In our Music Studies for Dance class at Juilliard, we are studying Symphony of Psalms. It is being performed this March as part of Spring Dances, in a piece choreographed by Jiri Kylian of the Netherlands Dance Theater (NDT). The second movement begins with a double fugue, and so we have been investigating fugal form in the music of Bach and Mozart, and ultimately, Stravinsky. It is a wonderful piece, generously packed with references to the past and yet, inimitably Stravinsky.
A fugue is a piece with lots of imitation, like a highly structured round on steroids. Lots of rules and procedures, and when done well, it can have moments of astonishing compositional virtuosity.
As we listened to the fugues of Bach, the dancers caught on pretty quickly to the notion of subjects and answers, and even to the basic harmonic direction of the voices. But when we got to the passages marked "episode," the questions came fast and furious. Does an episode have to come from the subject? Why doesn't it sound like the subject or the answer? Isn't it just another word for transition? What happened to the rules? Are you sure an episode isn't just a license to do whatever you want, in other words, to cheat?
Which begs the question: how do we make transitions in music? One reason it is so easy to love Bach is that even his episodes come organically from motivic material and in service of deft harmonic progression. Bach's transitions sound as if they are the goal. The rest of us are left pondering ways to hide our stitch work. Or at least make a transition sound purposeful.
I was thinking about that last night as I was working on an arrangement of a song by one of our young songwriters in the Somewhere Project. It's a song about immigration titled "Modern Day Heroes (Tell Me I Belong)." I found myself drifting to defaults. Even good songs can sport modulations that telegraph. "Here comes the bridge," says one harmonic change, "now we are relaxing back into the verse," says another. Fashioning words and melody that are honest is difficult enough -- devising transitions that seem organic is definitely for the advanced class.
Do you have an episode or transition you love?