Why Counterpoint?

I remember standing in the living room when I was ten or eleven, trying to listen to a certain record I had placed on the turntable. I didn’t know anything about Bach at the time, but I had the sense that my parents’ record collection was full of surprises, and at an early age I had a craving to surprise my own ear. Although Bach would eventually become an obsession for me, I did not experience love at first hearing. It seemed to my uninitiated ear that this music was purely mechanical. I had sometimes heard older people criticize works of art for being technically perfect yet lacking in some special quality like feeling or spirit, and I wondered what the adults had meant by this; in listening to a Bach organ fugue that very first time, I thought I might have found an example of such a well-executed flop. The notes seemed to have logic to them – they moved in discernible patterns – and there were lots of things happening at all times. The sound of the organ was huge and made the speakers shake as they worked to reproduce it. The music was busy and complex, but without ever becoming disordered. Knowing very little about music composition at the time, I could nevertheless sense that what Bach had done was difficult. The question that eluded me was “Why do it?” He had put all of that craft into making something which exhibited clear logic from one moment to the next, but which came off in the end as a lifeless jumble, a well-built tangle of notes, coherent, loud, but carrying no meaning, no message beyond evidence of technical facility, as if the composer had merely been bragging, “I know how to do this.” As the music continued interminably it conjured in my mind an image of its weary composer writing note after note under some grave and joyless obligation.

Years later, considering that many of the best moments of my life have been spent listening to Bach, and considering how his music has swayed me through its passion and profundity, revealing itself as deeper in every successive year of my acquaintance with it, I am fascinated by the fact that it could ever have sounded superficial or joyless. What changed? What was I lacking back then that I could not recognize its greatness? I knew nothing of Bach’s biography and little of music history overall – I didn’t have a broad listening background and wasn’t familiar with many other composers to compare with Bach – but these were not my salient shortcomings. Without knowing much about music then, I still found sense in Mozart and Beethoven when I first put their discs on the turntable, Vivaldi too, but not Bach. If good music requires concentration I was certainly willing to concentrate, to put all else aside and try my best to make sense of what emanated from the speakers. Bach’s music didn’t “click” simply because I lacked awareness of one specific concept: counterpoint.

Counterpoint is a special thing that happens in music when two or more melodies are played at the same time, and as if by magic (but in fact by craft) they fit together perfectly, maintaining their independence without seeming to clash, remaining distinct but not indifferent to each other; in fact, supporting, even enlivening each other through their dialogue. When I first tried listening to Bach, I knew there was lots of “stuff” going on, but it didn’t dawn on me that within that seemingly indecipherable mass of sound, there were distinct threads that I could follow, and that I could learn through lots of practice to follow several of them at once. It didn’t dawn on me that all of those notes were not just slithering and writhing against each other in some aimless, endless way but that the “tangle” of sound was in fact the conjunction, the overlap of multiple melodic arcs each of which had its own thrust and direction and personality. It didn’t dawn on me that the composer might not decide for me which primary “tune” I should focus on at any given time, but might present a tapestry of multiple interlocking tunes and leave it to me to explore the whole fabric with my own ear, to decide where my focus should go, to experiment with different patterns of placing my attention and see for myself which were the most rewarding.

At some point after my first, bewildering experience with Bach, I read about counterpoint in a music history book – the idea sounded interesting enough – and I thought I’d search for some examples of it. I had read that Bach’s music was full of this special thing but I certainly hadn’t noticed it before. I went back to my parents’ record collection and found a simpler Bach piece than the five-voice fugue I must have stumbled on the first time. My Rosetta Stone for understanding counterpoint, and by extension, most of Bach’s oeuvre, was the choral prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. It begins with a flowing melody accompanied by a simple, almost plodding bass line, but back then the very distinction between melody and bass was new to me, and listening to this piece was perhaps the first time I realized I could focus on “what was going on up high” as a separate thing from “what was going on down low” in the organ’s register. After a few moments, a third tune enters the mix, the “Sleepers, Awake!” melody itself, which organists usually assign a distinct register, meaning that a different set of organ pipes is used to play the tune, so it stands apart from everything else that’s going on, as an oboe would stand apart from a violin and double bass. The chorale tune is further distinguishable from the elaborate opening melody because it has a very simple contour and a steady, even rhythm. I found myself drawn to this tune when it entered, placing most of my focus on it, but I was astonished to realize that while this tune was sounding, the bass and opening melody never stopped or even scaled down their activities, but continued on their own merry ways with everything interlocking seamlessly. So this must be counterpoint, I thought. I continued to experiment with placing less attention on the chorale tune, and trying to follow just the bass, or the other melody, even as the chorale tune called for attention. I found lots of pleasure in hearing how the texture switched between two and three voices as the chorale tune would enter, then pause, then enter again.  Finding the interplay of these three voices so exciting, I was surprised to remember that I had heard the same piece a few months earlier, but it had washed over me with little effect: I hadn’t even noticed that chorale tune as something distinct – how could it have escaped my attention? In my earlier listening, before I knew what counterpoint was, I had only sensed the sound becoming thicker at some point, as if more of the same indecipherable muck had been piled on – more notes going every which way – not the introduction of a new, connected voice that I could isolate and follow.

After this first experience of grokking counterpoint, I returned and found bits of melody I could follow in other Bach pieces, the ones that had mystified me before. I began what would be a lifelong routine of challenging myself to see how much I could hear in Bach, how many lines I could follow, how well I could could understand their relationships, how “wide” I could make my ear. This is not to say that all of Bach was immediately intelligible now, but that I had found a way of approaching it, a way of probing its riches. This change in my listening style – listening explicitly and actively for counterpoint – made the music seem clearer and more sensible, yes, but its effect was bigger: it helped me connect with the music’s inner thrust, so that now I could be excited, I could be surprised, I could be moved, and I did move, waving my arms, tapping, swaying, even jumping at moments of great tension, when no one was looking. Knowing about counterpoint not only helped me understand the structure of Bach’s music but it helped me glimpse at the soul that had seemed absent before. Now that I understood the idea behind Bach’s technique, his music would never again stand out in my mind for its technique, now it would stand out for the passion it expressed through that technique.

As I kept practicing as a counterpoint listener, I found that not only did I like counterpoint, I loved it, I came to need it. It became my nectar, my elixir. I spent years not only exploring Bach’s music but searching for great counterpoint throughout the Western classical canon and also wherever I could find it in traditional musics of the world, and sometimes in jazz. I committed to learning how write it, and my goal in life became to someday produce a sample, an offering of beautiful, rapturous counterpoint, even just thirty seconds or a minute of the kind of stuff that had given me such indescribable pleasure in Bach. I told myself that as long as I could someday understand the craft of counterpoint well enough to write one little thing, no matter how modest in scope, just one miniature piece that reflected the essence of what I loved so much in Bach, I would be fulfilled.

But why counterpoint? What is so much better about having multiple melodies play simultaneously than to just present one pretty tune the listener can enjoy without distractions, without having to follow it alongside other tunes competing for its attention? Why make the audience struggle to disentangle many things that could be offered sequentially, as if three beautiful poems were read aloud at once, instead of each being allotted their rightful moment to shine? Yes, acquaintance with the concept of counterpoint can turn what seems like indecipherable complexity into sensible, intelligible complexity, but why should music favor complexity at all? What does counterpoint bring that cannot be expressed through simpler means? Looking at a counterpoint textbook, one finds a preponderance of rules and restrictions and gets the sense that writing counterpoint is one of the most painfully difficult things to do in music, so what justifies all this effort?

My answer is that counterpoint is uniquely stimulating, uniquely engrossing, and that when the writing is good and the listener is experienced, counterpoint induces a state of flow, a state of total engagement, where the work of following multiple lines does not feel effortful, it feels blissful. In effective counterpoint, the multiple lines are not merely juxtaposed without clashing, they are matched so they become mutually reinforcing: they don’t coexist, they frolic, they dance with each other. One melody does not “steal the show” from another but echoes it here, contrasts against it there, seems to converse with it in a way that makes the two more interesting and dynamic than any one might be. Counterpoint is something a listener can get lost in, delightfully lost, and when music is full of counterpoint it presents so many pathways for the listener’s attention that each hearing will be different, the music can never be exhausted: you constantly switch from following one line closely, to dividing your focus between two or three lines, to stepping back and observing the whole fabric, and no matter how or where you “move” as a listener, you notice something new and beautiful, some detail you hadn’t noticed before, or some new way of listening to a familiar detail that makes it shimmer like never before. Since counterpoint consumes so much of your awareness, it makes you forget, it helps you forget everything else, so that in listening closely to just a short contrapuntal passage, you may feel like time has stopped. Because of its challenges for the listener and the composer, counterpoint is sometimes seen as a way of demonstrating learnedness – it has the reputation of being dry and academic – but when it’s good it’s the opposite: fresh, propulsive, almost primally compelling. But as with sex, or spiritual devotion, or any transformative experience, you need to try it before you really know what it’s like, and your first time is not guaranteed to be all that great.

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