Bach Fugue Video
I have always had a love/hate relationship with Bach. Love his music. Hate that my dyslexia makes learning his music an exquisite torture, for he is a dyslexic's ultimate nightmare. Both of these are reasons why I'm continually drawn to attempting to play his music. Nothing — and I mean nothing — compares to the sense of conquering the unconquerable when, after days or weeks of agony, I can finally surmount my own shortcomings and the incredible complexity of his music, and find Bach flying from my fingers in a bona fide Eureka moment. It's tantamount to those dreams in which you find you can fly.
For the uninitiated: a fugue is a song with a key melody or melodies playing over each other. Think of four people singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat in rounds. Now change everyone's key so they harmonize, add some counterpoint and variations and ornaments, and voilà, la fugue. A child can play RRRYB on the piano. A clever child can play the theme in C with the right hand, and the same theme in G with the left hand, a measure behind. But add FOUR voices, each hand playing two separate songs simultaneously, overlapping, passing from one hand to the next as voices cross, and you have a finger-twisting dyslexic hot mess.
Once upon a time, taking acid with Melinda and Audrey, like you do, we came to the section of the evening where each adventurer goes off into a corner and contemplates his or her own solo mysteries. I loaded up Keith Jarrett's CD of the Well-Tempered Clavier, slapped on some cans and read along with the music (as you can in the video below). This first fugue in C became a mystical, mathematical journey which I will always treasure. The music notes turned into a math sentence. With the simple, solo first iteration of the theme at the beginning, the measure turned from notes into a simple '1 ='… The second measure, still one solo voice, gave simple definitions of what 1 could equal: '= 1 x 1 - 4 + 4'… As the second voice joins in, the computation became more elaborate: '1 = (4/4^1) / (4^2 - 2^3 x 2 + 1)…' By the time four voices were singing over each other with the simple theme mimicking, echoing and morphing all over the place, the mathematical sentence became something like you'd see scribbled on Stephen Hawking's doodle pad. Big, obstreperous calculations that you know must end up equaling 1, but you're not sure how such a complex function could possible be reduced to something so simple. Towards the end of the piece, as each voice resolves itself and fades away — three voices, two voices — we are left with one solo voice, rising not in the original theme any more, but with an echo of the theme's meter, landing ultimately at a sweet high C major chord. The sheet music thinned down accordingly until, in the last measure, I saw, ' = 1'.
1 = 1. There are so many places you can go and infinite paths you can take in that simple reflexive. And, of course, no one could do it better, before or since J. S. Bach, the Carl Sagan of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
Also? I miss good, clean, early-90s San Francisco acid.