infinite riches.
Bach adhered strictly to the rules of composing in his days; nowhere in his compositions do we find deviation from these rules, but what's most surprising is that his enormous compositional output which represents some 50 consecutive years of white hot creativity is not only unprecedented but, above all, astonishingly creative.
What Bach proved as nobody else was that it's not in novelty that one reaches the deepest of all human creative experiences, but in the capacity to descend to the depths of what is already given; this approach of his with respect to composing did not need to cross any borders.
This type of creativity we do not find in Beethoven.
Beethoven, in his later years, boldly broke with all the accepted rules of composition and was one of the founders of a whole new world of musical options.
But is was his rejection of the conventional musical laws that made him weigh one gram less as a heavyweight composer than Bach; to work within constraints and then to be utterly novel is the ultimate sign of unprecedented greatness.
To be fair to both of these great men, in Bach's day it was easy to find solitude for the purpose of creating; there were no phones, television, video games, hand held devices, or other distractions.
By Beethoven's day the Industrial Revolution had brought about a migration to the city, and solitude became progressively more difficult to find until it's almost non-existent in this current day of hustle and bustle where noises and distractions are the norm and, when they run wild as they often do, can easily succeed in eating up people's lives.
As a result, modern professional composers often decide to take vacations these days remotely removed from the big city, places like Maine or Guam, to find locations where phones and other distractions of modern life do not interrupt their work.
They would probably all agree that it's not difficult to figure out what heaven must be like.
It has to be a place where there's no interruptions.
(con't in Part XVIII)