Missing the boat

I can hardly bear listening to interviews with performers. The vast majority reveal that despite possessing impressive technical facility, they have exceedingly odd, misinformed, or simply ignorant conceptions about the music itself. They have missed the boat.

But they dive on into the water anyway, trying to make do with whatever piece of driftwood they manage to latch onto.

Today I heard mandolin-player Chris Thile, on Fred Child’s Performance Today, assert that he loves Bach because he discovered that Bach anticipated the fiddle-tune and banjo-picking style you hear in traditional bluegrass. Now, this is not totally incorrect. One can observe a similarity between certain of Bach’s pieces and the bluegrass style in question. But this is a simple observation, and Thile was content to leave it there, implying that this observation was something profound all by itself.

Nope. Thile hasn’t really thought about why this similarity is observable. Thile is referring to the way a banjo or fiddle-player would arpeggiate members of a chord. This practice is known as multilinearity, and one can find it all over the place in Bach. It is a way of “horizontalizing” vertical harmonies (or, to wax Schenkerian, a way of “re-horizontalizing” vertical harmonies that are a result of horizontal contrapuntal motion in the first place). It is a result of writing idiomatically for an instrument that doesn’t handle simultaneous multiple voices very well. Of course you’re going to see this kind of writing in music for string instruments – but by lots of composers, in many different genres, and across the ages!

In fact, you can even find this kind of writing in music written for instruments that can handle chords easily, i.e., the Alberti-bass style, or the style brise in keyboard literature. These are all simply ways of spreading out vertical sonorities over a span of time. There is nothing especially notable or bluegrass-like about the way Bach spread out harmonies in the Praeludio from his E-major Partita, which was the specific work cited by Thile.

Yet even many professional musicians would listen to Thile make the assertion from the third paragraph and proceed to nod knowingly, stroke their chin, and say something like: “By gum, you’re right! What a fantastic insight! You obviously know a thing or two!”


2 Responses to “Missing the boat”

  1. 1 Anna-Lisa
    April 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    What if he did think of these things he just didn’t say it because it would be too long of an answer in an interview? or maybe he is merely repeating something someone else told him and not commenting as one who had this first revelation? or maybe….well, by gum, you just may be right about this!!!

    • April 3, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      You do like to give people the benefit of the doubt, don’t you? 🙂

      The thing that makes me think he didn’t think of these things is that he singled Bach out. You can find that style of arpeggiation in almost any composer’s work. Which makes it all the worse when he claims to have “discovered” it in one particular piece of Bach’s: he obviously hasn’t been paying close attention to very much music if he missed it in all the other pieces by other composers.

      And besides, it’s a pretty trivial observation. He’s basically just saying that composers write in similar, idiomatic styles for similar instruments. Well, duh. That doesn’t mean there’s a special, meaningful connection between Bach and bluegrass.

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March 2012

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