Joe's Blog

One of the secrets to voice separation in Bach fugues

April 6, 2018

Summary: Have you ever felt caught up in the many notes in Bach fugues? Here is a practice technique to better understand and hear the colors, nuances, and chords with multiple voiced fugues.

Vertical Slices

The act of holding (continuing the sound of) a note while other fingers start new notes is not a passive act, it is positive act no different than pushing a note down the first time to begin sounding it.  It is more an act of re-playing than of holding.

There is a simple way of changing the sensation of holding a note to accord with this principle.  It is both an aural technique as well as a physical technique:

Literally re-play a note being held every time a note in any other voice begins to sound.   If it is a three voice fugue then, once the third voice has joined the other two, you would be playing a three-note chord each time a new note began in any of three voices.  Similarly, with four note chords, for a four voice fugue.

The process is even useful in a two voice situation,  for it calls attention to the interval that sounds between the stationary voice and moving voice.

Here is an example, using three voices.  As for the rhythm, the longer notes  are followed by an underscore (__) and are twice as long as the remainder of the notes.

highest voice:      c   d   e __   e      g    a    g     f  __

mid voice:            a__  g__   bb__    a __   d __

lowest  voice:      f__   c    d   c#    d    b    c#__ d

Using the above described procedure the passage becomes the succession of the following ten chords:

f-a-c             f-a-d          c-g-e         d-g-e        c#-bb-e

d-bf-g        b-a-a         c#-a-g       c#-d-f      d-d-f

We have in effect created a “chorale.”  I refer to this technique as doing vertical slices through a piece, so that at every moment I know what note is sounding (or continuing to sound) in what voice.

Benefits to me of using this procedure:

– There is less decay (diminuendo) in the longer sounds; the overall sound is constant in each voice.

– I become aware of simultaneous sound relationships between voices that before remained unnoticed by me.

– I hear how a single sustained sound in any voice can change character and emotional flavor two or more times before it stops sounding, simply because of the other notes that are sounding with it.

– I become far more aware of the continued presence of voices when they are intoning long notes.  My ear can now follow with greater ease the continuity of each voice separately because the voice is constantly being updated.  I don’t lose interest in a voice because it is holding a note and the sound is dying away,  and I am distracted by other notes that have started in the meantime.

– When it is time for that voice to change pitch I am clear about the connection between the pitches, because the note is still alive in my ear (or in my imagination) and I can manipulate the aesthetic character of the interval by which the voice changes pitch.

– I hear a series of chords or harmonies rather than notes.  I listen to the aural equivalent of a constantly changing kaleidoscope of colors and patterns.  Many of these chords have surprising sounds, often very dissonant and emotional, but ordinarily heard only peripherally or subliminally.  The full reality of the piece is forced upon our ear.  The sound of the piece through time is vibrant, pulsating, and alive due to change.  I don’t get detoured suddenly into just one or two voices.  I stay less with a feeling of constancy in the mood and character of the piece and more in a volatile, constantly changing reality of sound.  I don’t “summarize” anymore.  Everything is taken into account.

– The held notes are less a cause of stasis than they are the cause of constant change.

–  The hand never looses its feeling of being centered and in equilibrium.  Holding one note and having to reach for another throws nothing momentarily out of quilter.

I believe that whatever is not heard by the pianist is played haphazardly and without control.

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