Music and mathematics

I read with great interest an Independent article by Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers about what he calls the “myth” of a link between mathematical and musical ability. I’d heard this theory before, usually framed in the form of a reproach to my child self ca. 1989-1995 for not having worked hard enough at my maths homework.

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Brain surgery

By Miranda Wilson

A sentence by Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones seemed practically to jump off the screen at me today. (I promise I don’t usually read the Daily Mail. Someone I know on Facebook linked to Jones’ article, and I read it because the byline caught my attention.) Irritated at the nepotism in her profession, Jones observes “Everyone believes they can write – while not everyone believes they can perform brain surgery.”

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Day 36: Suite No. 6 in D major, Gigue

The arid plain behind me

By Miranda Wilson

It’s the last day of the Bach 36 Project. Or, as I now like to think of it, the longest 36 days of my life! It’s hard to describe how much I underestimated how difficult it would be to record all 36 movements of Bach’s six cello suites in 36 days, one movement a day. At the start, I thought “One movement a day? That’s it? Piece of cake!” Well, it wasn’t a piece of cake. It was a butt-kicking of titanic proportions.

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Day 35: Suite No. 6 in D major, Gavottes I & II

Sausages and cabbages: the penultimate movement of an epic

By Miranda Wilson

Sometimes Bach likes to have something altogether rather jolly for his second-to-last word. Take, for example, the Goldberg Variations. The last movement before the reprise of the opening Aria is the Quodlibet, whose title is a Latin word with the agreeable meaning “what pleases,” or, as my undergraduate students would say, “Like, whatevs.”

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Day 34: Suite No. 6 in D major, Sarabande

El Greco, The Burial of Count Orgaz

By Miranda Wilson

I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to recording the D major Sarabande. Dreading it because it’s the movement I find the most difficult of any in the entire Six Suites, and looking forward to it because it’s my absolute favourite Bach movement in his entire oeuvre.

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Day 33: Suite No. 6 in D major, Courante

Hello, alto clef.

By Miranda Wilson

After the emotional turmoil of the Allemande, the Courante almost seems like light relief. Bach doesn’t let the drama become too serious by alternating sublimity with joviality. So the Prelude, Courante, Gavotte II and Gigue are lighter-hearted, in contrast with the elevated mood of the Allemande and Sarabande and the courtly Gavotte I. I suppose our job as performers is to bring that out.

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Day 32: Suite No. 6 in D major, Allemande

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

After yesterday’s chastening experience with the D major Prelude, I had an epic case of the don’t-wannas about recording the Allemande today. I cheered myself up by remembering the immortal words of the redoubtable Florence Foster Jenkins: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say that I didn’t sing.”

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Day 31: Suite No. 6 in D major, Prelude

By Miranda Wilson

The Sixth Suite is in a category of its own, separate from the other five. That’s because, as we can clearly see in Bach’s instructions at the top of the page, it wasn’t written for the usual four-string cello, but for one with five strings. There are lots of theories about what this instrument might have looked like. There’s evidence that some “normal-sized” cellos had five strings in Bach’s time, the top one tuned to the E a perfect fifth above the A string, though most of these have been cut down to size over the centuries. There’s also a more recent theory that he wrote all the suites for an instrument called the violoncello da spalla. Spalla is the Italian for “shoulder,” indicating that this was more like a modern viola than a modern cello. I tried to find a YouTube recording of the Sixth Suite played on this instrument, but the best I could find was a Dutch television broadcast of Sigiswald Kuijken playing some of the First Suite on one. It’s quite extraordinary looking: sort of like a half-size cello turned over sideways and played almost like a viola. I was amazed at Mr. Kuijken’s fluency and virtuosity on an instrument that looks so hard to play. I expect it would be murder on the tendons for most of us.

I also have a wonderful CD of Anner Bylsma playing the Sixth Suite on a violoncello piccolo. Phoebe Carrai’s CD appears to have been recorded on some kind of 5-string cello, but I’m not sure what it looked like. It’s a goal of mine to get to play the Sixth Suite on some kind of 5-stringer one day.

This said, most of us have to make do with the “normal” cello for playing the Sixth Suite, and in the absence of an E string, it’s fiendishly difficult. In fact, it’s more than fiendishly difficult. It’s so difficult it makes fiends look like harmless little pixies.

Another issue with my plan to play everything from Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of the Suites is the fact that large stretches of the Sixth are written in alto clef, which I do not read as fluently as I should be able to, considering that I’m a former string quartet player and spent many hours studying quartet scores, not to mention my other occupation as a professor of string chamber music and music theory (on top of my main duty of teaching cello, that is). For my own sanity, therefore, I learned the notes of the Sixth from Kirsten Beisswenger’s scholarly edition. I memorized it quickly, since one of my more dubious talents is a freakishly fast photographic memory for musical scores, although this doesn’t apply to anything else in my life that I’ve needed to memorize, such as the periodic table or any of my internet passwords. Then I transferred my attentions to Frau Bach’s facsimile and have read from that ever since.

Today was a discouraging recording day. I really started beating myself up that I hadn’t learned the Sixth Suite at the age of 18 like everyone else. Why couldn’t I have been more like those good little boys and girls who got on with their practice, instead of swanning about writing daft poems and fancying myself as some kind of romantic heroine in outfits inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings of down-at-heel medieval princesses? I told myself after three very frustrating takes that it wasn’t too bad for someone who’d only just learned it and done really quite minimal practice on it, but I had quite successfully put myself in such a ratty, disappointed mood that I had to go home and play a vigorous game of fetch with my puppy to restore peace and equilibrium to my mind.

The bit that gave me the most grief was a certain passage in E minor, where the absence of an open E string means you have to substitute your thumb if you’re going to get the implied string-crossing effect.

In all my takes, I had a hard time getting up there, and I had a hard time getting the entire section in tune once I was up there. I stopped and did half an hour’s practice between each of the takes, but I could never get a recording of myself doing it cleanly. I suppose I can count today as one of the less good days of this project, alongside the D minor Menuets and the E flat major Bourrées.

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: D major Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Gavottes I & II.

Day 30: Suite No. 5 in C minor, Gigue

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Five-sixths of the Bach 36 Project complete!

When I was a child and kindly adults asked me how old I was, I always replied in fractions: “Seven and eleven-twelfths.” I was the sort of kid who looked forward to birthdays a lot. (If your mother was as much of a genius as mine is at children’s birthday party games and the sort of cake decoration that would make a French pâtissier weep with jealousy, you would too.) That’s sort of how I feel about being five-sixths of my way through this project. My elation, however, is mixed with morbid fear of Suite No. 6. Disclosure: I studied the first five suites with various teachers, and have known them all for many years, but I never actually learned the Sixth Suite until I had the idea for this project. Some might think it was very foolhardy of me not even to try to learn it until my fourth decade, but what can I say? I was busy getting degrees and being in a quartet, and somehow there was never the opportunity. Better late than never, right?

The last day of Suite No. 5

It’s while I’ve been preparing this suite for recording that I’ve realized that my goal of playing as many of Anna Magdalena Bach’s bowings as possible, and not adding in any non-AMB ones, may have been unrealistic. It’s not that it’s impossible to do what’s written, but the problems are a) that so much of what she’s written is inconsistently applied to passages that you think must have been intended to be played simile, b) that sometimes it just sounds better with a slur where she hasn’t written one (well, if you’re me, anyway) and c) that the piece is so wretchedly hard that “convenience bowings” just, you know, help. These problems seem even greater when I look ahead into the Sixth Suite. So I’m not going to beat myself up too much if I have to make up my own non-AMB bowings from now on. I’ll try to do them as much as I can, but if I can’t, so be it.

Another issue with this suite has been the scordatura. As much as I love the Fifth Suite–and having got this far in the project, I think it’s my favourite of the six–I’m not going to miss the daily de-tuning of the cello, or the yanking it back up again after the recording session. After I’ve moved the peg, it takes me about six or seven minutes of fine-tuning to get it the way I want it (it takes so long because the de-tuning puts the other strings out of kilter too), and I have to tune again after each take because my cello objects to being interfered with in this manner. Very time-consuming. I’ve more or less figured out how to play in scordatura now, though, and as the past six days went on, I had fewer and fewer MSMs.* I really don’t think I can go back to playing the Fifth with A-D-G-C tuning any more–I’ve become far too addicted to the increased resonance of the G and C strings when you have a second G to reinforce the existing overtones. It’s like the goblin fruit in that creepy poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, with which the teenaged M. Wilson was much entranced:

She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?

Goblins aside, I had the relatively short Gigue to record today, and although I vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take me and ended up having to rush to get to a rehearsal afterwards, I managed three takes. The chief question in my mind was how to bow the lilting dotted figure that makes up much of the melodic texture.

At first, I’d thought playing it “as it comes,” with a slightly “brushy” stroke, was the thing to do:

After some experimentation, however, I wondered if it mightn’t be more dance-like, more piratical** (I’m very taken with the notion of the gigue as a pirate dance since Day 12 of this project, when I was recording the D minor one) to use a “hooked” bowing:

I eventually compromised by doing “as it comes” bowing in the first repeats and the “hooked” bowing in the second repeats.

None of my three takes was flawless, but I picked the second, because the first was a bit careful and boring and the third was very much like the second, with the exception that several young gentlemen of Idaho chose those particular three minutes to drive past my window in old bombs of cars with souped-up engines and immensely powerful sub-woofers. (Of course they did. The only surprise was that the city recycling truck didn’t also roar up the street and reverse back down over and over, as it often does for no reason I can think of, with a loud BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! This project was an interesting experiment in home videos, but next time I’m getting myself a proper recording space.)

Today’s video.

Today’s practice list: C minor Gigue; D major Prelude, Allemande, Gigue. (I’m working backwards from the end of the D major suite now as well as forwards, in the hopes that by the time I meet in the middle at the Sarabande, it will be less horrendously difficult than it now appears.)

*Momentary Scordatura Malfunction, when you forget your A string is tuned to a G and stuff up the fingering. Very irritating.

**Obligatory pirate joke of the day: why couldn’t the pirate go to the movie? Because it was ARRRR-rated! (Sorry.)