Fugue by Roberta Flack – A Musical Experiment


I’ve been listening to a lot of Bach this week. The same piece of Bach over and over, specifically Joao Carlos Martins performing BWV 1058, the second movement, the Andante. Martins practically bangs on the simple bass line. He plays

Roberta Flack

with an insistence that feels like it should be against all the laws of classical music, like you shouldn’t be allowed to strike the melody like that, like some music teacher should have told him “that’s not how we play Bach.”

I first heard the recording on the radio coming home from the frozen yogurt place with my wife and daughter and we were full of sugary chatter, and suddenly I heard the Andante on the radio and, after trying to listen over everyone’s voices without being bossy (that lasted about fifteen seconds), I couldn’t take it any longer, and I ordered the car into silent submission.

“I need to hear this! Quiet guys!”

I bought it immediately when I got home with someone else playing it – Andras Schiff – and it was okay, but it wasn’t what I’d heard on the radio, the bass line was all wrong, so I bought a second version and that wasn’t right either, and then finally I went to the radio station to get the exact version they were playing, the one with the line in the bass like your neighbor hammering in his workshop.

That was about a hundred and forty plays ago.

There was a woman in Australia years ago who played Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee for like three weeks straight, the neighbors calling the police, the children strapped to their highchairs, and she ended up killing her entire family in a spectacular roadside meltdown. I’m only a week into multi-voice, polyphonic continual play, which gets me to the last week of October before I tip over.

The good news for many of you is that if you don’t like classical music, my experiment doesn’t require you to try to appreciate it or even pretend to. Enjoy your frozen yogurt. But if you’ve been listening to lines weaving in and out of each other all week, your head will be in exactly the right place. Yes it will, yes it will.

Yes it it yes will yes yes it will it yes will will.

Yes.

*

Back to the 21st century.

Last night I heard a version of a Leonard Cohen song that may be the best cover of his I’ve ever heard, and, yes, there is some pretty serious competition out there. It was a recording of a familiar, but unidentified voice singing “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” I grew up with the voice, knew it in my bones, but it has been so long since I’ve heard or played it that I couldn’t identify it – her – right away.

The song was in the film Life As We Know It and, thankfully, it continued for an entire sequence, fading up and down as the heroine raced to the airport to find her love (it was too late, he had flown, empty waiting area, crap) and drove tearfully through the rain back to the house (where he sat waiting, hadn’t flown, sitting in their favorite chair, gulp). And with every teasing fade up between the small snippets of dialog, I struggled to identify the oh-so-familiar, tip of my ear voice. I shushed Melanie (who was trying to tell me who it was) so I could just hear it for myself, then I shushed the actors, but it was not until I waded through the credits to see who was singing and ohmygod, of course, it was Roberta Flack.

Which explained everything: the gorgeous piano, the jazzy interlude, the bourbon-honey voice, the artistry, the pure, slow professional confidence of the whole thing.

As for the rude shushing:

Partly I shushed Melanie so I could hear myself sing it. You see I know the words to this song – and love them – and if I know the words to a song, like if I really know the words to a song, like when I’ve gone and memorized them, then I feel I have the right to sing them out loud even if we’re in the middle of a film. I have also, for the record, hinted repeatedly to my blonde wife that the second line is a favorite. I’ve emphasized it in my own renditions for her, hoping she’ll make the connection, but, alas, at least as of writing this, she has not. Not even when her own head is on her pillow next to mine in the morning and I’m in full-throated, cheerful, happy morning person roar – not even then does she get it.

Leonard said:

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
In city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
But now it’s come to distances and both of us must try,
Your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time,
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,
It’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea,
But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie,
Your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

But I promised you an experiment, and now I’ve wandered off completely.

You see, I went to download the song this morning and as I was downloading it, I accidentally started playing a version I had open in a second browser window. “Let’s not talk of love or change” started blending with “shoreline and the sea.” Roberta was weaving and dodging, just like Joao Martins has been weaving and dodging on his well-tempered clavier all week. Seven days of swooping, churning lines of Bach had cleared the paths: I was racing through a forest and out over the white cliff and jumping and looking down, down, down to the waves on the shoreline and the sea.

Flight.

*

If you wish, you can join me in this experiment. It may work for you as well.

It will help if it is Saturday morning and you don’t have much to do or anywhere special to go. It will be ideal if it is raining. I happen to be sitting next to a fireplace at the moment, which is a nice atmospheric, but you probably won’t need it. Because with my experiment you can really just close your eyes. Then open this up in several browser windows and kick them off at whatever time difference between them that suits you and play them all at once.

I like to get the second verse working over the first, but it turns out it doesn’t really matter if you cleverly time the interval like Frere Jacques. Roberta will make it work. Bach will close his eyes and tap your foot for you.

Until now I have only tried this with the song playing in four simultaneous voices, and I can tell you it is very, very beautiful there. But now that I have been where four simultaneous voices take you, I’m fairly certain that if I go to five voices, I may never come home again.

Not such a bad way to say goodbye.