What I'm Listening To
I often ask people “what are you listening to lately?”
This has been a constant thread in my friendships and conversations ever since my early teen years, when my friends and I would get together all the time to listen to records, discuss, analyze, and share our excitement about them, and sometimes argue passionately with each other about which ones we liked best and why. It was a formative time in my life, and this question “what are you listening to lately?” has stayed with me through a lifetime of friendships and listening.
Here is what I’ve been listening to:
Grigory Sokolov’s gorgeous recording of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”
“The Art of Fugue” (German: Die Kunst der Fuge) was Bach’s last composition.
He worked on it for the last decade of his life, and he died before completing it.
The entire work is built on one theme, which is presented at the beginning of the piece.
It’s complex music, highly detailed. It has a lot of patterns and beautiful color changes.
Listening to this, I am reminded of something the mathematician and philosopher Leibniz wrote, that "Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.”
I encourage you to just sit quietly with this beautiful music for a few minutes, giving it your full attention.
I usually listen to one track at a time, maybe two, but usually not much more than that. Don't worry about what you know and what you don’t know about music theory, fugues, etc.
Just open your heart and listen.
In this recording, Sokolov is playing on a modern grand piano. Some people complain that Bach’s keyboard works should never be played on a modern piano, but only on a harpsichord, an organ, or a clavichord (if you can find one!).
Bach notated this piece on four staves without instrument names. He does not specify what instruments it is written for!
One theory is that this is “pure music” existing in the mind of the listener.
The eminent harpsichordist Gustave Leonhardt argues that, since there were other works from that era written in this manner that were intended for harpsichord, therefore “The Art of Fugue” was also intended for harpsichord.
Here is Leonhardt’s recording on harpsichord
Others disagree, as evidenced by many performances using different instrumentation. Here are a few favorites:
for string quartet - performed by the Emerson Quartet
for early music ensemble - performed by Jordi Savali and Hesperion XX
for orchestra - performed by Sir Neville Marriner with the orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
for brass ensemble - performed by the Canadian Brass
for saxophone quartet - performed by the Berlin Saxophone Quartet
for voices - performed by the Netherlands Bach Society
and here is a video of a very moving performance by Glenn Gould of the first fugue, performed on a modern piano
I hope that you enjoy getting to know “The Art of Fugue” and do let me know what you’re listening to!