A Different Temperament
Wise people, from the coaches to the old new-agers, agree: it’s so important to have goals. The more concrete, the better. If you want more out of life than just to drift, you’ve got to think, and think specifically, about what you want to achieve, acquire, accomplish. Visualize! Plan! Execute!
I’ve never been able to do it. The only goals I’ve ever managed to formulate are so general they can’t even count as goals: I want to be happy, I want to love and be loved, I want to be a better musician, I want to be tolerable company when I move through my final illness, infirmity or senility, and I want to wait with that last one as long as possible. Stuff like that.
Finally in the year 2001, though, one did occur to me. It was good to have one. Also, it’s a good one.
Before I die, I must record the complete Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Well-Tempered Clavier is, from my point of view, perhaps the ultimate statement of purpose in the life of JS Bach: two complete laps around the 24-key cycle, with a prelude and a fugue for each, and what music flows out of the guy when he’s got a focus like this to work from! To try to put it into words is a fool’s errand. It’s so great, so beautiful, so complex, and such a nourishing and nurturing thing to get your hands on some of it.
I have spent a great many hours now with my hands on this music. Here is what I was able to do with Book 1.
Music has to speak for itself. And for the most part, I’m content to let it do that here. It might be enough to tell you that I played at times as faithfully as I could to the original (if not to the classical traditions of timing and phrasing), and at times I was utterly faithless, improvising just whatever I wanted.
But here’s a little more, in case you’re interested in my process, and in exactly what’s going on with some of this:
Track 1, the C Major Prelude: This elegant beauty, everyone should play it! In this version, it could stand as a manifesto for my whole project. A minute and 40 seconds, you’ll know where I’m coming from. Having the reverance I have for Bach, which I dearly hope shines through here, I’m still gonna do what I want, from moment to moment and from note to note. There’s no need to treat JS Bach like a china doll. His music is strong enough to stand up to, and fully support, the most serendipitous reimaginings.
Track 3, the C Minor Prelude: Here I take the original and add a solo part. I guess I thought the thing ended too soon in Bach’s version so I made my own coda.
Track 4, the C Minor Fugue: It is with some pride that I assert my belief that I must be the first person to notice that this fugue can, with only slight alterations, be played over the chord changes to There Will Never Be Another You. You’re welcome.
Track 23, the F Minor Prelude: There’s a long C pedal near the end of this, which I played as a little chromatic ostinato line. I think today, 10 years later, I might not have played it that way. Still it intrigues me to hear how logically all the resulting dissonances do resolve.
Track 25, the F-sharp Major Prelude: Just want to say it, Bach’s syncopation, treated like genuine syncopation instead of mere harmonic suspension, is the swingingest thing in the world!
Track 29, the G Major Prelude: Virtuoso keyboard music. How horrible to try to play it on the guitar! To play the thing in one go like an honest musician, I would have had to play it so slow, and this one falls flat if it doesn’t go like lightening, I feel. Just painful. I sat for a long time hating it, and then realized I could do it like a car chase scene in one of them action movies. They don’t do those in one go either.
Track 33, the A-flat Major Prelude: Here was the rare case where in all honesty I just didn’t like the way Bach wrote it. I could not get that melody to swing. Even today, I don’t really find anything interesting or charming in it. So at last I took a look at the chords, reinterpreted them in a jazz tradition, recorded them as a comping track, and then had a great time improvising on it.
Track 39, the A Minor Prelude: Here Bach’s chord progression was so close to some of what feels just the greatest and most natural on the guitar, so I went with it. I guess I don’t think this sounds like the Gipsy Kings, but in some way it gets me thinking of them.
Track 44, the B-flat Minor Fugue: A five-voice fugue! Here’s where a guitarist multi-tracking can do some things the honest pianist playing it all at once cannot. It’s normally taken slowly, with great gravitas. I decided to swing it at a bright tempo. But the subject, at that clip, just kinda lies there. So I thought to dress it up a little, and found myself playing the opening phrase of Charlie Parker’s Au Privave. Let it be, I thought. I played the whole fugue that way. Near the end for some reason I was inspired to go all the way with Au Privave and just play the blues a while, but what emerged was a version of the old Bach family game of Quodlibet. I’ve got bits of about ten Parker compositions intertwined in my coda here. I don’t quite understand now how I did it. But I do enjoy hearing it.
For the rest, I’ll let the depth of Bach’s masterpiece, and the joy I brought to playing with it, speak for themselves.
Oct. 26, 2011