Teaching myself the Bach chaconne with Ableton Live

Recently someone posted this performance of the chaconne from Bach’s violin partita in D minor on an eleven-string guitar.

My favorite interpretation by an actual violinist is Viktoria Mullova’s. I appreciate her straightforward approach, without all the romantic schmaltz.

I also enjoy the version from Morimur, and I’m not alone. This is one of the most popular classical albums of all time:

The choral voices are there in support of a bunch of Da Vinci code malarkey about secret codes that Bach supposedly was hiding throughout the music. I’m totally uninterested in this idea, whether or not it’s true, but I am intrigued by the possibility that Bach was quoting or adapting pieces of Lutheran chorale tunes. Morimur superimposes the chaconne with the chorales that it’s supposedly quoting. Who knows whether this was in Bach’s mind or not, but it sounds great, and ultimately, that’s the only thing that matters for music.

Gorgeous though the chaconne is, my enjoyment has been hampered by my inability to figure out the rhythm. All classical performers insist on doing extremely expressive (that is, loose) timekeeping. I don’t have the sarabande rhythm internalized well enough to be able to track it through everybody’s gooey rubato. Bach’s rhythms are complicated enough to begin with. He loves to start and end phrases in weird spots in the bar–the very first note of the piece is on beat two. So I needed some help finding the beat. A chaconne is supposed to be a dance, right? Bach wrote those note values the way he wrote them for a reason. Did he really want performers to assign any length they felt like assigning them? My gut tells me that he didn’t. I suspect that he probably played his own music in tempo, maybe with some phrasing and ornamentation but still with a clearly recognizable beat. I imagine him gritting his teeth at the rubato that modern performers use. Maybe that’s just me projecting my own preferences, but this sense comes from listening to a lot of Bach and performing some too.

So, I wanted to hear someone play the chaconne in tempo, just to hear how it works. And since no one seems to play it that way, I finally went and got the MIDI from Dave’s JS Bach MIDI page and put it into Ableton Live. I added a bunch of triple meter Afro-Cuban drum patterns to help me feel the beat, and had them enter and exit wherever I heard a natural section boundary in the music.

Here’s how this looks in Ableton Arrange view. The color-coding represents my one hundred percent subjective and ignorant sense of where the sections fall.

Bach Chaconne - Ableton session

The MIDI version is richly informative. There are long passages where there’s almost no rhythmic correspondence between the notes as written (and as “performed” in the MIDI) and the way that humans perform them. People are playing the same notes in the same order but have pretty much thrown Bach’s written rhythms out the window. But the MIDI isn’t a very satisfying listening experience. My next move was to warp out a human performance over my beats to hear what it would sound like. I tried both the Wasser and Poppen, and the Poppen sounded cooler. I did continual A/B comparisons with the MIDI version to line everything up by ear.

I’m hardly the first person to want to hear how Bach sounds over a groove from the African diaspora. Django Reinhardt recorded a similar idea back in 1937.

Anyway, here’s Alex Ross explaining what a chaconne is (spellings vary):

The chacona was a sexily swirling dance that appeared in South America at the end of the sixteenth century and quickly spread to Europe, becoming popular both in the elite courts and in the general population.

Surprising! There is absolutely nothing sexy about the way that people perform the Bach chaconna. Alex Ross goes on to detail the ways that composers like Bach combine the groove of repetitive dance forms with the descending basslines from laments to make a romantic form of sadness.

Bach, in his Ciaccona for solo violin, transforms the dance into an extended soliloquy of tragic character. It sounds entirely unsuitable for a wild wedding, yet the triple rhythm of the original dance is implicit throughout, as is the pattern of a repeating chord progression.

Repetitive dance forms went out of style in the Romantic era, and while they made a comeback in the twentieth century, it wasn’t exactly in a predictable, listener-friendly context.

But it’s really in jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll where the lamento bass has a surprising revival.

There’s nothing surprising about it at all, people like lamento bass and black musicians are smart enough to deliver it straight up over decent beats.

This bass line is a fate from which we cannot escape.

Ross kind of throws that line away at the very end of his piece, but Michael Markham picks it up and runs with it.

THERE IS A PHRASE about two minutes from the end of J. S. Bach’s famous Chaconne for solo violin that, if you are in the right mood or are hearing the right performer, can suddenly sound like a shriek or a growl or a moan.

What it really is, in official violinist’s terms, is bariolage: the rapid repetition of one note against which another line rises or falls. In this case the violinist obsessively saws on one pitch while the main melody strains to climb beyond it, bulging and sinking and then repeating the effort.

Here’s the part he’s talking about:

It’s really something, even in robotic MIDI form. The chromaticism leapt right out at me on first hearing. It’s worth going on a little journey so you understand what chromaticism is and why it’s a big deal. The chromatic scale is the one you get when you play all twelve notes in the Western tuning system, all the notes on the piano or guitar or whatever. The chromatic scale sounds pretty bad. It’s too much information. The notes don’t feel like they’re related in any particular way, like there’s any logic to them. When we say that a piece of music is in a particular key, it means that it’s leaving out some of the notes. Bach’s chaconne is in D minor, so it only uses the notes D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, and C. (And sometimes C-sharp to add some drama to the chords.) That’s a more manageable number of notes to keep track of in your head. Also, they’re all related in a variety of nifty simple mathematical ways. In D minor, you usually avoid using the notes E-flat, G-flat, A-flat, and B. Those notes sound “wrong,” or in music theory terms, dissonant.

Here’s the thing about the bariolage section, then. Bach goes ahead and uses all the wrong notes. They’re all surprising, but the most surprising one is E-flat, the most dissonant possible note in the key of D minor. That would be a bold choice even now. In Bach’s more conservative context, it was unheard of. But the bariolage doesn’t sound wrong at all. Bach carefully organizes all those chromatic notes so they all sound perfectly logical and inevitable. They sound richly strange, but certainly not wrong.

The bariolage part isn’t only exciting because of the chromaticism. All those repeated A’s are intense too, in a way that doesn’t come across fully in MIDI form or played on a piano. On violin, you’re not just hammering the same note over and over. You’re really playing two different notes that are both very close to being A–you alternate between the open A string and the D fingered at the equivalent of the seventh fret in the guitar. These two A’s are a little out of alignment with each other. An instrument’s strings are never perfectly in tune, and even the best violinists don’t place their fingers on the exact right place on the fingerboard. By alternating these two wonky A’s, Bach is drawing your attention to the physicality of the instrument, and to the way that the subtle microtones you get from physically playing it rub uncomfortably against each other. Guitarists use this same technique all the time, and it’s no big surprise that the chaconne sounds so great on guitar. Michael Markham again:

[Bariolage] is a common technique to build tension near the end of a long violin piece and there are numerous possible inspirations for this particular passage in earlier chaconnes. In the Bach Chaconne, however, given that right mood and right performer, it matters not at all if one knows what a bariolage is or where it came from. What matters is that it sounds like a kind of outcry — not the sad little two-note sighs we have been taught to listen for in Mozart or Chopin, but long, hoarse-throated, mascara-streaked, Jessye Norman–collapsing-in-a-heap groans. Once you’ve felt this passage that way once, it is hard not to feel it that way every time you hear the Chaconne, and even to demand it, judging performers on the Daniel Day-Lewis scale of how many forehead veins they sound like they’re about to pop.

I myself prefer tragedy expressed with more reserve, more Miles Davis than Daniel Day-Lewis. Bach probably preferred it that way too.

Artists of the early 1700s did not wear their lives on their sleeves… Their goal was not to expose the hidden and the personal but to replicate the empirical and the universal; their domain was not the unconscious but the observable world.

The classical music world evolved over time away from Bach’s cool objectivity and toward the fiery emotionalism of the Beethoven era. In 1853, Johannes Brahms wrote a letter to Clara Schumann about the chaconne, and his description was a wee bit over the top:

Using the technique adapted to a small instrument the man writes a whole world of the deepest thought and most powerful feeling. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.

You can imagine Bach rolling his eyes at that. But Michael Markham points out that the Romantics’ whole thing was feeling things romantically.

For the Romantics, a great piece of art was a psychological sucker punch, knocking loose some terrifying unconfronted truth. The technical grandeur of Bach’s Chaconne (and his newfound role as Großvater of German music) had given it Himalayan stature — immovable, ancient, a platform from which to survey the universe.

The worlds were getting larger and the thoughts deeper. For the first half of the 20th century most listeners to radio or records experienced the Chaconne not as a set of violin variations, or as the final movement of a suite, but as a stand-alone monument in either the Busoni or the Stokowksi versions — slow, deep, terrifying, primordial.

It was, for a generation raised on Time-Life’s canon of Music’s Greatest Masterpieces, a symbol of an unfathomable past filled with difficult musical mountains — each a challenge to be conquered with the guidance of academic Sherpas dispensing “music appreciation.” Mythically, it had found its role. It was the Monad that contained within it the secret formulas for all musical creation to follow, the musical equivalent of Kubrick’s black monolith or of Stonehenge.

And so now we come to the theory that Bach’s chaconne is about the death of his wife, as explained in the tin-foil-hatted liner notes to Morimur. Loopy though the theory is, it’s popular for a reason. Music is abstract, and it helps to have a narrative to hang onto when we listen. Even professional musicians like the hidden message idea. Markham quotes his students:

If you want the piece to be a lament over someone’s death, then you will really tear into that… It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t really true then and it doesn’t matter if the code theory is dumb.

Whatever Bach intended, the chaconne is a very effective piece of sad music. It helps that there’s the long section in the middle where it switches to D major and gets unexpectedly happy, before returning to D minor, the saddest of all keys. Sadness is that much sadder if you’re expecting happiness.

I might have been able to dig this deep into the chaconne from regular listening. I could even imagine learning how to play it on guitar, though only after my kids go to college. But being able to play around with the music in Ableton accelerated and deepened the process enormously. We should consider remixing to be a core competency for music educators, not just because it helps them understand all the music of the present (which is reason enough) but because it’s a superb tool for understanding the music of the past too.

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