John Zorn
J-S Bach
John Cage


Gerd Zacher's Kunst einer Fuge [Art of a Fugue]

'It is necessary to read and reread those in whose lines I mark out and read a text simultaneously almost identical and entirely other' (Positions, p.4).

'A masterpiece always moves, by definition, in the manner of a ghost' (Specters, 18).

'I had already thought for a long time to explore a musical work from the past from the inside: a creative exploration, which is at the same time an analysis' (Luciano Berio in reference to Sinfonia)

[1] The German organist and composer Gerd Zacher calls one of his projects from 1968 Die Kunst einer Fuge. Zacher plays the 'Contrapunctus I' from Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge ten times in succession in ten different ways on church organ without changing a single note of the original text. (Only once does Zacher deviate from the original score. Towards the end of the seventh variation he plays F - E - G - F# instead of the prescribed F - E - G - F, an allusion to the musical spelling B-A-C-H.) Zacher's first interpretation follows Bach's 'text' as accurately as possible, a 'close reading'. (In Quatuor - J.S. Bach it is described exactly how accurate this 'first reading' is.) Next, Zacher takes the 'Contrapunctus I' on a journey through the history of music and re-reads it nine times. Each time a different analysis. Nine times an allusion to already existing compositions. Nine times dedeicated to a different composer. After the 'Quatuor' for Bach, follows 'Crescendo', dedicated to Robert Schumann, 'Alt-Rhapsodie', dedicated to Johannes Brahms, 'Harmonies', dedicated to György Ligeti, 'Timbres-durées', dedicated to Olivier Messiaen, 'Interferenser', dedicated to Bengt Hambraeus, 'Improvisation ajoutée', dedicated to Mauricio Kagel, 'Density 1,2,3,4' dedicated to Edgard Varèse, 'Sons brisés' dedicated to Juan Allende-Blin, and 'No (-) Music', dedicated to Dieter Schnebel. Following the terminology in Simon Critchley's The Ethics of Deconstruction with regard to a deconstructive praxis, this project can be understood as a strategy of 'double reading' (or better: a tenfold reading). The first reading repeats the dominant interpretation of the text, while the others, arising from a repetition that is implicit in the first, transgress the order of 'commentary' and show how the text is divided in itself. This reading and writing strategy reveals how the closure of a text is irreducibly flawed. Deconstruction. The text is shown to possess certain breaks, which are the marks of an alterity that the text is unable to reduce. Deconstructive reading continually finds patterns of dislocation at work within texts, opening up multiple lines of thought that cannot be assembled as one. 'Within the undecidability of a double reading, a certain decision or event announces itself, a heteronomous moment of alterity that interrupts the text and maintains itself as an interruption or blind spot within discourse' (cf. Critchley, p.61 and p.74-6). Die Kunst einer Fuge shows how deconstruction, i.e., the instability within a network of signs, can be used to turn a text against its dominant reading. It is a series of interpretations that affirm play instead of deciphering a truth or an original performance.

[2] A tenfold reading. In the first reading, 'the voice of the same' repeats Bach; it is a commentary that let us hear how Bach's work sounds. It counts on a very strong probability of consensus regarding the performance of the score. It seems to unveil, reflect or reproduce the text, a performance without any risky initiative. Nevertheless, such a 'repetition' already causes a dislocation, a shifting or transference, a heterogeneity since it always takes place in a particular context ('Although still at home, he is already on his way'). This commentary is already an interpretation. Already, an alterity opens in the repetition; repetition and first time. Each time it is the event itself.
The readings that follow reveal the voices of thers. These voices say something different than Bach and let us hear, so to speak, how the work does not sound. In a sense, the nine interpretations following 'Quatuor' violate the repetition and the commentary of the first reading. Upon listening to these versions, the listener who is familiar with Bach's music, feels alienated and deprived. Zacher remains loyal to Bach's work in that he doesn't change a single note. At the same time, however, Bach is very far away during some of the extremely radical deviating interpretations. Zacher's rendering, therefore, remains inside and outside the composition at the same time.
He starts out by playing the fugue recognizably enough to make an audience feel comfortable to a high degree with the result that the following nine interpretations undoubtedly induce an equal degree of discomfort. The familiar suddenly becomes disconcertingly alien; what seemed close turns out to be infinitely distant. This is because the text is dislocated (deconstructed) from the inside. With all his respect for the 'original' text, Zacher nonetheless breaks in unabashedly, reforms it and puts it in contexts whose differences result in a maximum distance. Zacher accurately follows different paths and ways out, labyrinthine roads that present themselves in and out of the text, the 'Contrapunctus I'. He makes connections that are 'literally in the text' but that disconnect its conventional ties. He does not bring the text to its ultimate fulfilment (if that is at all possible in music), but rather, to an abyss, to a space where the other can be met.

[3] In the explanatory notes of the CD recording of Die Kunst einer Fuge, Zacher justifies his method to a degree. 'Bach specified nothing further regarding The Art of Fugue - neither details of instrumentation, dynamic markings (which were a concern of the next generation), the system of tuning (equal temperament is merely a supposition), articulation, nor many other factors affecting the music. He put together ('composed') only the naked structure. Putting together implies comparison, which can give rise to another, unforeseeable result'.
Zacher makes optimal use of the possibilities offered to him by the score, precisely lacking added information. Where Bach's inheritance is unspecified, Zacher adds his own commentary. (But is it 'his own' commentary? I will return to this.) What is omitted by Bach is the condition allowing Die Kunst einer Fuge to be realized by Zacher. What is missing in Bach's delivery of the score propels a multiplicity of possible interpretations. Multiplicity tied to an absence.
Zacher's project inscribes certain 'remarks' that touch upon Bach's text in the angles and corners of 'Contrapunctus I', both within it and outside it. But what is the status of its relation to the first piece of The Art of Fugue? What does it believe to be adding to 'that' text? Die Kunst einer Fuge is not a simple commentary on 'Contrapunctus I': it is in 'Contrapunctus I'. It engages the listener in the process of textuality - in the play of meanings. It is not so much demonstrating textuality as it is inviting the listener to playfully enter the either/or between several readings (the ten interpretations) or texts (the confrontation of 'Contrapunctus I' with a specific work by one of the composers used by Zacher). (Viewed from the (traditional) linear history of music, it becomes less important to categorize Bach, Brahms, Kagel, Schnebel, etc. It is no longer about designating a space to any of these composers; I want to stress the notion of a continuous shifting (différance). It is about the possibility of having two (or more) spaces or times connecting with each other ('time is out of joint'). Bach's 'Contrapunctus I' occupies a space that is independent of, for example, Messiaen's or Schnebel's work but the conjunction opens up an non-chronological musical logic. With that, Die Kunst einer Fuge is a good example of intermusicality.) The result of Die Kunst einer Fuge is not a new unified reading or an alternative unity. The different positions (commentaries, interpretations) are not just alternatives, as a pluralistic view would have it, but are interrelated and embedded. The difference between polysemy and dissemination (cf. Dissemination) .
Zacher leaves the score intact, but lets hear how the musical language allows for dislocation, admits the other or has to admit the other, on account of its nature and textuality, while staying close to the score. (He does so in ten different ways but there could undoubtedly have been a hundred, which is a further indication of the fundamental openness of a text as well as an illustration of the idea that no text can ever fully be deconstructed. Die Kunst einer Fuge presents and pretends no closeness, but a peut-etre, a 'can be' or a 'may be'. The suggested possibilities offer a proposal. They are an open corpus, always lacking conclusion.) There is here a remarkable agreement with a statement in Derrida's text, 'At This Very Moment In This Work Here I Am'. Derrida indicates that the method of dislocating should be 'in such a way that the text holds together, but also that the interruptions 'remain' numerous (one alone is never enough). One sole interruption in a discourse does not do its work and thus allows itself to be immediately re-appropriated' (At This Very Moment, p.28). It is precisely the multiplicity of readings that makes us understand the functioning of textuality, the impossibility of fixing meaning, the lapsing of a dominant discourse. Zacher offers a range of interpretations, which together have the advantage of not fixing the music in one interpretation, thereby in effect warranting dissemination. Instead of searching for unity, attention is shifted to the plurality of the text; there is no question of attempting to present any kind of unity. Each reading is partial by definition. It is an investigation of a part of the inexhaustible possibilities of each text (texte pluriel).
The heterogeneity of a text originates in re-reading, in repetition. Being capable of iterability is a property of every text (cf. Context). However, an active effort on the part of the reader (the listener, the performer) is required, who needs to see the other in the repetition and to participate in the act of alteration. An interaction needs to take place between text and reader during which the difference of the text from itself becomes apparent in the reading. Not a difference between (several interpretations), but a difference within (one text). In other words, this difference is not what distinguishes one identity from another. Far from constituting a text's identity, it is rather what subverts the very idea of identity, infinitely deferring the possibility of adding up the sum of a text's past or meanings and reaching a totalized, integrated whole. Difference is what makes all totalization of the identity of a self or the meaning of a text impossible (cf. Johnson, p.4-5).
More than in language, one becomes aware from the onset that meaning of and within music cannot be posited unambiguously. Still, this observation does not render the above comments on the heterogeneity of a musical text redundant. First, it is important to realize that multiple interpretations of one and the same musical piece are only possible because the musical text cannot correspond with itself (the score is always heterogeneous by definition). Second, there is desire in musical praxis to arrive at performances that do as much justice as possible to the way the composer 'intended' his composition (cf. Gustav Leonhardt's The Art of Fugue. Bach's Last Harpsichord Work, in which he attempts to prove that Bach wrote Die Kunst der Fuge for harpsichord). A desire for clarity, a desire to lay down. It is a desire that goes against the working of a text by definition.

[4] The nine interpretations that follow 'Quatuor' may be violating this first reading. Let's call them 'contaminations', the stain or poisoning by the contagion of some improper body (bodies). But how can Zacher make the other (in this case, the language of other composers) resound in Bach's music without violating the text (the score)? A possible answer might reside in the functioning of the text itself. The other can only resound when the text is unbound and, on that account, open to the other in such a way that it is not so much a matter of rising above the text as it is a different approach to it from within its own possibilities (cf. At This Very Moment, p.27).
The thoughts or self-expression of a composer never completely correspond with the score he ultimately writes down or the resulting sounding notes. The musical language is never a transparent representation of his thoughts; it escapes (on that account) his control to a certain degree. For example, his music appears in a different context each time. The suggestiveness of music, music as an uncertain sign, makes this unavoidable, but it is precisely what bestows vigor upon music. Because Bach expresses himself in musical language (has to express himself in some kind of language), his work partially escapes his thoughts. Trying to follow him loyally in an attempt to reconstruct his 'true intentions' necessarily means being disloyal to the medium Bach used to express himself. The heteronomy of the musical language enables a composition to appear in ever-changing contexts and adopt new meanings. Would Bach have expressed himself in music if he had been seeking a completely adequate and transparent expression of his thoughts? Could he?
(Musical) language itself is always already open to the other. However, it is up to the reader (the performer, the listener) to make this otherness visible, audible and palpable. Derrida on this: 'Your reading is thus no longer merely a simple reading that deciphers the sense of what is already found in the text; it has a limitless (ethical) initiative' (At This Very Moment, p.25). Derrida immediately adds two asides to this statement. Even if one cannot read beyond the dominant interpretation, a certain dislocation will still have taken place because the context will be different with each reading ('although still at home, he is already on his way'). Besides, the responsibility of the reader does not imply any autonomy in any way. The reader is always bound to the text he is reading. It is the heterogeneity of the text that enables different readings.

[5] Die Kunst der Fuge already harbors the other. The musical language already bears an opening to the other. Still, (or all the more so), Derrida makes an ethical appeal on the reader (the performer) to invoke the other in the act of reading. Is Zacher opening our ears for 'the other' in 'Contrapunctus I' through his ten different interpretations? The signifier - 'Contrapunctus I', here - remains the same throughout, but a choice for one interpretation would unjustifiably neutralize its textuality, its heterogeneity as text. To want to hold on to one single meaning is both violent and impotent: it destroys the heterogeneity while at the same time prohibiting entrance into that very heterogeneity (cf. Dissemination, p.98-99). Die Kunst einer Fuge offers the opportunity for exploring new listening perspectives with specific attention to the melodic (for  example, 'Alt-Rhapsodie' and 'Improvisation ajoutée'), the harmonic ('Harmonies' and 'Interferenser') or the rhythmical ('Timbres-durées' and 'Density 1,2,3,4'). ('It is thus not a question of arrangements: none of the original text has been altered. Rather have the techniques of interpretation been employed: division among the departments of the organ, registration, articulation, tempo, voicing - even if sometimes they are developed to the point of extreme clarity'). Zacher presents his project as an exploratory expedition: 'Entdecken heisst, die Decke wegnehmen vor den Augen und Ohren' ['To discover means taking away the covers before the eyes and ears'].

[6] Is it not deconstruction's aim, its effect, to reveal the heterophony of a text, and is this not precisely what Zacher is doing? He calls upon Psalms, chapter 62, verse 12: 'Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this'. Zacher refers to the Jewish principle that is embedded in the verse. The word of God is (perhaps) univocal; however, every text is open to multiple (maybe unlimited) interpretations. In the section On Deconstruction, it is established how Derrida shows that words are caught in chains of words (homophony) or chains of meanings (homonymy) that cannot not go beyond the author's intention (cf. Dissemination and Pharmakos) . An author may overlook or ignore certain meanings or associations that do function in the text or in the act of reading; he does not control the language. But are these resounding 'new' meanings or word associations within or outside of the text? Derrida implicitly raises the question of whether such limits can be drawn at all. 'In a word, we do not believe that there exists, in all rigor,  a ... text, closed upon itself, complete with its inside and outside' (Dissemination, p.130). The lack of the system is not to blame here. It is precisely the condition of a text as text to enable an opening to other texts, words, etc. Once written, a text becomes irrevocably exposed to a never ending play of meanings, a grafting of pieces of the text onto other texts, making connections that the author did not actually intend, changing of context, implanting other texts, etc.
Analogous to Derrida's philosophy, Zacher's work causes us to experience how 'Contrapunctus I' can lead us into a labyrinth of an (in principle) infinite series of references to compositions and specific composing techniques, as well as to philosophy and theoretical discussions about interpretation (Die Kunst einer Fuge is dedicated to Adorno and particularly follows his text 'Bach defended against his Devotees'), to poetry and from poetry on to Chile (Die Kunst einer Fuge contains a reference to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda). Roughly, two paths can, therefore, be distinguished along which the dissemination in Die Kunst einer Fuge takes place; a musical and a discursive path which, however, are only distinguished analytically here for the sake of convenience. The heterophony is first of all a property of the text itself, (the score of) Bach's 'Contrapunctus I'. But Zacher makes the heterophony heard by having the specters of other composers haunt him. Zacher's Die Kunst einer Fuge 'is constituted by specters of which it becomes the host and which it assembles in the haunted community of a single body' (Specters, p.133).

[7] Zacher can be compared to the god, Hermes. In Greek mythology, Hermes is the messenger, the intermediary, the one who transmits something that someone before him had already thought, spoken or written down (cf. Plato's Supplements) . Zacher seems to occupy the same position as Hermes did, only in a much more diffuse way. He delivers Bach's text 'Contrapunctus I' in a way Bach himself can no longer do: in and as music. He also functions as intermediary between the listeners and the gods who now carry the names of Schumann, Kagel, and Varèse. Zacher's position is, therefore, complex from the beginning; he transmits multiple messages at the same time.
Both intermediary positions have one thing in common: Zacher's voice seems permanently absent in his own work, always hidden behind the voices of other composers. But the composers are also absent. The voice of Brahms is heard in the absence of Zacher's voice, which in turn resounds in the absence of Brahms' voice. Whichever voice one hears, it always seems that of the other (cf. Neel, p.14-17). On closer inspection, we cannot automatically presuppose a clearly traceable 'ego' in the text on account of Zacher's name above the title by which the work is elevated, so to speak, to his ownership. It is unclear (undecidable) as to whether Zacher speaks to us through others or that the other composers speak to us through Zacher. To reduce the textuality of Die Kunst einer Fuge to the proper name of Gerd Zacher is to foreclose the opening announced by what may be called a 'polylogue'.
However, Derrida also points out that Hermes' role is more complicated than presented above. Hermes is not only a messenger, but also Zeus' substitute when he is absent. As substitute, he is not only capable of representing and repeating (the words of) Zeus, but he is also in a position to completely replace him. Here, Hermes' paradoxical position comes to light. On one hand, he is 'the other' in his relation to Zeus and Zeus' message. On the other hand, he adopts as it were, the figure of the one whose presence he establishes through his absence; Hermes becomes 'the same' as Zeus. In supplementing Zeus, Hermes at once becomes the other and the same, opposed to and corresponding with Zeus. With the distinction, the messenger imitates the supreme god (cf. Dissemination, p.90-3. Cf. Plato's Supplements ). Zacher is also amidst a similar play of shiftings, of non-identity and equivocality. Zacher is a messenger; he substitutes for other composers in their absence while he establishes their presence through their absence as their representative. He takes a previously existing text by Bach and acts as if nine other composers read the text from the context of their own compositions. (It could be asked whether the text actually exists before Zacher - or anyone else - does something with it.) Zacher then forwards this to the listener in a 'neutral' way. However, Zacher is, of course, much more than a subordinate messenger and substitute. He constructed the message; he composed it. The readings of 'Contrapunctus I' by Schumann, Kagel or Varèse did not exist before Zacher handed them over to the listener. Not in that format. He is not a neutral, innocent transmitter. Zacher interprets his composers of choice, their works and methods, and transforms them by doing so. Just like he transforms 'Contrapunctus I'. Zacher is both performer and composer. A composer also in the literal sense: 'com-ponere' means putting or bringing together. It is an extremely opaque play where the one who is speaking is never clear: Zacher, one of the nine composers, or Bach, after all. Or is it a poly-stylistic heterophony in which different musical languages are simultaneously expressed?

[8] Ten 'interpretations' of Bach's 'Contrapunctus I' from The Art of the Fugue. Ten encounters. I enter at length into five of them: Quatuor - J.S. Bach, Alt-Rhapsodie - J. Brahms, Timbres-durées - O. Messiaen, Sons brisés - J. Allende-Blin, and No (-) Music - D. Schnebel. And you can listen to them as well.