J-S Bach
Outwork
Deconstruction
Education
John Zorn
John Cage










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Specters of Bach

'The deconstructive reading does not point out the flaws or weaknesses or stupidities of an author, but the necessity with which what he does see is systematically related to what he does not see ... It is an analysis that focuses on the grounds of that system's possibility. The critique reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal, in order to show that these things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them, and that the starting point is not a (natural) given but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself' (Dissemination, p.xiv-xv).

[1] This section will demonstrate how deconstruction works (is at work) in musical praxis, in the practice of composing and making music, using German organist Gerd Zacher's Die Kunst einer Fuge ['The Art of a Fugue'], a musical reflection on 'Contrapunctus I' from Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge. This entails a different approach than that of many musicologists who try to connect deconstruction to music. More often than not, musicologists apply deconstruction in a way that sheds a different light on historical musical compositions. They apply a deconstructive strategy that is predominantly aimed at assigning a new interpretation to existing music (cf. Of New Musicology). My objective, by contrast, is to show that deconstruction is and has always already been part of the musical praxis, without it ever having been expressed in any such (philosophical) terminology. Zacher's project is an attempt to comment on a musical praxis - not by means of a theoretical statement, as many musicologists have sought to do, but within the very language upon which it is commenting. In my view, Zacher's musical commentary can be regarded as deconstructive. Deconstruction. A practice that can be found anywhere. But it is not (merely) the conscious activity of a subject. Therefore, it cannot simply be said that it is Zacher who deconstructs 'Contrapunctus I'. Whenever a deconstructive strategy is put into practice, it activates a dissemination that is already inscribed into the text itself. In a sense, Zacher has translated the musical deconstruction into sounds. He points us to it. He makes it audible. However, the textuality of a text is what first enables the deconstructive practice (both here and elsewhere, text and music are frequently interrelated. cf. Music Is a Text.)

[2] Specters of Bach. Why this title? First of all, every serious musician has to deal, in one way or another, with Bach's legacy. The musical world still bears, to an incalculable depth, the mark of this legacy (Jörg Zimmermann speaks of the 'uncontested significance of the paradigm Bach'). The reasoning can go in either of two ways. On one hand, Bach remains a reference point for many contemporary musicians and composers. They follow this specter (he is not 'really' there). They follow, honor, imitate, and parody Bach as they please. How? By playing, rearranging, and quoting (literally or stylistically) his music, by playing with the notes B flat, A, C, and B (in German b-a-c-h), etc. But what if, and this is the other side, this came down to being followed by (the specters of) Bach? Perhaps, these followers are persecuted by the very chase they are leading. There is no escape, no freedom of choice. The spirit of Bach is continuously present. (But what is the presence of a ghost? The opposition presence-absence does not seem able to adequately define spectrality.) He constantly watches over their shoulders. Where will the specters of Bach take these followers?
In Die Kunst einer Fuge, it is not clear who is following (or pursuing) whom. Is Zacher haunting Bach as he confronts him with nine other composers in this project who all lived after Bach? Is Zacher haunting Bach's legacy with nine unconventional interpretations of 'Contrapunctus I'? (And we have to find out if 'interpretation' is the right term here.) Zacher, as it were, produces its spectrality (both invents and brings up to date, inaugurates and reveals, causes to come about and brings to light at the same time, there where it already was without being there). But maybe it is the nine other composers who haunt Bach 'through' Zacher, exposing his work to musical languages that were not known to him. Or, is Bach the one who haunts and pursues Zacher? Does Bach's spirit oblige a church organist to concern himself with his music at some point? Is Zacher being pursued by the effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte) of Bach and by its incorporation into certain conventions? It is not a matter of choosing. All positions require attention. Die Kunst einer Fuge seems as if it is made up of specters in which it functions as a host, assembling them into the context or frame of a single work. But the work, in turn, is a haunting specter as well. A specter is not only a revenant (present past), the coming back of something. (Incidentally, how appropriate is it to speak of a specter coming back? Something comes back, only now as a specter, in other words, as something different than itself, than what it used to be.) In addition, a specter is also an arrivant (present to come), an announcement of something that is about to come. It is not certain beforehand whether a specter testifies to a living past or to a living future. Another possibility: Zacher is haunted by the specters of Schumann, Ligeti, Kagel, Adorno, etc. Revenants, the ghosts of 'the other'. At the same time, Zacher, for his part (for instance) haunts the dominating discourse (the prevailing, accepted interpretations). This haunting may be thought of as an arrivant because it breaks open a new interpretative dimension, a future (not seen as something that is yet to come, but as a fundamental openness of the present). Die Kunst einer Fuge as the ghost of the others.

[3] Specters of Bach. Why the plural form? Because it reflects their heterogeneity; there are more than one. Consider, for example, all the scores, their effective history in the form of numerous performances and interpretations, biographies, studies on his composition techniques, etc. There is not one Bach. A legacy is a living thing and that means it immediately and necessarily brings about heterogeneity. With regard to a Bach interpretation, it could be that one must filter, sift, or sort out several different possibilities that inhabit the same text. 'If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it. We would be affected by its cause - natural or genetic' (Specters, p.16). This does not mean that any interpretation is always possible. In their plurality, the re-readings of Bach organize themselves, they are not dispersed at random. But they disorganize themselves as well because 'the original' addresses disparate demands; there is no single good reading of Bach's work. Furthermore, it is important to note that this heterogeneity does not divide different types of discourse or interpretation; rather, it is at work within Bach's text itself. And it is the claim of deconstruction to reveal the heterophony of a text.

[4] Why specters? According to Derrida, we should distinguish between a spirit and a specter. The latter possesses a body. A specter is a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit. However, the phenomenality that renders its spectral apparition to the spirit disappears right away in the apparition. It is difficult to determine what exactly a specter is (cf. Specters, p.6). Following Derrida, one could say that Bach's spirit incarnates itself mostly in his music. In doing so, his music becomes the specter. And what about the phenomenality of music? Let's assume we're dealing with the sounds here. It is clear that they disappear shortly after their appearance. However, in a certain sense, some of Bach's music is lost with every performance. The choices that a performer makes involve the exclusion of aspects that are present in the work or the music. This means that some things must disappear in the apparition. Each performance makes the music audible. But the music can ever be reduced to it. Each interpretation will always be haunted, rather than inhabited, by the meaning of 'the original'. This seems to move in the direction of the idea that the score can lay claim to the designation of 'phenomenality'. Without delving too deep into this problem, one could think of the score as the specter of the specter. The sounds find their carnal form in the score. It should be clear, however, that one cannot be reduced to the other.
The specters of Bach. In the following pages, the attention will again be divided between the score and the sounds.
Specters. Perhaps, what we call music is nothing more than a familiarity with the inescapable originality of the specter.

[5] The arrangement of this section. Gerd Zacher's Kunst einer Fuge provides a brief outline of Zacher’s project. It also speaks in favor of the proposition that it is the textuality of 'Contrapunctus I' that allows for multiple interpretations. It is possible to browse to five other pages from this page that more fully elaborate five of the ten interpretations Zacher plays. The page entitled Die Kunst der Fuge offers a short introduction to Bach's final work. In Contrapunctus I, a number of musicological analyses of this fugue are deconstructed. The chapter also makes clear that deconstruction is and has always already been at work in this first counterpoint of Die Kunst der Fuge.
Three pages are more or less interrelated. Of Interpretation, Of the Critics, and the page on Adorno (to whom Die Kunst einer Fuge is dedicated) all pertain to certain conventions in the praxis of interpretation and with how they are exceeded. These pages complement each other or address the same problem from different perspectives.
Together with his attention to a series of mostly 20th century composers and the reference to Adorno, Zacher uses a verse from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as a motto. A separate page is devoted to this as well.
Bach, nine other composers, Adorno, Neruda. Zacher's project can be thought of as a kaleidoscopic chain of associations, demarcated and enclosed only for pragmatic reasons.