This performance installation is a collaboration between violinist Mark Steinberg, engineer Gabriel Calatrava , choreographer John-Mario Sevilla, and playwright Itamar Moses. The set design, operated by a corps of dancers, illuminates visually the themes and counterpoints of Bach’s masterpiece, performed live by the famed Brentano String Quartet.
Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, written near the end of his life, represents one of the great achievements of Western music. Not merely of academic interest, this is music of great purity and expressive gesture, deeply moving and fascinating. It is a work for which composers and artists throughout the ages have had the highest regard and which many have found to be a great inspiration.
Using instruments ranging from Steinberg’s Stradivarius to Calatrava’s 3D printer, this performance installation aims to bring a new approach to one of the greatest musical creations of all time.
The project will be available for touring as early as 2016/17, as well as for 2017/18 and 2018/19.
Reflections on the premiere of “Seeing Music – Bach’s Art of Fugue”
by Mark Steinberg
Days after the world premiere (on Jan 30, 2016), I’m still coming down off the high of having one of the most exciting nights of my professional life. It was the culmination of a project of two years’ gestation, which went through myriad twists and turns along its way. And in the end the project reflected its own topic: just as in a fugue a number of voices speak on the same subject and coalesce into something radiant and brilliantly multifaceted, here the radiant brilliance of extraordinary people in different fields speaking on the subject of Bach created a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk.
I came to Hanna Arie-Gaifman at the 92nd St. Y in New York with the idea to perform the complete Bach Art of Fugue. We love and are fascinated by the music, have been playing large portions of it for 15 years now, and feel like the string quartet is a great medium for bringing clarity and beauty to the score. But at the same time, I don’t believe it is a piece of music in the traditional sense, or that Bach is likely to have envisioned it being played in one fell swoop. I thought, if we’re going to do this we need to put it in a context. We need to build an illuminating structure around it that will help people feel, emotionally, viscerally, intellectually, what a fugal texture can be. I wanted everyone to leave the hall knowing, in the way we sometimes know something with our entire selves, what if is like to be a fugue. (As Thomas Nagel asks what it is like to be a bat!)
One path toward clarification was to be visual. My first instinct was to have a sort of abstract puppet theater, showing the chase of voice after voice, the inversions, the compressions and expansions, and so on. I was thinking of Kandinsky’s drawings of Beethoven. The visual translation of the music’s energy would, through the eye, sharpen the ear. Then I was introduced to Gabriel Calatrava and recognized instantly his enthusiasm, his vibrant imagination, his quicksilver associations, and his genuine love for Bach. Over many, sometimes confusing and often electrifying, meetings we worked with his inspiration from both Bach and the children’s game of Cat’s Cradle toward the installation that finally graced our stage. It takes your breath away when you first see it lit up in the hall. And then it moves, and it makes patterns and shapes, and has the semblance of motion even within its fixed positions. It is a dynamic network of possibilities.
Animating it quickly enough to keep pace with the density of Bach’s music meant actual living, breathing people. We found some of the most joyful, energized ones around, led by the ever effervescent John-Mario Sevilla. I loved our dancers! I went to several rehearsals and felt energized and inspired by their spirit of play and discovery, and I felt that strongly shining through in the final choreographed version as well. It was all I could do at times to keep concentrating on playing Bach as well as I could instead of turning to watch them.
Fugues always reminded me of a conversation, that almost clichéd analogy for a string quartet, but not an ordinary one. It of course was originally called a ricercare, meaning something researched, and there is that aspect of something partly combative, partly cooperative where everyone stays on topic in his own way and somehow, magically and determinedly, it spirals toward a conclusion. I wanted that to happen, as an actual conversation, during our concert. Having seen his wickedly smart, funny and engaging play Bach at Leipzig years ago, and having since become a fan in the audience at a number of his plays, I knew Itamar Moses was our man. I was beyond thrilled when he responded to my inquiry, agreed to meet with me, and came on board with the project. Sitting at a coffee shop in Brooklyn together, ideas started shooting out of him in rapid fire and I got really excited. After a few drafts and some fun back and forth, he sent over a play that is more than I ever could have dared to hope for. It’s fun and clear and everyone loves it and gets it, and then gets Bach with more immediacy for having heard the play. I envisioned actors coming on to act the play. Hanna Arie-Gaifman insisted, and Itamar agreed, that it would be more fun and more organic if we in the quartet acted the play. They were right.
The final layer was a series of poems and quotations that would pulse through the evening and offer a variety of analogies for fugal structure. They are short invitations to view the music from different vantage points and give hooks for people in thinking about what they are experiencing. The wonderful actor Michael Stuhlbarg came and recorded them with commitment and color, and his voice reaches out to us in semi-darkness at intervals between the fugues. The lighting design tied the whole evening together in a way that made its flow seem inevitable and compelling. And it did flow, and pulse and breathe as a whole structure in a way that really thrilled me and, thanks to so many richly talented people, did everything I hoped it would.
This is a concert and a large-scale collaboration that will stay with me vividly, always, and about which I couldn’t be happier or more proud. I hope we’ll have a chance to share it with many audiences and join with them in living inside the world of Bach’s writing.
February 3, 2016