When I began work on my album Canons I expected that its main audience would consist of three groups of experienced classical listeners:

  • those with a particular interest in counterpoint (folks who own multiple recordings of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s Art of The Fugue, Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and so on)
  • those with a particular interest in the harpsichord, and in new repertoire for early keyboard instruments (folks who own a recording of Lambert’s Clavichord by Herbert Howells, for example)
  • those with a particular interest in math-music connections (folks who own the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter)

At the same time, I hoped that I could turn some new listeners on to counterpoint, including those who don’t consider themselves classical music buffs and who might not know what a harpsichord is.

On the evening of April 3, 2017 I had my first success towards that latter goal. I returned home and found that my order of 600 copies of Canons – the physical CD – had been manufactured and had finally arrived at my doorstep.  My friend and neighbor Sal was passing by at the time, and he became my very first customer. While not a classical aficionado (he’s more into classic rock and contemporary singer-songwriters) he’s open-minded and adventurous as a listener. He bought a copy of Canons and added it to the collection of music he plays in his car. And so, much to my delight, my brand new CD took a spot beside The Doors. Here are some photos of the boxes, and Sal holding his new purchase.

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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to explain canons to those who aren’t familiar with the concept. First, I want to assure newcomers that the following definition I found on the Internet is entirely wrong:

A canon is a type of musical composition in which multiple military cannons facing the audience are pre-tuned to a specific pitch and are fired off one at a time, each at a fixed interval after the previous cannon was discharged.

In truth, listening to a canon will do you no harm. It will very likely entertain you. At the very worst, it may leave you overwhelmed or mildly bewildered – not to worry.

Here’s a real definition:

A canon is a type of musical composition in which multiple copies of the same melody are played simultaneously, but with different starting times, so that there is a leader entering first, and one or more followers that imitate the leader.

You’ve probably heard the children’s tune “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” performed like this – it’s a simple canon. But despite the tune’s simplicity, when you have three or more people singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at once there’s actually a lot going on. You shouldn’t expect that it will be easy to hear all the details at once.

Listening to a canon can stretch your powers of comprehension, but it’s not a test. You don’t have to perceive everything about a canon in any one listening. The goal is to see what you notice and how your awareness deepens as you keep listening.

I’d recommend finding a few canons you like and listening to them over and over. I wrote a whole album of forty-five canons but I usually don’t listen to the whole thing from start to finish. Often I’ll listen in groups of ten or so, and then if one piece stands out to me I’ll keep replaying it and listening in different ways.

A brief canon is almost like a seed for a musical experience that expands as you give it your attention, growing into many minutes or even hours of listening as you play the canon over and over, hearing different things each time.

In listening to canons performed on keyboard, it can help to have an image of the performer in your mind. He or she is sitting at a keyboard and playing with two hands. The performer’s left hand generally plays in the lower range of the keyboard and the right hand plays in the upper range.

If you were watching a keyboardist begin playing a canon, you’d see that one hand starts playing by itself, and then after a lag, the other hand starts playing. From then on, both hands are playing the same tune but one hand is always further ahead in the tune than the other.

You can enjoy a canon without knowing much more than this. But if you want to get deeper into the experience of a canon, you should familiarize yourself with strategies for understanding musical counterpoint. And you should be aware of some questions you can ask about a canon when you want to grok its structure on a deeper level. You may find that the answers to some of these questions are easy to discover through listening alone, while for others you’d really need to see a visualization of the canon or read the score. Don’t worry if you can’t answer these questions – simply being aware of them is a good way to deepen your listening:

  • Does the canon begin high or low? Which part is leading – the soprano or the bass – and which part is following?
  • When the canon begins and there’s only one part playing, how long does it take before the second part comes in?
  • When the second part comes in, does it sound similar to the first part or has the tune been changed in some way? To go further with this, if you know something about music theory: does the second part seem to be in the same key as the first part? Does it seem to be playing the exact same notes or have the notes been shifted or transposed? Has the second part possibly been turned upside down?
  • Do the two parts blend together smoothly or do they clash? If they were partners in a conversation, what kind of conversation would it be—friendly, agitated, contemplative? If they were dance partners, what would the dance look like?
  • When you hear something that stands out, like an ornament (for example, a rapid “twiddling” sound), can you hear its echo in the other part? Do you hear the echo quickly or does it take a while to come up?
  • Does the canon have one section or are there multiple sections separated by pauses? If there are multiple sections, does the leader/follower relationship change between sections? Does the mood or level of intensity change? Or is the same material repeated verbatim?
  • Does the canon end on the same note it begins with, or does it end higher or lower?
  • Do the voices come to a stop together or do they end in a staggered fashion?
  • How does the canon aim to create variety or surprise? Does it seem to repeat the same material again and again or are there places where it takes an unexpected turn?
  • Does the canon follow a standard format or is there something unusual about it? For example, did the two parts begin at once instead of starting with a skew? In that case, you just might be listening to something called a crab canon – look it up.  Do the parts seem to be going at different speeds – one faster and one slower – so that the lag between them constantly grows or shrinks?  In that case, you might be listening to something called a prolation canon.
  • What other questions about the canon occur to you?  Write them down, think about them, or if the composer or performer is alive, see if you can send them an email and find out more – they’ll probably be happy to receive a question on a topic like this!
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