Thursday, July 16, 2009

Shep's Fugues: General considerations

BLOG #22, July 16, 2009

As some of you will know, since 2004 I have been writing fugues myself from time to time. But there is a big difference between Shep’s fugues and mine, and that is the nature of their subjects. My fugues are based on the names of family and friends. Shep writes his own subjects, and thinks about them for a long time. So my fugues are essentially games. I don’t think this makes them trivial, because some games are very serious, and games can even be matters of life and death. But the basic idea of my fugues is to generate a subject by a pseudo-random process and see what I can do with that.

There is a sense of gamesmanship in Shep’s fugues too, but it is definitely not the focus of these compositions. Rather, the expressive character of the subject is what counts. And even if there is a direct connection between the subject, or the fugue, and a person, it is of a different nature, as the reader will learn when I consider these pieces individually.

Then there is the question of contrapuntal devices. I’m always on the lookout for tricky things to do with my subjects. I delight in multiple stretti, finding useful retrogrades, fun ways to combine and recombine the subjects in a double fugue, etc. Of these various devices Shep likes to write stretti, but that’s about it. Such contrapuntal games do not interest him—again, the expressive nature of the pieces is what is important.

Shep’s avowed model is the keyboard fugues of Shostakovich. I must confess that these fugues are a mixed bag for me, although Shep has done me a great service by communicating his enthusiasm for them. He especially likes the performance of Keith Jarrett, which I must say is far superior to other performances I have heard. With Shep’s encouragement I’ve listened to them many more times, and find that they grow on me. (My teacher Sophia Rosoff also really likes the Shostakovich preludes and fugues, so I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before I like them too, just as much as Shep and Sophia!)

There is one more thing. Since Shep is not primarily a pianist, he is not particularly concerned that his piano music be “pianistic.” The result is that the pieces are usually straightforward and of intermediate difficulty, but when they are hard they are really hard. I can also report that they were written one voice at a time, with three or four different instruments in mind (a saxophone quartet, for example), then reduced to two staves and tweaked if necessary to make them playable by one person at a keyboard. So these fugues, while almost never virtuosic by design, contain passages of great difficulty and always require attention to the voice leading.

These are pieces of great beauty and subtlety. Every day I find some new felicity of voicing, or something distinctive about the harmony, or figure out some new rhythmic effect. They are a joy to work on, but they are keeping me on my toes! And they are pieces one must practice every day. Yikes! It’s July 16 and the premiere is less than three months away. Gotta get to the piano… Saturday I’ll start commenting on individual pieces.

No comments:

Post a Comment