Program Note for Symphony BACH

Symphony B-A-C-H initially began as a series of essays all drawn from the name of BACH. Each movement also explores a different aspect of musical texture, beginning with polyphony (the combination of several musical lines), then monophony (a solo line), homophony (all lines moving in the same rhythm), and cacophony (noise-sounds and extreme dissonance).  The whole work is symphonic in scope with two louder movements surrounding an interior scherzo (Schizo-Scherzo) and slow movement (Meditation CHorale).  The outside movements (BACH meets EsCHeR and Party Favors) may also be programmed as independent works.

  1. BACH meets EsCHeR
  2. Schizo-Scherzo
  3. Meditation CHorale
  4. Party Favors

BACH meets EsCHeR is the first in the series.  In thinking about the concepts of polyphony, I could not ignore the overwhelming influence of J.S. Bach's music and I was also intrigued by the connections made by Douglas Hofstadter in his book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.  The graphic designs of M.C. Escher became a kind of visual impetus for this work, dictating clear rhythmic gestures with independent parts that reveal a larger organic structure.

I decided, therefore, to base this essay on the names of Bach and Escher.  B-A-C-H, or in German, Bb, A, C, and B-natural is presented boldly in the brass at the opening; Es-C-H-eR, or Eb, C, B-natural, and D (taken from the solfeggio syllable Re) is answered in the strings and woodwinds.  The BACH motive announces the arrival of new musical lines, while the EsCHeR motive provides a counterpoint for the creation of harmony.  After a slow beginning, a faster central section takes the BACH motive and builds different polyphonic textures which transform themselves into chords.  The strings then play sixteenth–note layers of BACH while the initial BACH motive is heard in the low winds.  This leads to a fugue, where BACH and EsCHeR meet again as subject and countersubject.  The polyphonic texture is then pushed aside and stopped by a Bach choral "Es ist genug" (It is finished) which signals a point of closure.  A brief and quiet dirge follows as a memorial to Bach, who died 250 years ago, and whose contribution to polyphonic music overshadows all of the Eurocentric musical tradition.

Schizo-Scherzo is a single line orchestrated to point out rhythmic and textural development.   It relies primarily upon the winds, with a delicate Trio section, and uses small quotations of scherzos by Beethoven and Mahler that are buried within its texture.  (Some listeners may recognize the quotations even though they are brief.)  It also is “split” between its preference for duple or triple meter and constantly shifts between the two.  Traditional choices of syncopation and accent give the work a scherzo quality, but the displacement of the single line into various parts creates the perception of many textures.  All of this is supported by a recurring motion of pitch that comes back to A.

Meditation CHorale is a very slow movement that focuses on two pitches: C and B natural.  These two pitches are present throughout the entire movement - in every measure - while the homophonic chorale moves above and below, gaining strength and power and increasing in register. Rhythmic motion is limited to primarily quarter notes and half notes and the harmonic motion is constantly controlled by the BACH motive.  This movement relies primarily upon the strings.

Party Favors uses noise sounds and a blending of musics at different speeds to create a variety of surprising textures.  The percussion section takes control while many of the other instruments play in a percussive manner using the chromatic collection of BACH to build cacophonous sounds in an ironic homage.  These more cacophonous sections alternate with music built on popular rhythms, but still based on BACH.  Here the four-note motive is worked into a variety of vernacular rhythms and short melodies infused with elements of swing, funk, and salsa.  These episodes or “party favors” each become wildly exaggerated and take us back to the opening material.  In this musically polystylistic world, cacophony is brought into question as the noise and music begin to merge.