“Bach Unplugged”: A Harmonic Distillery

Bach Unplugged, ca. 1941
A Manuscript Unearthed by Prof. Charlotte Jacobs, 2012    

[Peter Lieberson in memoriam]

[Ed note: In late 2012, Prof. Charlotte Jacobs discovered a long-lost manuscript of the familiar, unattributed music theory text Bach Unplugged: Voices Unencumbered by the Voice, known heretofore only through its edited and updated edition disseminated for university use beginning in the 1950s.  The manuscript includes a “Note to the Instructor,” excised in all published editions, which does much to explain the confounding rationale of music theory teaching in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Its writing style, as much early-century dreamy stream of consciousness as mid-century modern streamlined rational, remains a subject of speculation, though it is suspected that its cookbook-like instructions point to a female author, which in turn may explain why the text has for so long remained unattributed.]

Extract chorales from can­tatas from his­tor­i­cal con­text from sacred ritual from specter of anti-Semitism. Strip off texts too and play on piano to obscure any hint of regis­tral iden­tity or tim­bral char­ac­ter or vocal sen­si­bil­ity as well as ille­git­i­ma­cies such as crossed voices or prohibited melodic intervals.  Direct ini­ti­ates to remem­ber con­ceived for voice but con­tinue to play on piano to encour­age con­jur­ing of the voices in the inner ear rather than the audi­tory real­ity of the voice which is too easy and it’s espe­cially good for the instruc­tor to play badly like a com­poser whose cre­ative work pre­cludes get­ting his [sic] hands dirty.  Remem­ber not to men­tion Bach did not write the tunes (it’ll just con­fuse them with extraneous notions of his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency and under­mine the power of the indi­vid­ual author) and def­i­nitely don’t point out that the tunes are often odd and pre-tonal and demand har­monic real­iza­tions that are less about explicit or con­sis­tent tonal func­tion but are modal and unpre­dictable.  Avoid observ­ing that some of the most inter­est­ing aspects of musi­cal works are ambigu­ous or involve a dia­logue between con­ven­tion and idio­syn­crasy with the ear lead­ing rather than a dog­matic rule­book guar­an­teed to achieve suc­cess by unthink­ing obe­di­ence but instead give them a list of incon­tro­vert­ible traf­fic reg­u­la­tions of what not to do with­out any dis­cus­sion of what is of value and stay away from any acknowl­edg­ment that musi­cal syn­tax is a mar­velous vol­un­tary mass delu­sion, in which we agree to con­spire in believ­ing that the way invis­i­ble pat­terns move in the aether has some sense and order to it and that it is a mat­ter of acousti­cal and aes­thetic virtue rather than con­tin­gent upon envi­ron­ment, train­ing, and idiom.  When you play through chorales in class (badly if pos­si­ble), say, ooh, isn’t Bach a genius for cross­ing voices and frus­trat­ing the lead­ing tone and using those weird unex­pected chords at that spot?

In private lessons, abandon all the above, but ask, “Are you sure you want that octave there?”  (Octaves, in any century, are high-maintenance.)  Listen to your student’s concern about her own creative future, and encourage her to learn by exploring the “resistance” she so fears.  She will.  Remember her when you bump into one another twenty years later, and compliment her graciously on her creative growth and professional accomplishments.

She will learn from you and thank you, she will remember the transcendent cello solo in your Piano Concerto, and she think of you when she in turn mentors the next generation.  She will mourn you when you depart.

Taciturn Tingueling, Freezing Fingerings

[dedicated to Seth Cluett, Ph.D.]

Morning, December 17, 2012
Lawrence Lord’s Old Farm Museum 

Après-Matic Latérale

Relief Meta-Jardinique

Ferme Fermée Installée

Scalia’s Voice-Leading Constitution

This past Monday, Antonin Scalia delivered an address on the Princeton University campus.  While the official title of the Supreme Court Associate Justice’s talk was “Reading Law,” it has since been revealed that Scalia’s text was a coded elaboration of the voice-leading principles used in common-practice tonal harmony.  While Scalia spoke of “statutes” and interpretations, perspicacious spectators detected veiled references to cadences and voicings.  Below is an adulterated text—an interpolated glossary—that shows the hidden meaning behind Scalia’s comments:

“The fairest reading of the text [chorale] is what the law [common-practice tonal harmony] means.  When we read Shakespeare [Bach] we use a glossary [music-theory treatise] because we want to know what it meant when it was written. We don’t give those words [chords] their current meaning. So also with a statute [chord progression] — our statutes  [chord progressions] don’t morph, they don’t change meaning from age to age to comport with the whatever the zeitgeist [iTunes] thinks appropriate.”

Considering whether the Voice-leading Constitution is best construed as “a set of suggestions subject to the morph of the zeitgeist” or a “cemetery of decaying prohibitions ensuring that a dead language remain deceased,” Scalia became playfully severe:

“I have classes of little kids who come to the court, and they recite very proudly what they’ve been taught, ‘The Constitution  [Voice-Leading Constitution] is a living document.’ It isn’t a living document! It’s dead. Dead, dead, dead!” Scalia said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “No, I don’t say that. . . . I call it the enduring Constitution [the foundation of harmonic practice]. That’s what I tell them.”

In the on-campus discussion that continued this week, certain exegetes proposed that Scalia’s controversial comparisons of homosexuality to “murder, polygamy, cruelty to animals and bestiality” were intended to indicate the regulations that attend upon the traffic flow not of human bodies but of the individual voices in a Bach chorale, wherein parallels, touching and crossing are prohibited.  Evidence for this interpretation was cited in the use of the terms “morph” and “zeitgeist” (quoted above): in pretending to argue for the importance of the unchanging meanings of the language of the Voice-Leading Constitution, Scalia chose fluid, cross-linguistic, and up-to-date language that wittily subverted his own ostensible ideology.

Justice Scalia was not available for comment.

Shankar’s Fundamental Structure

Shankar’s Fundamental Structure
by Rose Marie McSweeney 

October 1983, Harvard University, Ear Training Class:

“Well, it’s really just a prolongation.”

“Well, Shankar would say it’s even simpler than you have there on the blackboard.”

[In my inner ear, a long sustain appears, followed by a descending sparkle.]

“Yes, he would . . .  but Shankar took it to extremes.”

[In my inner ear, and my retrospective eye, I recall this prolongation.
It was the first orchestral music I ever heard.]

And the delivery system:

A year or two later, I learn about something called the ursatz.

[R.I.P. Ravi Shankar.]

Bicycle Plants (No Fish)

Bicycle Plants (No Fish)
Prof. Charlotte Jacobs 

[dedicated to Annea Lockwood]

Music 500 (Graduate Seminar)
Prose Writing for Composers
Final Exam

Earlier this semester, we all listened to and wrote commentaries on the (then) three most recent CDs published by New World Records. Recently I had occasion to look them up on iTunes.  Results:

  • Presented with a name search of “Mathew Rosenblum,” iTunes showed the new New World CD Circadian Rhythms.

  • Presented with a name search of “Robert Carl,” iTunes showed the new New World CD From Japan.

  • Presented with a name search of “Annea Lockwood,” iTunes showed several other CDs but not the recent New World CD In Our Name.

  • And for “Annea Lockwood In Our Name,” again nothing.

  • Puzzling: Lockwood’s was published in June, the others later.  Why is it missing?

  • Responding to a search for “In Our Name,” iTunes delivers the CD, In Our Name, listed as having been authored “by various artists.”

Essay Question: Explain the above in the space. Be sure to use proper practice for citation and attribution.