Day 18: Suite No. 3 in C major, Gigue

I’m now halfway through the Bach 36 Project. I am slightly tempted to quote the beginning of Dante’s Inferno where he documents his arrival at the midway point of his life, but that would imply that I considered the E flat, C minor, and D major suites the inner circles of hell. Which I don’t (much).

Now that I’ve reached this point, however, I think it’s appropriate to pause and reflect on how things are going, and on some of the things I wish I’d done differently. These are, in no particular order:

1) I wish I’d arranged for a better acoustic space, better recording conditions, and better recording equipment. My initial idea was that this was going to be a homespun sort of a project, a snapshot in time of how I played any given Bach movement on any given day, which I could keep as a marker of how I played at a certain point in my life–though I’m not as old as Dante is in the Inferno, I hasten to add. The fact is, however, that I’m a professional musician and should expect to be judged as such. Making videos in my office results in a product that isn’t representative of my work. (Because of this, I’ve decided to take all the videos down from the internet as soon as this project is finished.) Plus, all those trucks, motorcycles, cement mixers, old bombs of cars with souped-up engines, clock tower bells, school buses, road workers and particularly shriekish birds aren’t helping.

2) I wish I could be doing this on a good cello. I’m terribly fond of my old cello, but it isn’t a great instrument. When I was playing in my quartet, I had a couple of wonderful loaned instruments to play on. It was never quite the same when I had to go back to my own cello. Since then, I’ve been seeking a sponsor or an instrument bank that might lend me a professional-calibre cello, but in this economy, it’s discouragingly hard. Plus, most organizations that loan cellos to musicians focus on the ones who are still students, and rightly so. Still, it’s pretty hard when you’re in the early stages of your career and really don’t have a good fiddle to play on. In the meantime, I’ve been considering the only decent-sounding cello that would fall anywhere within my price range, the Luis & Clark carbon fibre cello. I got to play one once several years ago when the inventor visited the University of Texas, where I was then a graduate student. I loved it. It had a fast response, a big and clear tone, and best of all, looked sort of space-age. What’s not to like? Well, I’ll continue saving madly for one, and maybe if I repeat this project it’ll be on carbon fibre.

This said, I’ve made it to the end of the C major suite pretty much intact. I’m daunted by the prospect of starting the E flat major, which I’ve always thought was the hardest suite written for a four-string cello. (The D major, originally written for a five-stringer, is in a difficulty category of its own.) I’ve been practising different systems for tuning the E flats, no easy matter on an instrument like the cello that doesn’t, after all, have an E flat string that we can tune to. So I enjoyed my last day of the relatively uncomplicated sound-world of the C major scale.

That’s not to say that the Gigue is uncomplicated. The long chains of string crossings can be easily scrambled, particularly when the direction of the string crossing changes.

In addition to this, since it’s a gigue, one wants a tempo that’s both light-hearted and robust. This was what I struggled with today. In my mind’s ear, a dashing tempo seemed like a great idea for Take 1, but the notes ended up sounding so garbled and strangled that I had to take it back a “click” on the metronome. Take 2 was much clearer and better articulated in both hands, but the tempo was sedate to the point of politeness. I think most of us would agree that there is no polite gigue. I used Take 3, because the tempo worked the best. Take 2 was more accurate, but I’ve come to accept that my most accurate take is seldom going to be the one I end up choosing. Maybe there are more important things in life than accuracy?

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C major Gigue; E flat major Prelude, Allemande.


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