February 6, 2004

Assignments for musicians bring out best in Back

The University of Chicago Presents series invited the Brentano Quartet to come celebrate the 10th anniversary of Mandel Hall last weekend. The program was the Quartet's birthday present to themselves; they had commissioned 10 leading composers to write reactions to Bach's unfinished masterwork, The Art of Fugue. Each composer chose one canon, or fugue—called contrapuncti in Bach's score—as the touchstone for his own work. The Brentano Quartet then performed each new composition along with its respective contrapunctus, treating the audience to a mix of the old and the new. The concert design also allowed a broad theme to come through: what are the various ways we can relate Bach's music to today's modern music?

This question, of course, is not meant to be answered conclusively. Yet there is a long tradition that sees Bach as the founder of modern music, and that would see such an authentic appropriation of new music as its goal. Many 20th-century composers (including Schoenberg, who called Bach "the first to compose with twelve tones") used Bach as justification for their own modern advancements. A common extension drawn from Bach's late works is that a number of odd-sounding harmonies point towards a more progressive harmonic language. The compositions of Eric Zivian and Charles Wuorinen realized this on Friday night. But such compositions suggest a hearing of Bach in which chordal entities serve as motives, when in fact such sonorities may be the contingent result of independently-moving voices. Ultimately, such pieces as Zivian's and Wuorinen's sounded both emotionally and technically distant from the Bach contrapuncti, and as such did not form very satisfactory reactions.

University professor Shulamit Ran's piece, Bach-Shards, was perhaps the most successful. Its comparative lack of ambition, or avoidance of the grandiose, was paramount in this achievement. Ran's approach, as she outlined in a pre-concert talk, was to stay within the harmonic and stylistic language of Bach's time but at the same forge her own path by creating her own style of narrative. (The explicit contrast of narratives, however, seemed an interesting pursuit, given that the narratives or forms of Bach's preludes and fugues do not follow wholly transparent conventions). Combining what she whimsically termed "Bach-bites" (instead of sound-bites), Ran created an exciting, virtuosic texture with the rhythmic drive and intensity of many of Bach's organ preludes. Her piece was also the most successful in breathing new life into "Contrapunctus X." The Brentano Quartet played this fugue at a faster tempo and with more energetic off-beat accents than I am accustomed to, and cellist Nina Maria Lee transformed the bass voice at points into a flowing basso continuo line.

Sofia Gubaidulina's contribution, Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H (written in response to the incomplete quadruple fugue, "Contrapunctus XIX") continued a long tradition of writing pieces on the notes B-flat, A, C, and B-natural (B-A-C-H in the German notation of pitches). While the fugue's incomplete status has subjected it to many apocryphal myths (including the belief that Bach died while in the midst of finishing it), its haunting harmonic language and emotional introspection make it one of the great pieces in Bach's collection. Gubaidulina's gave a glimpse of what lies beyond the incomplete fugue: a haunting texture that matches some of the more ghostly moments in "Contrapunctus XIX."

Surveying the entire concert, a consistent theme was that a Bach fugue is essentially associated with the famous Well-Tempered Clavier. Most composers saw their efforts as accompanying preludes, as found in the collection composed 30 years before The Art of the Fugue. The last piece on the program, Steven Mackey's Lude, avoided this view of the fugue. Mackey chose to concentrate on transitions by composing a prelude that merged into "Contrapuntus XI", an interlude that interrupted Bach's piece, and a postlude that rounded off the evening once Brentano finished playing Bach's original fugue.

Mackey's transitions struck my ear as neither convincingly coherent nor radically juxtaposed, which perhaps summed up my impression of the whole concert. I was very doubtful of what connections could be made between Bach's music and that of today. The saving grace of the concert, however, was the Brentano Quartet itself, whose splendid interpretation of Bach's music at times helped connect new music with the old, and above all did not allow the most esoteric of Bach's works to sound stale.