Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Alain Franco's WTK project

On Sunday February 28 (3-7.30pm), pianist Alain Franco will perform his version of Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier at the Pact Zollverein in Essen. Instead of playing the preludes and fugues in the published (chromatic) order, he explores a rationale for experimenting with different sequences. The premise is related to Bradley Lehman's revealing demonstration, as well as - in a way - Bartók's pedagogy-oriented edition (see here), but Alain developed it on an entirely different conceptual basis. I find the idea to be inspiring, with much potential for extrapolation within and outside the art of programming, and thus for AR. Since he didn’t have immediate plans to publish about it, I asked Alain to write something for this blog.

Alain Franco (© Thomas Plischke)

Extending History

Whenever we take some time to look at the cardinal principle of tonal music we end up with 3 paradigms : 

1. Modulation
2. Time-Space coordinates
3. Discursivity through Orientation.

The 2 books of the Well-Tempered Keyboard by J. S. Bach – published at somewhat 20 years distance (1721 and 1742) – constitute one of the rare examples of both an Encyclopedic and Pedagogic music composition.

One can easily project oneself back into the excitement that followed the speculation of Andreas Werckmeister (1640- 1706) as the one who had succeeded in generating a Unitarian principle of connectivity between all 12-semitones that would be thus called "tempered tuning". This was nothing less than a process of tonal globalization, and it would allow – in the course of the following 2 centuries – the up and coming of increased "lanes of diversification" that would in turn fire up the idea of "extension" from Baroque through Classical and up to late Romantic Esthetics. (The film industry is still intensely benefitting from it).

As the readers of this contribution most probably know, the 2 books of the WTK were published separately and in chromatic order. My idea to reshuffle not only the order of tonalities but also to mix the 2 books as well as the succession of forms (i.e. not keeping the initial binomial pair of a Prelude followed by a Fugue) arose out of a series of thoughts, all somehow bound to one conceptual evidence. Our performance practice has been and remains thoroughly affected by many crossings of influences that cannot be restricted to the sole principle of a "going-and-return" procedure. To me, that means, concretely, that the equation Reading+Playing=Performing is just – literally – "unheard" of.

So, breaking up the Encyclopedic order meant simultaneously to propel the issue of performing into a frame that would reset and reload the necessity of being on stage with it. (But you will notice, later on, that this is not only about a performer’s claim).

The work would thus consist of a dialectic process of the inheritance of substance on the one hand, and a substantial proposal of gift on the other. I could count on some remarkable basics in order to achieve that. First of all, a combinatorial helix of repetition, as all 12 tonalities appear in their major and minor mode, systematically granted a prelude and a fugue, and all this twice through the 2 volumes. I would even go as far as to say that the mobility of material – an idea that I kept as a mantra, all the way through this working process – popped up as a confirmation of what I had gone through in my attempt to forward something I consider, generally speaking, disappointing in performed music formats: the dramaturgy of presence.

Is it perhaps due to my constant and renewed connection to performance art, theater and dance, that I consider stepping on a stage to be stepping in the very center of the "becoming"? I remain convinced that there is no such thing as authenticity – unless it is to adopt an extreme stoic point of view by looking at a printed score for about 2 hours, in total silence, or spend your life in a Library looking for evidences: both conditions are a denial of what performance is about.

The first thing to do was to diffract the full available material. That meant:  considering the 96 works (i.e. 48 preludes and 48 fugues) as equally many short-novels, with the idea to turn these into a musical epos. (I even thought of an analogy to opera, since the full performance lasts for about 4 to 4 ½ hours). I knew, of course, that I would remain bound to the specific type of narrativity that all these compositions contain, but that, at the same time, I would be looking at expanding and extending a "theatrical/literary" process in order to create a matching point in regarding the history of stage and the history of music at a comparable level. I had thus no intention to disfigure the material (I am not so fond of the idea that one would step on stage to express "brute anger" on rather weak items such as the condition of the artist, the obsolescence of representation, etc. – specificity of work matters so much more), but rather to associate a "given state" with a "potential" one. I like to think about it as an "inclusive critique".

As we know that, in tonal music cadences, territoriality and "coming home" are key concepts, I decided to associate (although it was not only about deciding or wanting: I just felt, at some point, that there was something evidently valid in proceeding this way) these with their own projection in History, according to the adage that "every generation thinks the next one".

The cadence is a principle of built-up in order to complete a sequence, granting it something like constitutional characteristics. Territoriality on the other hand results from comparative locations with regards to the main tonality, and the concept of "coming home" – a.k.a. the last cadence – is granting the full journey its completeness and confirmative dimension. As such, we could even agree that these paradigms meet somewhat the Lutheran spirit of work and investment, and that, frankly, there is not much more to add.

That is correct, but not to its full extent.

Performing – whether music, a theater play, or even curating an art exhibition – is a displacement of materials, of forms and formats, and as such an interrogation addressed to the performer’s community – pretty much like paraphrasing one of Madonna’s titles: "justify your Love".

I thus associated ideas inherent to the published material with ideas that I considered relevant to its performative perspective. (Note that I make a distinction between the two – which I even believe could be extended to other musical formats, and opera in particular, with the following assumption: if you consider the score as an invariant, which is the "Sacred Rule" in the institution, the staging remains of course of a second order. But that’s another story.)

For obvious dramatic reasons, e.g. harmonic proximity, elasticity, resistance, the tonal discursivity established that, the further you modulate from a given tonality, the more parsimoniously one must use that ability in order to avoid "exhausting" territoriality.1

We know what this means: modulations to the 5th and the 4th degree (the circle of fifths turning left or right) keep the highest index of proximity with the principal tonality; the minor second and the tritone are at the other extreme of that topology as the most "alien" ones. As you will witness in the playing order, printed below, I indeed reproduced these characteristics on a meta-level to the full cycle. (By the way, this is one of the generic ideas I tend to pursue in my work as "music dramaturg": the continuity of History through the editing of material, and, as such, the continuity of Material by other means.)

For instance: the first part starts with a B flat minor prelude and finishes with an E major Fugue, which sets a tritone modulation, but one that is projected over a good 2 hours of music. At the end of the second part, the only "direct" modulation to the tritone is taking place (A major – E flat minor), which, at that moment, functions indeed as the "dramatic" cadence of the complete material, reproducing again on a larger level what we do notice as a classical standard. Basically, all possible modulations were used – similar to the famous series in Berg’s Lyric Suite of  "integral intervals": minor second, major second, minor third, major third, fourth, tritone, fifth, including the somewhat Schubertian "Moll-Dur" modulation. (See for instance the repeated spots on A flat major and minor in the first part).

But, with all this, the key question remains: how did this particular (new) order emerge? I must say that this has been a progressive process, with at the beginning "local" decisions on short edits, trying to match textures and surfaces – eventually rethinking speed and articulation in function of what these could produce in terms of congregations and proximities. For those of the readers who are acquainted with the scores, it will speak for itself that some of these do point at and contain Gothic harmonies (5-part fugue in C sharp minor), Classic Enlightenment style (prelude in D major), "speculative" counterpoint (fugue in B flat minor), etc. In the course of a long tradition of rhetoric and agogic, I remained attentive to, for instance, the "breathing in and out" of the longer sequences. At some point, I decided to transgress the symbolism of the double bar by starting to connect preludes and/or fugues without stops, remaining in one tonality for a while in order to induce yet another sensation of tonal duration, and by doing so suggesting another view on Classical frames, indeed producing another view on framing altogether. 

The performers among us will certainly recall "body-memories" of energy flow and long-term breathing when it comes to designing a big arch that will eventually feed the attempt of grasping a whole prelude or fugue in a few giant paces. Well, it occurred to me that, at certain conditions (but thinking about conditions that are required to achieve specific goals regarding performance seems to me essential), the final cadence, i.e. chord, would contain enough resilience that I would, for instance, use that remaining energy of a closing gesture as an upbeat for an opening one. I remember having thought of the recitativo-aria module, where there is no such thing as a clear, unambiguous end, but rather a "potlatch" of giving-receiving material  to carry on with. If you’re looking for a famous example of the matter – and not at all connected to Bach  just watch the opening scene (again) of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. It ends with the beginning of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, one of the strongest cadential progression ever written, and yet, just to say: "you know, and this is just a beginning"…

It was by inquiring further into building this meta-level of harmony, tonality and form, that I had the feeling I was increasingly more busy with the idea of "staging" the material than thinking of "playing" it. If you take a close look at the current playing order (which I never regard as final), you will notice that there is an idea of tonal regions that might not be instantly noticed while listening, yet "doing something" on a level I’d like to consider Urban. For instance: the tonalities of F and A (major and minor) do not appear in the first part, whereas F sharp and C sharp are absent in the second (on the noticeable exception of the prelude in F sharp major). Now, as I am starting and finishing the cycle with the B flat minor prelude (which I chose for its association with a "walking pace" – and consequently played at approx. 60 for a crotchet), the tonality of E flat is following/preceding it in the conventional way, as if it were about "leaving the church in the middle of the village". But, if the beginning is clearly set on "reasonable" modulations (B flat – E flat – H major – E major – etc., i.e. fifths in sequential pairs), at the very end we are in a rather "blurred" situation, going from F sharp major to A, then via F back to A. At that point, the "break-up" A major – E flat minor is reinforced by the rather high speed of the fugue in A (which I play at about 110 for a dotted crotched), as well as emphasizing the binary/ternary beat. The last chord of that fugue is cut abruptly, followed by the E flat and B flat (i.e. D sharp and A sharp), which I leave to resonate as if these were the brass players in Siegfried’s death.    

This extended oscillation of time and duration – clearly exceeding the reasonable Time concepts of Bach – was, for me, somehow the conceptual key to the "interface" between score and performance, which I even decided to emphasize by having the audience seated around the instrument – the chairs being placed almost as if these would reproduce the shape of the grand piano. (The picture below shows the empty space during the tuning session).


The idea is clear, I guess: this was not solely about listening but about sharing the full experience of "being there" as well – maybe even to point out the evidence that there is only this one World, whereas believers keep saying that… But this is another story, and yet not completely other.

It seems that we have come to understand the importance of staging (and going on stage) as the most appropriate way to "compose" the ongoing stories we do keep working with. This matches by the way Nietzsche’s concept of "Ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen" (the Eternal Return of the Same). However, I wouldn’t know why, on the one hand, we would consider the basic issue of performing being about staging material, and as such "displace and replace" it, while on the other hand we would consider that music – Time Art in its very essence – would be kept away from this key issue, wrapped up in its own printed appearance, precisely when it comes to recompose Time with already composed time.

This project is just one out of infinite attempts to do so.


(1) This is precisely what Schoenberg pointed at when he assumed that the tonal system became indeed "exhausted". He meant, in the first place, a loss of specificity due to an esthetic of "constant torment", on the verge of merging Esthetic and Art. But it’s precisely in the course of this movement that performance became associated with creativity, that a keyboard player would consider himself an artist…

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