As a classically-trained pianist (in a past life) I have an inherent love for the challenge that is a Bach fugue. While difficult to play well I have always thought there was no comparison to the satisfaction of mastering Bach. There's a sort of pompous sassy joy to be found as your fingers romp over specific bits of rhythm, runs and jumps all over the keyboard. I could always luxuriate in Mozart but Bach made me sit up straight and bounce around as I played - especially the Well Tempered Clavier preludes and fugues.
That bit of nostalgic romanticism aside, a few months ago I had the urge to create a new trio based on the idea that 'getting there is half the battle', exploring lateness, procrastination, the inability to get things done and proceed through life triumphantly and efficiently. Funny and a bit depressing (maybe just maybe hitting close to attention-deficit-home), and entirely set to Bach. A movement of the piece would be based on life/unforeseen circumstances getting in the way, another would be a sort of real life-chutes-and-ladders where the dancers got in their own and each others' ways as they crossed the space, and the third would be a sort of examination of internal and external distraction and discontent.
(This is where the fugue comes in...)
Obviously the second movement of the piece had to be a fugue! Well Tempered Clavier's Fugue no.2 in C minor? Absolutely. Three dancers, three voices, a tone that varied from bubbly to stately, the first time in the piece they would actually interact with each other through movement... it made perfect sense. Then came the idea of setting a fugue to a fugue; not just creating movement that corresponded to the music as a whole, but breaking the music into its three voices, digging through each of the three parts to find the content and repeating motifs and phrases, and making a compositional structure that could snap into the form of the fugue. Sure, there would be importance placed on the movement corresponding with the initial musical statement, but all of the other content and musical phrases wouldn't be swept under the rug as they, too, carry the piece from point a to point b.
How quickly became the challenge. My dancers are incredible and rhythmic and eager to learn and master, but as it turned out, no one else spent babyhood to age 18 training at the keyboard. Turns out the knowledge I took for granted wasn't entirely an easy concept to teach - especially as I felt out of practice myself.
We started by listening to the piece as a whole and watching this terrible-sounding visualization.
Next step: I whipped up some color-coordinated sheet music as something to use as a visual aide as we continued watching and listening, just to capture the sense of motion in each voice and perhaps timing.
I isolated similar phrases and motifs, breaking each voice into several parts (A through E, with some phrases played backwards/with other modifications). Each part got a set movement idea that I hoped would propel the action through space; for example A is the main theme and sends the dancer forwards, D (what starts at measure 9 in the lowest voice) runs down the keyboard dizzily, stopping here and there to regain power and focus.
The last technique was plucking out the phrases on the baby grand in the studio as the dancers danced them individually. This was a sort of depressing reminder of how out of shape my fingers are, but helpful as a learning tool.
As each dancer learned her sequence of movement, how it correlated to the music, and how she might interact through the crossing phrase work with the other performers, I realized that my complicated scheme worked. I'm not a fastidious planner and when the movement lined up well from a structural perspective, as I had hoped it would, I was thrilled. (Here I also almost made the mistake of trying to incorporate the concept of a fugue state, probably over complicating things - but think about the similarities of the two, it would be fun to play with... next time.) How others try to create a movement fugue, I'm not sure, but I'd very interested to find out.
Our new challenge as a group is continuing to hear the line you are dancing to, as you dance to it. I get the sense that my dancers are quite comfortable with the main theme and the overall flow of the phrases, but listening to all three parts at once while performing just to one is difficult, especially to capture the Bach-isms, and tiny differences between repetitions of ideas. Making the listening/dancing experience even harder, is that melodically this piece is all over the keyboard - the soprano and alto voices cross a lot, it's really chaotic and tricky to keep them separate while listening to both. That being said, each of my wonderful dancers is working, making clearer musical connections with every run and starting to bring their own sense of individuality into the fugue.
I'm SO pleased with how things are coming along and can't wait to see where we are at in October, once we have the two other accompanying movements finalized (think a giant elastic band, artistic musical chairs, lots of frustration and maybe a stage selfie or two) and put this entire piece on the stage. (Spektrel tickets here!)
I've asked the dynamite Merli V. Guerra, Amy Mastrangelo and Brittany Lombardi (aka the liberally aforementioned dancers) to send me their responses to this post and the process so you can hear their perspectives. Stay tuned! Also, if you've had interaction with a fugue in any genre I'd love to hear about your own triumphs, struggles and quandaries.