Feb. 21, 2017

Ten Steps

We observe that people solve crossword puzzles the easy way by working the entire puzzle at the same time and filling in the easiest answers first.
This is far more productive and enjoyable than starting in one corner of the puzzle and working laboriously across to the other side one tedious square at a time, disregarding any clues the surrounding parts of the puzzle might lend.
In like manner, the easy way to write a fugue is to adopt the same approach by working the whole manuscript at the same time rather than starting with measure one and ending with the last one [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part IX].
Working the puzzle across is akin to developing a horizontal melodic line; working the puzzle up and down compares with the vertical harmonies made by the moving lines.
Various "chunks" of the puzzle compare to the individual entries, whereas the places where they join with each other in the puzzle compare with the short modulating episodes which connect the entries.
If we've got a good subject (one that lends itself to contrapuntal elaboration), we know in the exposition where the answer should follow [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XX], we've got a musical countersubject that complements it rhythmically, and we've got A PLAN of steps to follow for the voice combinations in the various entries ... we've got a fugue.
We prepare ourselves for this by studying examples beginning with the strongest fugue writer in history; the fugues from the "the 48" (Well-Tempered Clavier, Parts I and II) of J.S. Bach and all of his organ fugues should be consulted along with the fugues of other composers; we should get ourselves well informed in harmony, counterpoint, the rules of voice leading, the general rules of fugue writing, and especially, Pressfield's book "The War of Art" [See blog, The Book].
All of this is critically important before any of us begin our own composing.
The easy and fast method or process of fugue writing successfully practiced by this author can be summarized in Ten Steps (photo) which, as they're carried out, may be permitted overlap to some extent:
STEP ONE: Get a notebook PC and either download some music writing software to it (such as Sibelius) or sign up with an on line music writing application (such as Noteflight) if you haven't already, make sure you're set up to write with a blank score [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part V], click as many measures as you think you'll need, add an upper and lower voice to the upper staff, then you're ready to begin the exposition.
The first move we make in writing a fugue is to invent a subject (theme) in the tonic (home) key; the longer the subject is, and the more varied it is rhythmically, the more its rhythmic material can be worked later on, in the episodes.
This theme should be worked carefully with an eye for this, and for contrapuntal elaboration, including stretto (overlapping of entries before the first entry finishes).
One of the best ways to engineer a stretto into a subject is shape it so that it follows an implied tonic-dominant harmony with every other bar.
In other words, in the 1st bar we make the first few notes outline or follow a imagined tonic harmony, then in the 2nd bar outline or follow an imagined dominant harmony, then in the 3rd bar make the notes different but able to blend with the notes in the 1st bar, then in the 4th bar make the notes different but able to blend with the notes in the 2nd bar, etc.
This formula leads to a possible stretto (which is nothing more than an octave canon) at a distance of one bar.
By the time you get done with this "sculpting" of the subject, you might think the pile was scraped off the velvet of your subject, that now it's a bit drab, maybe even mundane, and might be boring for the listener to endure, but this usually makes it more workable.
The subject for Bach's Art of Fugue [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XIX] is short, little more than a bare outline of the tonic chord in slow notes, with a quick little tail attached; it's without color, without light, and anything but striking, but, just like the most common lump of clay, he knew that such a substance could be molded and worked in every possible contrapuntal direction, which is why he shaped it this way; the result is an hour and 10 minutes of some of the most beautifully intricate music ever composed.
Some of the best subjects start in slow notes or a dotted rhythm, then pick up speed with shorter note values, with faster notes in the "tail" (the last grouping of notes).
This subject is then repeated in the dominant key (or, less often, the subdominant); this repeat is called the "answer."
STEP TWO: is to create a countersubject in the dominant key (or, less often, the subdominant); this is a line that sounds in harmony with the answer; the countersubject should move in contrary motion to the subject and in faster notes whenever the notes in the subject are slower or stationary.
When the subject and countersubject are put together, the result to which we need to strive is good implied harmony in mostly contrary or oblique motion and perpetual 8th note or 16th note motion.
This is crucial, to have these 2 lines well thought out, but, we sometimes have to come back later on, after we've worked an entry or two, and "tweak" (change a note or two) something in the subject or countersubject(s).
Why is this? ... because one of the principle rules of harmony forbids consecutive perfect 5ths, octaves, or unisons in similar motion, but sometimes we find them cropping up unintentionally in our writing when all the moving lines are brought together, which necessitates fixing that passage to eliminate the mistake and then going back through all preceding passages and making the same change in the subject or countersubject all the way through, for the sake of consistency.
This is why working from a notebook PC with online music writing software can be such a time saver; changes like this can be made quickly and easily without crossing things out or maybe trashing the entire copy and starting over.
STEP THREE: is to write a 3rd line in the tonic key that will blend in harmony with the subject and countersubject; if this 3rd line can be retained throughout, it becomes a 2nd countersubject while the original one then becomes the 1st countersubject.
As the voices of our fugue enter, one by one, our mind can quickly get boggled, minute by minute, trying to keep things straight unless we work ahead of ourselves, where we can.
We can keep things straight here by working the whole exposition at the same time, like a "chunk" of a crossword puzzle, by first placing the subject in whatever voice we want it to enter in the exposition; we can then come back and enter the countersubjects, one at a time.
A short modulating episode (2 bars is all that's necessary) might be interpolated before the entrance of this 3rd line to get the music back smoothly to the tonic key.
STEP FOUR: is to write the entrance of the subject again in the remaining 4th line of the exposition; if the fugue is in 4 voices, then this line will enter after the 3rd line while the other 3 lines go one to play the 1st and 2nd countersubjects and a free voice.
It isn't necessary to place a short modulating episode between the 3rd and 4th entries, although we could, as the 3rd entry typically points to the dominant already (if it doesn't, it can be modified to do that).
This exposition will then end in a cadence in a related key, usually the relative.
One way to construct a smooth pedal line to transition from the 4th entry to the relative key is to have a look at what's going on in the bass a couple of measures before that, invert that figure, and finish it with an octave leap on the dominant note of the relative key using whatever accidentals are necessary to land on the new tonic.
At this point it helps to print a hard copy of this completed exposition; we will refer back to it when it comes time to enter the subject and countersubjects in the remaining entries or to determine the inverse of the subject or countersubjects for possible use in the episodes or coda.
STEP FIVE: is to work out on a separate sheet of paper how many additional entries there will be, in which keys, and the order of voice leading for each (the positions of the subject, countersubjects, and free voice) so that duplications might be strictly limited, if not avoided; this sheet of paper will be consulted frequently as work progresses.
As soon as we have this figured out we expand our working screen to accommodate the number of measures it will take, then mark off with double bar lines the various additional entries and 4 bar episodes which separate them; this is so we can find them quickly while scrolling down (these double bar lines can be easily changed back to single bar lines during the final editing).
There's no rule which prohibits interpolating an episode between the entrance of the 3rd and 4th voices in the expostion (Op. 10 is an example);
There's no rule which prohibits a redundant entry in the exposition (Op. 13 and 18 are examples);
There's no rule which prohibits building an entry on the inversion of the subject and countersubjects (Op. 13 and 18 are examples);
There's no rule which prohibits the last voice in an exposition from entering in the relative key (Op. 11 is an example);
There's no rule which prohibits the voices in an exposition from entering one by one in the home key (Op. 11 is an example);
There's no rule which prohibits building an exposition by means of these or any other bold moves, as long as they're made with good reason, the general rules of part writing are scrupulously observed, and the result sounds smooth to the ear [See menu bar, Free Stuff].
Doing what's unexpected like this changes the musical landscape from common to uncommon and is the way the boundaries of art have been extended and music has been permitted to grow and develop for thousands of years [See blog, Do The Unexpected, Poetic License].
From here on the remaining steps may overlap some, depending on what captures our working attention at the moment.
STEP SIX: is to fill in the subject and countersubject lines in all the remaining entries, leaving the 4th free voice blank for now; this work proceeds quickly.
Before moving to the next step this would be the time to carefully check the score for voice crossings or consecutive 5ths or octaves between the moving lines in their various configurations and make the necessary corrections; this may require the tweaking of a note or two or even exchanging one line for another in order to get things to "fit" better harmonically [See blog, Tweaking].
STEP SEVEN: we now go back and fill in all the free voices in the various entries; we don't just pick notes out of thin air to make a 4-note chord with each moving note; instead we make this 4th line just as singable as the other 3 lines; this is the "secret," if there is one, to get the music to sound with an easy, flowing beauty.
If there isn't sufficient space at some point to squeeze another note between 2 others, we adopt one of the notes already on the page as the note for the free voice and resume the line a beat or 2 later when there's enough room; 2 different lines may share the same note momentarily, if necessary.
STEP EIGHT: is to create a stretto, if there is one, immediately following the last entry by starting the subject in one voice then starting it again in another before the first voice can finish; we start it again at the same distance so that the voices create some excitement as they accumulate and "pile up"; after that we finish it off with an interesting, original coda; mundane and cliche endings should be avoided.
We have it on authority of the strongest fugue writer in history that a good fugue doesn't have to have a stretto -- some of the finest fugues of J.S. Bach have no stretto at all; if the subject at hand doesn't lend itself to stretto, it doesn't mean that it's weak or unsuitable in any respect; we just ignore it and move on.
STEP NINE: is to connect all of these separate "chunks" of entries with short modulating episodes; these can be of any length, but 4 bars is sufficient; they do not each have to be of the same length, but it sounds smooth when they are.
This step is like assembling a string of beads where the individual "beads" are these big entries; when all the beads are connected finally, the fugue is almost finished.
STEP TEN: now it's time to proofread our work, check it for errors in notation or composition (stems on the top staff up or down, voice lines crossing, notes failing to resolve correctly, consecutive fifths, octaves, or unisons moving in similar motion, awkward leaps in a melodic line, misplaced or missing accidentals or rests, etc.) and make the necessary additions or corrections [See blog, Making Mistakes, A Smooth Sea].
Now is when we add our metronome and tempo marks, dynamic marks, hand divisions, and registration suggestions or changes, if any; here is where we convert our double bar lines to single bar lines and erase any labeling inserted earlier to keep things separated and easier to find on a screen.
This is where we go back and spruce things up, put our work under a microscope, get things as animated as we can and as smooth as we can, so that when we're done we can't imagine a single note following another any other way.
When we can say that, when our score is cleaned up and professional looking, our fugue is finished.
We have a look at it now, and if we see something in it that can be worked as a prelude or other type of free work to be paired with it we create some blank space in the score anterior to it and feel free to have at it again.
Sometimes an idea or two for a prelude occurs to us in the middle of writing our fugue and can/should be notated at that time; it's perfectly okay to postpone work on the fugue today in order to give its matching prelude some attention -- we can always resume work on the fugue tomorrow.
It's better to get the big picture first, to map out the prelude's main sections, theme(s), key changes if any, and creating the framework for the piece, before filling in its smaller details.
By following this process of 10 steps, and without hurrying, a well built fugue can be completed from start to finish in a surprisingly short time; all of the scores for the fugues on this web site were composed that way, some of them in just 3 days.
This 10 step process for fugue writing has been battle tested in the creation of many fugues and is very solid [See menu bar, Free Stuff]; it makes our time productive over a period of a few days, but it's important to remember not to fly through the work so quickly with such an overambitious timetable and unrealistic expectations that we start flaming out or missing some obvious mistakes.
The best results come by working our projects a little bit at a time, chipping away some of it every day like a sculptor frees the subject slowly from a solid block of marble.
If we aren't careful, we can overdo it; we can get so wrapped up in what we're doing that time gets away on us and our energies get completely spent; we can wear ourselves out -- unless we pace ourselves.
We should stop at the first sign of physical or mental fatigue; as we make progress we learn to develop the ability to recognize that point when it arrives, when the mind starts to get numb, and listen to what our body is telling us, that it's time to call a halt for today.
Composers know to arm themselves with patience; they know, with every day's work, when to say "when," that it isn't a sprint, that it isn't the 60-yard dash.
It's a marathon.