Saturday, July 16, 2016

Stephen Malinowski’s Latest Project: Visualizing Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier

Stephen Malinowski first came to my attention in April of 2013 when I was writing an article for about preparing for the 100th anniversary of the riotous (in the literal sense of the word) first performance of the ballet “The Rite of Spring” with its music composed by Igor Stravinsky. Malinowski had prepared for the occasion by using technology he had developed to create an animated visualization of the entire score, uploading the first and second parts of that score to YouTube in separate segments. By the time Malinowski prepared these uploads, he had accumulated considerable experience, having been uploading videos since November 21, 2005 and had accumulated 224 videos.

Exactly a week ago he completed his latest project, animated visualizations of all of the preludes and fugues in the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Not surprisingly, this collection now has its own index page on YouTube. For the most part preludes and fugues are presented as separate files, and a few of the selections are given two different visualizations. The audio comes from The Open Well-Tempered Clavier, a Web site created by pianist Kimiko Ishizaka which amounts to an “open software” approach to the recordings she made.

Malinowski’s project, which he describes as “aural play accompanied by geometry play,” is certainly ambitious in its magnitude. Indeed, he used the large number of individual selections as an opportunity to experiment with a variety of different approaches to visualization; and, as anyone with a solid scientific background will tell you, not all experiments come out as the experimenter may have hoped. On the positive side he shows a clear understanding of the nuts and bolts of “fuguing” (using the verb form to emphasize that this is a time-based process, rather than some elaborate artifact that reveals itself through intense analysis of its static structure that has been captured in notation). His approaches to providing visual cues to indicate the sorting out of the individual voices are almost always successful, and one of his most impressive accomplishments involves the use of different geometric shapes to represent the three distinct fugue subjects in the BWV 849 (C-sharp minor) fugue. Similarly, one tends to be aware of the use of augmentation through the observation of larger shapes. On the other hand, inversion is less evident and tends to be better detected when the ear recognizes a familiar rhythm in which the melodic line is going in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, there is a broader question at stake concerned with just what is being visualized. By choosing Ishizaka’s recordings, Malinowski committed himself to her particular approach to performing Bach (including her decision to make her recordings with a modern grand (Bösendorfer) piano. Thus, she is not using a “historical” instrument; and she is using equal-tempered tuning. Her approach thus differs from that of, for example, Frank French, who used the tuning system developed by Thomas Young in 1799 to make it easier for the listener to appreciate the extent to which each key had its own character. Now, to be fair, Ishizaka is very good about making sure that all of the marks on her score page are rendered with clarity; but it is unclear that she put much effort into endowing each piece with its own rhetorical stamp. The good news is that clarity from Ishizaka gets effectively translated into clarity from Malinowski, but the result is more analytic than expressive.

To be fair, the analytic side of this story is more than enough for more mere mortals to digest. This is clear from the books by both Joseph Kerman (The Art of Fugue: Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715-1750) and Laurence Dreyfus (Bach and the Patters of Invention). Both are excellent examples of scholarly writing; and, while they were not written in the lay reader in mind, the clarity of exposition is such that one does not have to be an expert to harvest some valuable insights about the process of listening to a fugue, particularly one by Bach. Some of those insights, such as the significance of stretto patterns, are easily detected in Malinowski’s visualizations (and some might easily escape even the most attentive listener relying only on his/her ears). On the other hand one is less likely to be aware of strategies of harmonic progression through these visualizations; but this is probably an awareness that is beyond the scope of most “lay listeners.” Nevertheless, such listeners can usually detect when a progression goes in an unexpected direction; but that sort of listening experience currently seems to be beyond the scope of Malinowski’s graphic expressiveness.

The bottom line is that Malinowski has created a valuable addition to his catalog. However, it is best enjoyed in samples. This, of course, is just as true of concert performances. There are, of course, pianists to like to arrange “marathon” performances of the full-cycle of preludes and fugues; but it is worth bearing in mind that Bach probably prepared these pieces for pedagogical purposes, rather than for performance. Malinowski’s visualizations provide insights into at least some of those pedagogical goals; but, like any good pedagogical endeavor, they are best approached through gradual “doses,” rather than as a “whole cloth” listening experience. Put another way, just because YouTube presents this content as a “playlist” does not mean that the viewer/listener is obliged to do the same!

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