Counterpoint

Yesterday saw the first of six rehearsals of the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble for this year’s Showcase Concert (7.30 on Fri 7 March in Musselburgh Grammar School). I was very pleased with the assault made on quite an involved piece by the members of the group – some of whom have only been playing for one year.

What makes the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 tricky is counterpoint. Initially, pupils survive the distraction of opposing melodies going on around them by shutting them out. They then pass through a phase of noticing them before arriving at the final stage of coming to depend on them – by which time the opposing melodies have adopted the role of cues. This process of converting a difficulty into an asset seems to be something at which humans excel. Carol Craig (Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing), in her presentation at the Scottish Learning Festival suggested that this this very adaptability leads to acquisition rarely matching expectation in a consumerist society. It seems simply to be part of life. It always strikes me as odd to consider that, in the beginnings of our universe, oxygen was the great destroyer. We sure tamed that beast!

This midi example (Air extract) demonstrates the complexity of one passage of the Air. To highlight the interaction of the parts, I’ve pasted four versions back to back:

  • upper melody only
  • upper melody with bass
  • upper melody, bass and third part
  • all four parts

To help distinguish one part from another I’ve changed from four guitar sounds to flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon – in descending order. I’ve also raised the pitch by a 4th (so an A becomes a D) as this seems to bring the pitch to a level where things register slightly more easily.

This score (Air score extract) might might also help demonstrate the idea. Even if you don’t read music, you’ll see how the different parts take turns in being the most active – simply look for notes which are joined together.