Sunday, December 09, 2007

Toward a More Fugue-Efficient Car

Johann Sebastian Bach, in addition to the time he spent composing every day, always enjoyed tinkering in his workshop, whether he was trying to figure out ways of improving the clavichord, a kind of lap-top harpsichord, or working on a new book, “The Idiot’s Guide to Writing Cantatas for Every Sunday in the Church Year.” It was usually late at night, after the city of Leipzig had gone to sleep and the various Bach children had all been put to bed, that he loved most to sneak down to the basement.

His latest project was designing a more fugue-efficient car which he figured would be a major contribution to society, given the cost of supporting the arts these days. But he knew it was becoming hopeless because the younger generation had lost the knack for fugues: a simple melody with simple harmony was all they needed to make it run smoothly if not very far.

Those huge vans took whole symphonies, though, and proved to be time-consuming for the average motorist but yet everybody had to have one until they realized how difficult it was to write a symphony every couple of days. Even Haydn had given his van up for a smaller car that ran on variations.

And then Bach heard that Philip Glass was working on a new kind of engine system that could get several more miles out of just a single chord progression and didn’t even need a melody!

What did it matter to people like that, having something designed to run on the finest intellectual principles?

He had just recently perfected the fugue-injector engine with its dashboard application allowing you to insert the written-out fugue which is then transferred to the fugue tank where it is converted into fuel. This he found to be a big improvement over the original harpsicarburator engine which had a keyboard attached to the steering column but he found it distracting to be improvising fugues while driving (especially when Anna Magdalena would call him on his cell phone).

After he had started on the design, he quickly discovered that simple two-voice fugues, nothing terribly adventurous but suitable for beginning drivers, didn’t get you very far and were basically only good for quick trips to the store and back. For the daily commute, he needed at least a three-voice fugue with two good modulations in it. If the middle entries employed a good statement by inversion, then he added a little stretto before the final statement, he might be able to run a few errands on the way home, too.

Originally, he wanted to call it the Well-Tempered Car. Unfortunately, the engine frequently needed to be tuned which caused most of the fugues to burn slower than usual. Several times he found himself on the side of the road with his pitch-pipe trying to crank the engine back to A-440. Frustrated, he wondered “why bother,” watching everybody whizzing by in their Scarlatti Sonatas and Mendelssohn Cars Without Words.

But then he came up with another idea and that night he was back in the workshop.

Just the other week, he’d developed the compact version which he allowed the boys to drive around the neighborhood: this was the Clavicar which was capable of running on basic canons and two-part inventions, good for beginners.

Once when he was in a hurry, he let little C.P.E. write a fugue for him but the boy, who was usually as bored by fugal exercise as he was by aerobic exercise, had made too many mistakes – a botched tonal answer and a deceptive modulation that contained hidden parallel fifths – which just spun the engine off to the curb and poor Bach had to sit there and write out a whole new fugue just to make it to his rehearsal on time.

He found that you can’t just quickly dash off the same old/same old, either. Even though a fugue is a fugue, it has to be well-constructed with good material to really get some mileage out of it: too much “free counterpoint,” as they call it - he always thought it was just “filler,” watering your craft down with empty additives - and the car starts stalling at intersections or making rude gastrointestinal noises when it reached quarter-note = 120.

So each night, before going to bed, he would write a couple of fugues to get him through the next day. With any luck, he might go a whole day on a good double fugue - that would be great but it didn’t always happen, especially if he was behind on the weekly cantata. Invertible counterpoint was always effective but sometimes when you’re rushed you can make some miscalculations which could gum up the works and Bach, even though it would never happen to him, knew that his sons, for instance, would never have the discipline to manage one of those every day: maybe for a holiday trip, but not your daily commute.

There had been a fine five-voice fugue with two counter-subjects that he was able to drive around on for almost a week. And there was that whole series of fugues he’d written on a theme submitted by Frederick the Great’s Energy Secretary which got him all the way to Berlin and back, even though they laughed at his ideas...

Maybe one day, ja, like their father, C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann and all of their generation will be able to master the fugue in all its many possibilities. His dream was to finish a collection he called “The Art of Fuel,” containing only the finest of those fugues with which he’d gotten the best mileage. It’s a dream that keeps him going.

- Dr. Dick

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© 2007

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