Thursday, July 2, 2009

Preludes, Fugues, Wittgenstein, and Autobiography

My effort to explore my hypothesis about the autobiographical nature of the second volume of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier among members of the San Francisco Symphony Social Network ran into some interesting confusions. I figured that, since this is my "rehearsal studio," I should use it to reconsider what I was trying to say in the hope of saying it more clearly (if not more convincingly). My invocation of Ludwig Wittgenstein seems to have led others down a dark alley concerned with the nature of "family resemblances" among all of the fugues in this collection (and similarly for the preludes); and I realized that talking about "family resemblance" at all may have been a distracting red herring.

More important than classifying these artifacts is the distinction between the artifacts themselves and the practices through which those artifacts are produced. (For example, I find it particularly relevant that the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary lists "fugue" as having a verb form as well as a noun form. The latter denotes the practice of producing an artifact that is an instance of the former.) The "autobiographical" nature of the second volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier has more to do with those preludes and fugues being reflections on past practices that it does with whether or not preludes or fugues constitute legitimate ontological categories. This was the primary message I was trying to get across when I first posed the "Preludes and Fugues as Autobiography" hypothesis. This can now be reflected back on how Wittgenstein used the concept of "game" (which I had cited when I posed my hypothesis) to illustrate what he meant by "family resemblance." What we choose to call a game has little to do with any attributes of the game itself and far more to do with how it figures into our understanding of the practice of "play." From this point of view, every composition has within it the power to inform us about the practices of the composer (which may then inform us about the composer's past experiences, both musical and extra-musical, thus endowing the artifact with a capacity for "autobiographical communication"). The challenge facing us as listeners is to be so informed! It is no easy matter; but, as Igor Stravinsky would have put it, our capacity to rise to that challenge is what distinguishes us from the ducks!

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