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 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.)