Bach: the E Major Prelude and Fugue from Book Two
A.B.’s lesson on 11/4/21
The two hands spread out like a puddle of water on concrete.
The hands are like amoebas constantly oozing around and changing shape.
Whatever finger in whichever hand “shows up for duty” by being located at that moment over a key that is meant to be played next, plays that key.
Another thing that occurs due to the natural amoeba like motion of the hands is that a key under under hand at one moment may find itself under the other hand moment or two later.
It is almost like the hands are lava flowing down a hillside, at one moment it may form two distinct streams, at another the two streams may converge into one molten mass.
What has no shape definable shape at one moment can have any shape at any moment.
Fingering confession: I can barely go more than a few notes in a piece without unconsciously using a finger substitution. These substitutions occur as the PASSIVE reflex of the fingers in response to a general movement laterally by the entire hand (rather than an intentional motion on the part of the fingers). It is the result of the same ‘amoeba’ like motion of the hands, which can expand and contract as a whole while at the same time changing shape.
The mood of a harmony and how far does it extend in time.
While the prelude bears one key signature, E Major, there are moments which ruffle the surface of that harmony for a note or two, and there are longer sections which different ‘regions’ of the key (B Major, G# Minor, etc.).
Whether ephemeral or longer lasting, try to “evoke” or conjure out of the notes, the ‘mood’ of the current harmony, and not let your ear proceed on the inertia of the previous harmony. When the original theme comes in in B Major, try to see each note played in terms of how it fits in the emotional nexus of B Major, which is different than that of E Major. An ‘E’ for example in the landscape of overtones and their beats in B Major, is a different sound, with a different color and shine, than that of the same ‘E’ in the surroundings of E Major.
Try to stay in the mood of the world of B Major for as long as is harmonically justifiable, and banish the emotional association of what those notes say in the key of E Major. Let the listener make their own surmise that they are hearing the same ‘theme’, consisting o f the same melodic intervals, as occurred in the first entrance of the theme at the beginning of the Prelude. Don’t worry about the constancy of the theme as an entity, let Bach take care of that for you. Know when to share responsibilities between you and the composer.
A technical issue affecting A.B’s playing is that his hands are always ‘itching’ to get to the next note while the current note is still sounding. I would rather he wait until the time has arrived for the new before making any commitment to a gesture that will “get him to the next note”, help situate or predispose his fingers to being already in the new location.
The connections, note to note, in this prelude are sometimes physically difficult to realize. Imagine the frog who remains motionless for an indefinite amount of time until a fly is within several feet of its mouth, at which point its tongue extends itself in one, seemingly instantaneous gesture, to grab the fly. “The frog fires the tongue towards its prey at an astounding 4 meters per second.” (Google).
The frog knows how to wait for the right moment to act, and gets to the target without our even knowing exactly how it did it. Not knowing, nescience, is an important way of permitting the body to make gestures naturally, smoothly and seamlessly. Forethought prevents this naturalness in motion, by predisposing only certain components of the motion to occur and suppressing many others from occurring.
My concept of maintaining the nobility of the sound of this fugue.
While there are a myriad of three and four note chords constellated around the general key of E major. I want them to share the same underlying nobility of sound.
How do I achieve this oneness in spite of constant variety? First I produce a ‘model’ for this sonority on the piano. My choice of model for today is the chord: e2-b2-e3–gs3-b3-e4-gs4. I imagine it being played not by the piano but by the low brass of the Chicago Symphony orchestra in the late fifties and early sixties (of the 20th century). My imagination doesn’t really need the tuba, but I definitely need the bass trombone.
I play that model over and over, until the waves of its sound submerge all other sounds and thoughts. Then it is up to a vivid imagination and memory recall to play the written chords as if each were awash with this sound, was permeated through and through and through with this sound. The evenly spaced waves of the impact of the model wash onto the shore of conscious hearing. I imagine each iteration of that chord as a stand-in for the actual written chord that would have been played next.
I found my singing voice helpful in affecting the transmutation of Chicago brass to Steinway piano. With each iteration of the model chord, I sang and sustained the next note of the opening statement of the theme. I felt the chord reinforce my voice, as if from within, until my voice bore a complete resemblance to the chord.
Another variation was to alternate playing “the” chord then playing the next note(s) in the score, and so on back and forth. The chord was still vivid in my memory and so the next chord in the piece was automatically infected by it. If at any time I lost the “Nobilissima Visione”* of the sound of the written notes I would simply lapse back into play just the chord at least a few times in a row. These latter could be a placeholder (or ‘warm-ups’) until I wanted to go further with the written note, or a stand-ins for a certain number of the written chords. “Warm” is an apt verb. We are aiming to ‘warm up’ resonance of each written chord until it radiates at a high color temperature.
Every note gives up its life in the service of allowing the next note to come to life.
A technical matter the pertains to just one hand, when it is holding one note down while articulating a series of more rapid notes.
When one finger holds a note down, while other fingers in the same hand, and at the same time, articulate two or more notes, often the shape of the hand distorts to the point that the fingers articulating the passing latter notes feel awkward and cramped and cannot clearly enunciate their notes. The paradoxical fix for this issue is to shift more of the weight of the hand onto the finger that is doing the holding down of the sustained note, rather than devoting more care and energy to the moving notes. Moreover the finger that is holding one pitch ‘enacts’ the same physical motions that the other fingers would are doing to play the changing notes. almost doing them in their stead. This includes bending and flexing and in general changing its stance on the key surface. The sensation is that the holding finger is actually playing the shorter notes.
Making a smooth and instantaneous transition to connect, in the left hand alone, the bass and tenor voices, from gs2-es3 to a2-fs3. The ergonomic issue, that requires careful time-coordination in small fractions of a second, is that in the bass voice, you are on a black note to start with and have to slide down the vertical side of that black note in order to end up on a white note. The reverse is true (at the same moment) in the tenor voice, where you are on a white note to start with and have to travel up the vertical side of a black note and end up on the top of that black note. There is a sort of see-saw motion involved, both fingers gliding smoothly on the vertical
surface of a black key, at the same time, but in opposite directions in a vertical plane.
I applied gentle downward pressure from one of my hands to cause A.B.’s hand to flatten out its palm against the key surfaces. The purpose was the opposite of trying limit the mobility of his hand but rather to encourgae the mutability of the hand changing shape constantly. It was to foster the plasticity of his hands in changing shape, that I applied an ‘external force’ (I.E. a force not created by his own muscles) to the top of his hand, pressing it mildly downwards towards the keys. It encouraged a more fluid consistency in the sound going from note to note.
All the notes, within the framework of the fugue, feel like they are connections made within one and the same matrix or pitch-framework, regardless of the momentary specific choice of pitch and pitch direction.
There are magical moment in Bach fugues, when three or more voices start their sounds simultaneously (and are not too widely spread apart pitch-wise). Try to hear the event as a momentary confluence among the voices, rather than the result of an intentional forming of a chord.
* Nobilissima Visione is a ballet in six scenes by Paul Hindemith, originally choreographed by Léonide Massine for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The libretto by Hindemith and Massine depicts episodes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (Wikipedia).
Quick notes on left hand jumps in Scarlatti Sonatas
S.E.’s lesson 10/30/21:
1. Extreme lightness of the arm. Aim for there being no difference between remaining still with the arm and travelling horizontally with the arm.
2. Make sure the hand is balanced around the finger that plays each note.
3. Travel faster with the arm so you get to the vicinity of the note sooner and have a fraction of second to check the alignment of the finger with the key.
4. Feel the left pinkie extend through the ligaments ? from third knuckle to wrist and use the entire length of the newly “elongated” pinkie.
5. Braille. We’ll use F-Natural as an example. If you are jumping up to an ‘F’ you can feel for the left side of the F-Sharp key as a barrier, or backboard from which to ricochet onto the F.
If you are going down to an F ‘almost’ feel the clump of three black note as an indication of where to find the final destination lying to its side.
6. “It’s just (for example) an F going to an F: the common experience of an octave (even a unison). You go to look for the other F in what seems like a different, somewhat distant neighboring village. But like Alice you haven’t gone anywhere at all. The surroundings, the houses and topology, are exactly the same as in the first town. Did you actually move at all?
If both notes are not both F’s it’s still “just” a C (E.G.) going to an F. Like any C going to any F. It’s just a fourth. No matter what direction you are going in.
7. If you are playing for example (in the left hand) f2 f4 c2 f4. On the way to the c2, stop by the f2 (your hand still remembers where the f2 is from a moment earlier, and then travel the additional fourth to c2.
“Repertoire”: Chopin Nocturnes
W.B.’s lesson on 10/28/21
Chopin Nocturne in Eb Major (Op 9 / 2) : beg
Her hand and body are always anticipating the next note which subverts the secure enunciation of the current note, which can lead to an ongoing round of uncertainty in one’s play.
What we did:
Play the first note (bf4), and hold it with the pedal down, and ‘update’ with your ear, every second, the sound of bf4 at that instant.
Additionally. Believe that if you didn’t become newly aware of the sound of the note every second, the note would fail to sustain any further.
And during the time you are doing this ‘updating’ of the current sound, have no urge to go into the future to the next note. Feel as if there is no next note. The present of the piece (the only note) is frozen in time. But you have opened up an inner dimension within time in which much activity is taking place during this note.
After an arbitrary amount of time has passed, play the second note (ef2 in the lh simultaneously with g5 in the rh). Think of this second sound as the only sound in the piece. There was no note that preceded it and no note that will follow it. As above, by updating your conscious awareness to the continuing sound, you are going to sustain that for as many seconds as possible. Clear your mind of all else and think of it as the only sound in the entire universe – for the duration of the universe.
Continue this process until have moved several notes into the score, and
then try playing through the opening phrase of the piece at a more normal pace. However, we want to retain as much as possible of the previous
experience. Like William Blake, the poet, we “see the universe in a grain of sand”, or, in this case, hear the universe in a single note.
Since we are dealing only with hearing as a sense, and since there at this stage there is less overall time in which to repeatedly listen to each note, the
only thing we can do to approximate the original conditions, is to ‘literally’ speed up the tempo of our very consciousness, so that within each note there are still many conscious experiences of updating the sound. Like the person who says “I saw my whole life flash before my eyes!”, while an external clock indicates that only a small span of time has passed. Our consciousness is ‘running’ so fast that more events than usual are filling that overall duration as testified to by the clock. Each event, in our case, is just a re-focused listening to the current sound. No longer is the sound of a note a single event, just as a melody might on first impression seem like a as a series of individual notes*.
Earlier we spoke of not thinking about the next note when consciously focused on or ‘supporting’ the current note. However, ‘thinking ahead’ is not in and of itself something bad. For instance thinking ahead ‘musically’ is fine, for it helps direct and shape the phrase and the broader relationship of events in time (in an art that is not spatial but only made out of time). It is, only, thinking ahead physically of what to do next that is perilous. It makes the body make anticipatory movements, executed a little too soon, while something current is happening, and thus seize up the phyiscal playing mechanism, by spoiling the exact timing of the sequence of our physical gestures.
* a melody can can also appear to consciousness as being a continuous extrusion of sound, through time, that retains much of its wholeness rather than separating, in consciousness, into separated, individual notes.
Chopin Nocturne in B Major (op 32 / 1) : m8
W.B. asks me to go over to the second piano. She wants me to to play resonant chords, supporting chords, that define underline the harmony changes of the piece.
I decide to fit my chords in at the beginning of the tenure of each step in the harmonic progression of the piece, not in the middle of the reign of the chord, or as a summary of it near the end of its effective harmonic life span.
I also am ‘fleshing out’ or what I term ‘gestalting‘ the chord, into a large manifestation containing more notes than are written in the piano. Chords of which Chopin’s notes are just a part or portion.
For instance on beat two of measure 8, I fill out the implied chord so as to contain all these notes: d4-f4-gs4–b4-d5-gs5. This is an example of what I term ‘filling in’, I.E. interpolating chords notes between the top and bottom written notes.
At other times ‘gestalting’ the chord means adding notes in a lower octave than the written notes, to give the chord more ‘grounding’, more richness; so that the piano’s notes are felt as just a part of the ‘realer‘ form of the chord: what we can call the “Platonic Idea” of the chord.
Or, I add notes that are higher than the written notes in order to adorn the chord with greater shine and brilliance. This too brings the actual sounding notes closer to the Platonic “Idea” of the chord which – which philosophically is beyond any sensual rendition of the chord.
In my solo playing I am always reaching out beyond the actual sounds to the imagined sound of the Platonic, eternal, prototype of what the sounds are trying to represent. The actual sound will always fall short of the Platonic Idea, just as the everyday perceptions of objects in the external world are, according to Plato, mere shadows and glimpses of the ‘real’ object.
m12, right hand:
In this measure the physical intricacy is in knowing, each time a new note
appears, whether any of the previous notes should still be being held down with one of the fingers.
A very direct way of helping the student hold the e4 and fs4 for their full length of time is for me to physically push down on those fingers that still should be sounding their note(s), until their rhythmically intended course is over, and then physically lifting the student’s finger back up.
All this is to produce a physical sensation in the student’s hand of what it physically ‘feels’ in the hand and fingers, moment to moment during the
measure. More specifically, to create the exact sensation of what it feels like in the muscles of the student’s hand, when the e4 is held for two beats and then, in the middle of the e4, the fs4 begins to hold its note for two beats. We are allowing the student to self identify the sensation of releasing one particular note that one finger was holding during a nexus of other notes. It’s an education of sensations.
This is an example of direct physical intervention by a second person.
It is a two-person form of the broader category of “one helps the other” which is usually meant to refer to one part of the pianist’s body, for instance that is not executing certain notes, helping the other hand to enunciate those notes.
Once you have started the thirty-second long bites of sound, do not stop playing them until you come a resting place in the score. Always keep going. Many loose steam or concentration somewhere mid way. Some get further but they bog down near the end of the full group of notes or get more uncertain.
We used this practice technique, which we applied to the right hand only:
Play just fs6, then pause some moments. Then play gs6 fs6, then pause some more moments. Then play b6 bs6 fs6. Etc.. Always adding one more not at the beginning (not the end) of the passage. We are “back-forming” the passage until it can be played completely from beginning to end. Just to avoid confusion: the notes are always being played “forwards” in their order on the page, and not retrograde; only additional notes were continuously being appended at the starting part rather than the ending point of the passage.
This process emphasizes the places where we are most likely to loose
cognizance, loose control, of what is going on note-wise. For this
reason we turned to the end of the phrase first and let the number of
notes we played gradually expand backwards in the score.
Barbara thought that the quintuplet sixteenths went a good deal faster
than regular sixteenths. But the time ratio of 5:4 doesn’t produce as
great a sensation of change in speed, as does 4:3. Which in turn is a
less noticeable difference in speed than 3:2, which is in turn is more
noticeable in this regard than 2:1. Of these ratios, 2:1 produces the
the conscious effect of the greatest difference in duration for two
Here is a table that works out the above data:
6 to a beat is 20 percent faster than 5 to a beat
5 to a beat is 25 percent faster than 4 to a beat
(a difference of 5% from 6:5)
4 to a beat is 33+ percent faster than 3 to a beat
(a difference of 8+% from 5:4)
3 to a beat is 50 percent faster than 2 to a beat
(a difference of 17-% from 4:3)
2 to a beat is 100 percent faster than 1 to a beat
(a difference of 50% from 3:2)
The timbre-space of every note we play
Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor, Op 79 / 1. The increasingly dense and complex section ending the first section of the piece and leading up to the change to key to B Major.
How quickly can I find an isolated niche of consciousness for each sound, even when these sounds succeed each other so rapidly, almost erasing each other?
We often just place one sound ‘next’ to the another in our ear according to its sequence in time and then have done with it. It seems to us that ‘time’ creates the niche in consciousness in which the note falls, and not the aesthetic qualities of the note which determine and construct that niche that gives each note a place in which to live.
We might feel that if two successive notes differ only by one step pitch-wise, how important could that difference be on an aesthetic grounds? I prefer having an ear that will first ‘create’ a space for the appearance of the next note* , which fails to hear its uniqueness, and lops it into the same box or container as the previous note, instead of creating a new, unique residing place, one that has its own aesthetic and timbre, not just that of a “D” or an “E”. I want the ear to do this, not so as to ignore how the notes combine into a melody. The creative act of consciousness and memory to to fuse notes into a melody is such a natural, and strong inclination, that we may not want to be forever locked into it, but be able, if we want, to establish something else beside melody to balance it out: something more in the direction of there being a sound-world contained in each sound, which is an individual phenomenon.
Let us turn our attention now from melody to chord. This same balancing force, or desire on the part of the conscious brain, would make us want each note of the chord to live in its own sound-timbre niche: still interacting with the other notes of the chord to form the sound phenomenon of a ‘chord’, but essentially alone in its own ecological niche. Just as two different species in an ecosystem try to carve out a niche in which there are no other species competing with it for the same food.
How quickly can my ear change registers: fully recognize the difference between a C-natural in one octave and a C-natural in another octave, before hearing that they share the identity of C-ness?** Or recognize how a C differs from an F or a G, not because the other note is “higher” or “lower”, or has ‘already’ formed the aesthetic effect of an identifiable interval (which produces its own, aesthetic phenomenon), but because for even a fleeting moment, we appreciate the difference in the two notes solely on the basis they are “different” in “sound“.
This difference in sound alone may in turn be based on loudness and softness, on difference in pitch, but perhaps most significantly, difference in timbre, by which the aesthetic effect of the sounding of the note is mostly evoked. Have you noticed that when altering the loudness of a note of a certain pitch, there is a change, secondarily, in its timbre? So timbre will be changed by loudness alone and not by pitch or by what instrument is playing. We should notice that the timbre of a sound is changed as whenever we change the pitch of a note.
* Ignoring for the moment the working of memory while listening to a piece, the next note hasn’t been heard yet, and in that sense is new. Once we hear it, if we are so inclined, we can identify it and store it in a memory bin along with other notes singled out for sounding the same. But if we concentrate on the aesthetic effects of the ‘new’ note in the piece, we may find that no two notes bearing the same letter name and octave, ever ‘sound’ the same. I want to create a place on the keyboard for the ‘new’ note that has just been discovered for the first time, not just sitting there in the space of the keyboard awaiting the note to be sounded.
** How quickly can I play notes of the same letter-name in different octaves, and actively, “situate” each in a unique a timbre-stratum. How far can I go to recognizing what is different about one of these notes and the next, as if I were trying to be unaware of the commonality they both have for bearing the same letter name.
I’m not sure I create this stratum just as I play the next note, or whether I have already formed it, in potential, before physically going to and sounding the note. My preference is to believe that a sound should bloom in a space that has not existed yet, not one that lies there waiting for it along the keyboard. I want there to be something very “new” about where I discover the note with my ear.
Sonic Glue – Sameness And Difference
We have defined “sonic glue” to mean hard to find sonic connections between notes: in different voices, in successive chords, between non temporally adjacent notes within certain melodies. These are often
overlooked, with the result that the piece does not flow or sound in the way we expect it to.
Here I want to mention some of these sonic connections in the Brahms, Rhapsodie, Op. 119 / 4 in E Flat Major.
Measure 254, nine measures from the end of the piece.
On the first chord of the measure, there are three E-Flats
(ef4-ef5–ef6) which are the root notes of an E-Flat Minor Chord.
In the chord that begins the second beat of the measure, there are also three E-Flats to be found (ef4-ef5–ef6) which are the fifths of an A-Flat Minor Chord.
I continue following the trail of E-Flats through measures 255, 267, 257, and the beginning of m258. They stand out to me regardless of what octave they sound in, and regardless of how many E-Flats show up in any given chord.
The only chord lacking an E-Flat is the dominant chord, B-flat Major, on the second beat of measure 257. 6 bars from the end of the piece.
If I now play those measures, and let my ear focus particularly on the reappearing sounds of the E-Flats, bringing the E-Flats out a little louder than the other notes of the chords (but just enough so that I
‘find’ them with my ear amid Brahms’ thick and active chordal texture) I will notice the effect of those E-Flats as glue linking together otherwise disparate chords. They form a sonic glue to weld the passage together, amid the din and clutter of the notes.
I imagine a continuous spectrum made up of varying proportions of sameness and differentness among the successive sounds. On one end of this spectrum, everything sounds the same as everything else. On the
other end, everything sounds different than everything else. Neither limit nor end, of the spectrum, is ever reached in normal music. But the exact point along the spectrum which expresses at a given moment the ratio of the degree of sameness and difference can be made to alter somewhat, obviously by the composer, but as well
by the pianist.
In the present example, as a pianist, I am trying to move the cursor a little, if not a lot, over in the direction of sameness on this spectrum.
Having found this constant (E-Flats) amid the changing notes, a second quality emerges when I play the passage. As the chords change that contain the E-Flats, the sounds of the E-Flats change as they leave one chord and enter the next. Like the same dancer or actor on stage who is lit with spotlights of one color and then in another color. We notice, in quick succession, that something important has changed in the quality of their appearance, followed a moment later by the recognition that despite the change of lighting aesthetic it is nonetheless the same person as before.
Such effects abound in this composition. Cathedral bells are ringing, and the sound of one has not yet ended when the next sound begins. There is a sort of resonant din that remains constant throughout the recitation of the sequence of bell sounds.
Look for E-Flats in measures 258 – 262 (the end of the piece). I can obsess over the E-Flats even though they appear in so many different positions in the chords and in such a variety of pitch ranges.
In general, in this piece, there is a combination of drone notes that refuse to change from chord to chord and notes that will vary widely from chord to chord, like a magician’s sleight of hand: things change but how did she do it – I saw no movement on her part.