Searching for “X”

As I was preparing my Canons album for release, the distribution service I’m using asked me to name several famous artists I “sound like.” I listed Bach first (thinking of his canons from the Art of Fugue and the Goldberg Variations), and then Bartok (thinking of his contrapuntal pieces with nonstandard tonalities in Mikrokosmos).

For any musician with an appropriately deep reverence for Bach and any semblance of humility, it would seem outrageously immodest to say that one “sounds like” the master himself. (Similarity to Bartok is not a claim to be made casually either.)

But I was being asked to liken myself to a famous composer—the question had the requirement of self-flattery built into it—so I complied. My answer prompted me to reflect on what my relationship to Bach actually is, and to what extent sounding like Bach has been a goal in my efforts.

First let me say something not about Bach but about style itself. While a few of the canons in my album might seem to follow an 18th-century contrapuntal model (and others might show early 20th-century inclinations) I’m not interested in period accuracy as an end in itself. All of my compositions arise from a similar germination process where, at the beginning, I work with elemental musical ideas and I don’t know what style the piece is eventually going to take on. The individual style of the piece evolves in stages through a process of elaboration and refinement. If a listener thinks one of my pieces could pass as Baroque, that’s fine, but if the listener detects that it was written in 2016, that’s also fine. In fact I hope there’s some 2016 mixed in with the 1720 because I consider it a more interesting aesthetic goal to synthesize the old and the new than to slavishly emulate the old.

I do find it enjoyable to listen, occasionally, to those living composers, mostly ignored by the contemporary classical music establishment, who strive to write in strict period styles, with a focus on historical fidelity and an eschewal of fusion. I’ve never heard it done convincingly with Bach, but I have heard new pieces that seem indistinguishable from, say, actual Vivaldi, or actual Telemann. There’s a lutenist who writes beautiful Fantasias that I would believe to be by Simone Molinaro if I didn’t know they weren’t, and such achievements deserve respect. I’m not concerned with whether this kind of work is “derivative.” If you make some beautiful music that sounds convincingly historic, great, you’ve contributed more beautiful music to the world. No matter that we didn’t “need” more music from that earlier time. We can always benefit from more beauty in whatever form it should happen to take.

Now turning to Bach himself, I’ll say that Bach is at the core of my musical aspirations but I’m not aiming to sound like him. What I am aiming to do is to write music that gives me a bit of the same high that I experience when I listen to Bach. For concision, and in acknowledgement that no term really captures it, I will label this experience as “X.” You could possibly call it “contrapuntal ecstasy” but I don’t want to keep saying “contrapuntal ecstasy” over and over again—twice is enough. Suffice it to say, I’m talking about the bliss one feels in becoming completely engrossed in the ordered, kaleidoscopic simultaneity of a contrapuntal work.

I’m not going to try to rigorously define X because I can’t, but I’ll mention a few things that should bring it into clearer focus. First of all, counterpoint is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for X. Just because a skilled composer produces an intricate contrapuntal work that successfully adheres to a set of complex conventions does not mean that X will ensue. There’s an element of magic in it.

While Bach was my introduction to X and while he remains the source of X to which I always return, I have found X in the work of many composers of different styles, from Machaut to Stravinsky. While X does not depend on historical period or stylistic idiom then, I believe it does depend on lucidity, on the work’s having an intuitively perceptible order. I find X in fugues by Hindemith and Shostakovich. I haven’t yet found it in the music of Elliot Carter which is polyphonic and rigorously conceived but which has, from the standpoint of what’s easily audible, too much apparent chaos—fascinating in another way, but not in the sense of what I’m calling X.

X is not dependent on the length or textural density of the work. Bach’s short and spare two-part Invention #1 in C major induces X whereas a lengthy and dense fugue by Max Reger may be interesting without inducing X. Density contributes to X to the extent that it allows the listener to become engrossed in the work; but where that feeling of being happily lost turns into a sense of hazy confusion, there density inhibits X.

Early on in my life I set it as my goal to write some bit of music that induced X, the same X that I had first come to know in Bach and would then spend years as a listener and record collector seeking out wherever I could find it. Could I produce a fragment, a mere ten seconds of music, that had the same effect on me as ten seconds of Bach?

I was, and still am, more concerned with achieving X than with any of the trappings of a life in music. Given a choice of outcomes, I would prefer to reach my final year having written one miniature two-part invention that induced X to having written hundreds of academically sophisticated fugues that did not induce X. And to be candid, while I’d like to be well known, I would prefer to be an anonymous composer who managed to write one short X-inducing piece than a famous composer with a large catalog from which X is entirely absent.

Why is it so important to me to write something new that induces X when there’s so much music that already does it? I suppose I want to understand the phenomenon of X better by trying to create it for myself. I want to see how my own X-inducing music might turn out given the particulars of my own background and taste. I want to share with others a little bit of my own version of the thing I love the most. Instead of saying these things, it might be simpler for me to say “I just have to do it.”

For the longest time my goal seemed utterly impossible. It was hard to talk about what I wanted to do, and there were times when I wasn’t even sure of it myself.

While the frustrated novelist is an archetype, while “writer’s block” is a cliché in the literary world, there aren’t as many clear examples in the public consciousness of aspiring composers who are totally stuck, unable to even begin writing. Composers are supposed to be geniuses bestowed with some special ability to produce music. They may be frustrated by life, they may suffer bad luck, bad relationships, bad health, they may be totally miserable, but we don’t tend to think of them as being impeded in music-making.

If I had been able to explain my situation to a friend, this friend might have said “So, you’re trying to write like Bach and you can’t—tough luck, join the club.” But that misunderstands it, since my goal was never to sound like Bach but just to capture and reflect a bit of the X that Bach’s music had first revealed to me. Then again, it’s hard to talk to friends about X because most people don’t know what it is.

Here’s where I skip over twenty years of questing. I skip over all those times when I thought I’d had a breakthrough, got frustrated again, abandoned music completely, took it back up, contacted a new teacher, started a new sketch, went on a new tangent, got distracted, got depressed, found new vigor and conviction, started again.

In my late thirties, I witnessed my efforts cross a threshold. What had seemed impossible began to actually happen. I was now writing little bits of music that produced X. And as I began my canon collection, I got into a groove of writing piece after piece—short pieces, between one and two minutes long, and using only two contrapuntal parts—that did the very thing that had eluded me for so many years. On the surface, my achievements as a composer seemed minuscule (e.g. Mozart was dead by my age but I had written no symphonies, no concertos, no extended solo works, and none of my music had yet been performed by another person) but I knew I was now doing the precise thing that I had always dreamed of doing.

I’m picky as a listener, and I don’t return to something many times if I’m not fascinated by it. This is true whether the piece is mine or someone else’s. I’ve listened to my Canons album hundreds of times and have turned to it in those moments when I’ve desperately needed an X fix—moments when I would normally seek X in Bach—and the album has satisfied my craving. (That the album can do this is not only because of the compositions, of course, but because of the way my collaborator has so wonderfully brought them to life on harpsichord.)

I don’t sound like Bach. Perhaps the way I’ve managed to achieve a modicum of X has been to not emulate Bach but to use whatever resources I’ve had at hand in whatever way I’ve been able. The result is a speck in comparison to Bach’s giant star, but for me it is a speck that does contain the X I’ve spent my life in search of.

Now, if you don’t think I’m crazy when I talk about this thing called “X,” I invite you to listen and see whether you find any semblance of X in the structures I have been able to craft, and here’s hoping that you do, not because I want to tout my own work, but because, if you’re someone who “gets” what I mean by X, I feel a kind of bond with you and want you to experience X in abundance just as I want that for myself.

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