The Art of Fugue
Debate about how Art of Fugue should be performed is ongoing. Except for Contrapunctus XIV, the original was published in open score, which has led some to speculate that AOF is “abstract,” meant to exist only as a demonstration of contrapuntal technique. One hearing of the glorious music in this work is sufficient to disabuse me of that idea, but there do seem to be convincing arguments that Bach originally conceived it as a keyboard work.
Plenty of such recordings exist, however, so in this realization, I have used a larger orchestration to provide timbral variety and aural cues to the large and small scale structure Bach has built into the twenty parts of the work. The various parts of the orchestra appear in many combinations, but any individual instrument is never used in all, or even most, of the movements.
The virtual musicians worked hard to bring this music to you (almost literally; I think I nearly melted my CPU on a few of these tracks!), so I thought I would credit them here.
Winds: Roland SRX-06 Orchestral Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon
Brass: EWQLSO Master KS Trumpet, EWQLSO Master KS Trombone
Harpsichords: Roland SRX-06 Harpsichord Front SRX 1 & Full Harpsichord 1
Swell Organ: Roland SRX-06 Flute 8′, Flutes S2, Flutes S3, Church Organ SRX
Great Organ: Yamaha S-80 Big Church, Roland Church Organ SRX
Choir Organ: Yamaha S-80 Pipes
Violins: EWQLSO 18 Violin Master KS
Violas: EWQLSO 11 Violin Master KS, EWQLSO 10 Violas Short Martelé
Cellos: EWQLSO Master KS
Basses: EWQLSO Sus Vib DXF, EWQLSO Fortepiano Cbs
Upright bass: Edirol SD-90 Classic Acoustic Bass
Pads: Yamaha S-80 Soft Pad, Edirol SD-90 Warm Pad, Roland XV-2020 Gluey Pad
Percussion: Edirol SD-90 Tubular Bells
This instrumentation vaguely parallels a symphony orchestra plus keyboard instruments. The “special effects” (upright bass, pads, and bells) are used mainly to provide heft to the other patches, with the more standard-issue instruments doing the heavy lifting.
You may wonder why I used a violin patch for the violas; this stems from my only major gripe with the otherwise very nice East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra (EWQLSO) softsynths. The Silver edition of EWQLSO (which is the one I could afford) doesn’t have a viola sample with a sufficiently fast attack to handle rapid passages, and splicing an SRX viola patch made that section stick out from the other three string samples in an undesirable way. The present solution of using a distinct violin patch proved a satisfactory, if not ideal, compromise. Of course, the alto line dips below the violin range from time to time, but AOF is notorious for the demanding range of its voices, and in each pathological case I found workarounds. Hopefully they’re not that noticeable.
I captured the MIDI sequences to 24-bit audio track by track for each instrument and each part of AOF separately. The Yamaha and Edirol/Roland sequences were passed through the Large Hall reverb of my Lexicon MX-200 effects processor, mixed about 70% dry. I also applied a very slight pong delay, 85-90% dry, to selected patches during audio capture, timed to the quaver or semiquaver, the idea being to create extra spaciousness without heavy delays ringing all over the place. For the EWQLSO patches, I used the Grand Hall reverb at about 50% of maximum strength. I applied compression and equalization to the individual clips and mixes to get each part balanced and centered.
From this description it will be clear I have not attempted to recover an intimate, chamber music feel in this realization. Though I have tried to capture the reserved nature of moments such as Contrapunctus I and VI, and the delicate complexity of the canons, I also wanted the ability to bring the listener into the spectacular sonic canvas of the titanic moments of the cycle, prime examples being Contrapunctus VIII, XI, and of course XIV. Thus, I have deliberately conceived AOF as being performed in a substantial concert hall, with the hope that both the intimate and epic moments are properly reflected.
Bach on the Synths
The synthesized patches used in this recording will never sound exactly like the instruments of the superb players of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Musika Antiqua Köln, or others, and I haven’t spent massive amounts of time tweaking the effects to duplicate them. In any case, no performance should be a mere attempt to clone a previous one. What I have tried to do is develop the MIDI sequence to separate the lines precisely in the stereo field and explore new orchestrations of a well-known piece. One wouldn’t imagine old Bach standing behind his upright bass, plucking merrily away, but in the right places, and in small doses, I think it worked out just fine.
There is one caveat, though, regarding the electronic smoke and mirrors. I practiced Art of Fugue, worked out how I wanted to interpret it, and then played the entire work, overdubbing the lines into separate MIDI tracks one and two parts at a time, as a real performance on my keyboards. This gives a performance with a “human” feel that digital timing trickery cannot replicate. Of necessity, I did do a great deal of work with the MIDI velocities (not volume; attempts to achieve musicality through volume rather than velocity adjustments are the hobgoblin of poor electronic realizations) on the non-keyboard instruments, but throughout I tried to be careful not to remove the imperfect, human feel of the realization. It means there are some wrong notes here and there, which bug me but which I find preferable to having it sound like a bunch of robots playing it.