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Michael Gordon + Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach
Concerto for Harpsichord in G minor, BWV 1058

           Energized lines playing over one another in a mirror maze: this could be referring to Bachian counterpoint or equally to the music of Michael Gordon. All four of this evening’s pieces, whether from the first half of the eighteenth century or of the twenty-first, race with driving rhythm and self-similarity. All four engage small groups of instruments, alike and unalike: six parts in the Bach concertos, eight and ten in the Gordon pieces.

           Like many composers of our own time, Bach had a flexible notion of the orchestra as a group of soloists, probably no more than twenty in number. The court at Cöthen, the small city where he was music director from 1717 to 1723, had a documented ensemble of eighteen instrumentalists, for whom Bach wrote a lot of his larger instrumental scores (probably including both this evening’s concertos on their original versions, and also the Brandenburg set), as well as solo and chamber pieces. Much of this music he brought out again and revised during the next phase of his life, in Leipzig, where he not only ran the church music but also, between 1729 and 1741, directed weekly concerts at Zimmermann’s coffee house. The source for his seven solo keyboard concertos is a draft he made around 1738, though some or all of the works may have been designed in Cöthen for other solo instruments. That is certainly the case with this G minor concerto, originally for violin.

           We might imagine Bach himself playing this concerto, whether at Cöthen or in the Leipzig coffee house, but at the latter venue he might have given the solo part to one of his elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. The first movement of a concerto customarily alternated the principal theme with contrasting episodes in which the solo instrument or instruments could shine, but Bach was always after a firmer integration, with the episodes drawing material from the theme, as it is here and will be again in the C minor concerto for violin and oboe. Three strong descending thrusts at the outset thus determine the character not only of the theme but of the whole opening movement. When the keyboard soloist takes over, it is to reconsider rather than diverge, and the movement continues through a nice interweaving of variation and innovation.

           So it goes, again, in the subsequent movements, the andante set on a spacious rhythm but exploring harmonic byways from its base in B flat. The finale is a gigue in 9/8, with the piano rushing into sixteenth notes before a pause on a dominant seventh chord, and racing on again afterwards.


Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060R

           Most of Bach’s concertos for multiple keyboard instruments—two, three, and four—were again transcriptions, the original of what survives as a C minor double concerto probably having been for violin and oboe or for two violins, the possibility here restored.

           Among the symmetries in the first movement’s main theme is a kind of double echo effect, for not only does its fourth measure end with the soloists immediately repeating alone the full ensemble’s falling fifth, but this whole element, A–D–A–D in eighth notes, is an expansion of the E flat–D–E flat–D in sixteenths at the end of the second measure. In keeping with concerto form, and this example of it in particular, the soloists otherwise play in unison with the first violins in the theme and, when the two intermittently break away, the solo oboe has the melody, dazzlingly accompanied by the solo violin. The interplay of the main theme with its episodes is at once subtle and logical, depending on how a few ideas can be reused in manifold ways.

           The slow movement is a siciliana (a dance with the spacious meter of four three-note groups per measure), arriving into the calm of the relative major, E flat. With the oboe taking the principal line at the start, the movement gains a pastoral air. The violin replies a fifth above, and the movement continues with the soloists fully forward, in alternation at different degrees, to end on a G major chord in preparation for the returning C minor of the finale.

           With the swing and drive and robust harmony of a country dance, this finale shows how Bach, as much as Gordon, had his ear to the dance patterns of the epoch. Again there is a small element that recurs in different forms, here consisting of a threefold repetition of a note at quarter-note intervals. Right at the unharmonized beginning, the note is C, interspersed with a falling scale: C–G–C–F–C–E flat. Four measures later, this is turned upside down, and later still, the repeated notes are played alone, with no intervention. Motivic integration of a similar kind knits the recurrences of the fully scored main theme to the episodes more intimately scored for the soloists with minimal support. Now the violin has its chance to astonish, in swoops of sixteenth notes, later speeded up to triplets, which freeze the orchestral strings. But everything here is conjoined: soloist with soloist, soloists with ensemble, the brilliant and the plain.


Michael Gordon
Dry (2013)

           Gordon wrote this piece for the Crash Ensemble of Dublin, who gave the première at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2013. The scoring is for alto flute, clarinet, and trombone, electric keyboard, electric guitar, and tuned gongs, and four strings, all amplified.

           At the start, and in much that follows during the course of this eighteen-minute piece, instruments are repeating notes in repeating rhythms, as if signaling to one another, generally with fading dynamics. They hold on to their identities; clarinet, keyboard, and electric guitar, for instance, keep up patterns of long-long-long-long-short. As more instruments join in the number of speeds and patterns increases, and eventually some of the instruments, beginning with the tuned gongs, break away from simple note-bouncing into slower or faster alternations, in music that is constantly expanding and contracting in density. Then a new sound arrives: a slow, glissando, up and down, on cello soon joined by electric guitar and later by the trombone. These melodized groans grow and remain through much of the piece—through further extensions of the sound mass (into high melody from the electric guitar, for instance) and returns to how things were before. It is, however, with a stretch of excited repetitions and oscillations that the piece breaks through to its conclusion.


Hyper  (2014)

           Written for the ensemble DC8, which gave the first performance in February last year in Los Angeles, this piece plays for twelve minutes and is scored for a slightly smaller ensemble than Dry, with again three instruments in the struck-plucked domain (piano, acoustic guitar, and vibraphone), but no trombone and just three strings.

           “In Hyper,” the composer has written, “I attempt to create the musical equivalent of an impossible object, an optical illusion in which an impossible geometry is represented. Impossible objects fall up, open in and out, and twist irrationally in space. One impossible object is the Penrose Stairs—stairs that climb upward but somehow loop in a circle, so that no matter how far one climbs they always return to the same place. Similarly, music can travel through keys and end up where it began. These types of illusions, which are common in the art of M. C. Escher, are taken to absurdist ends in literary works like Alice in Wonderland: ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’ In Hyper I create quixotic geometries without concern for the laws of physics.”