Palimpsest On Bach
For Solo Violin

by Christopher Fulkerson



Formal Plan of the Fantastic Intervention

The formal design of the Fantastic Intervention.

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The use of Bach's materials was never merely a flash take-off or proximate excuse for my FANTASTIC INTERVENTION, but for a long time I could not adequately explain to myself why I had written this piece just as I had. For its first few decades it was called merely "Fantasy for Violin" (It has always had the same subtitle, "Palimpsest On Bach"), but the sense that it was a well-planned interruption and resumption was always obvious. But why do such a thing? Now I can say, it is for the sense of an extended, surprising but logical and well-ordered adventure into an epiphanic state.

There is not however a traditional term for exactly this kind of musical composition. I had read about palimpsests in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow and was intrigued by the ideas invoked, a marvelous combination of erudition with a capacity of shaping events sequences into a really wild ride. This obviously encouraged the subtitle, but when I later got around to re-editing the piece I decided that a title more suggestive of the piece as an "event" would be better than "Fantasy for Violin." In deriving my piece from a moment of Bach, "Epiphany" might better describe what I was trying achieve formally and expressively, but "Epiphany" is not a genre name, and I wanted a term that would suggest such, or at least a type of action. An epiphany is something we might expect the author of a Medieval palimpsest to experience or at least to desire, but perhaps alone or sitting quietly, and such repose is not the character of the drama I created. My piece is not a meditation in the sense of a steady-state, though I hope it has the sublimity of a certain kinds of meditiation.

Besides, while there is some sense and even a tradition of calling a piece "fantastic," at least if it's fantastical in character, I could not be sure that enough listeners, even the experienced, would find the piece epiphanic. In fact, the piece is not merely one epiphany but many, a state of epiphanic critical mass, but again "epiphanies" doesn't have the actual genre definition I needed for dramatic definition, and for the sense that this is not a crazy joyride but a carefully engineered adventure. There is a sense in which FANTASTIC INTERVENTION is a group of set-pieces. The piece is a dramatic state as well as a state of awareness. I had heard of "Interventions" in parliamentary protocol, for example at the United Nations, and (without wishing to limit myself to U.N. usage) this seems to suggest the nature of what I was getting at. When I realized that "Intervention" sounds a lot like "Invention," a title Bach himself used, I decided this was close enough. Invention is a musical quality of high importance, intervention seems a necessary capacity in the process of invention, and worthwhile dramatic gesture as well (especially if you're not getting enough contemporary music).

So, FANTASTIC INTERVENTION, Palimpsest On Bach, it is. The idea of a palimpsest as a type of writing did not occur to me until I read that Hegel's Logic (and therefore other of his writings) can be described that way. Once I found what was to me a plausible link between my piece and a known prose style I had a whole new way to hear, or read, either one, both of them being multi-level messages employing a process of one strand of prose, or music, being interspersed with, or commenting upon, another. (And here is another nuance to the title. In Tibetan tantric tradition, a "Ter" is a "revealed treasure" type of text, magically hidden later to be found only by the qualified initiate. With my piece the Bach title "Invention" has acquired one extra sylable - "ter" - suggesting another way to understand my piece, as an item "hidden" later to be found.)

The piece itself has always seemed to me to have a philosophical nature, and I have already mentioned engineering. Nowadays it seems to me that evidently, with this solo for violin, I was, as a young composer, already interested in the idea of one activity being not merely an interruption of another but a veritable, fully developed alternative universe. Expressively, this much should be immediately apparent. But at the time I wrote it, I was thinking more along conventional lines of stylistic synthesis such as I knew many artists practice. As I mentioned earlier, I had not determined an expressive reason or philosophical interprestation. Under no circumstances should it be imagined that I read Hegel, at whom I had scarcely ever glanced, and then came up with the idea of writing music that would be like his prose. At this level of expression, despite all its technical rigor, my violin piece is very much a piece written within the time-honored tradition of its composer following expressive leads he did not need, nor have the time, to articulate verbally. The piece was written to satisfy an expressive need, and the larger philosophical, even scientific aspects of the enterprise remained merely implied. By now, it is good for me to see that the young composer I was in 1979 already had, at the level of imagination and to the degree of a finished work, some grasp of the artistic and philosophical issues I am now working with thirty-three years later, and which were not only conceptually unavailable to me then, but were or seemed conceptually available only in the "discipline" of science fiction. Alternative universes, and effecting work across time, were beyond the pale.

The stylistic synthesis I had in mind was of course within my composition, not between my music and Bach's. And of course iconoclasm should not be ruled out as among my methods, though I have always preferred a, let me say, well-tempered iconoclasm, not merely a flash that impresses, and there is no question but that this is a strictly composed piece. However, the fact that the pitch material of my piece begins with the same pitches as Bach's, and that its formal and metrical procedures bring my piece back around to the same place it started (hopefully much the better informed by its adventure), seemed to me at the time to be simply responsible craftsmanship. For years I was reluctant to reveal the Bachian context, and the work was actually published by an indie California house without the Bach appearing in the score.

To begin with merely stylistic matters. This piece is obviously meant to be a Modernist catalogue of playing and compositional techniques. It is clear that the method is of synthesizing the main musical influences I thought at the time most important, that of the Boulez pitch-generation methods and the Carter formal designs. Also evident are my own take on Babbitt's particular way of coordinating rhythm and pitch, and perhaps Xenakis's ideas about planned contrasts.

Schoenberg, in many respects the teacher of us all, believed that each generation of composers synthesizes the styles of the opposites of its predecessors. Obviously, though, it would be incorrect to say that this is always the case. Such a project, when it is attempted, is perhaps a noble enterprise, meaning as it does that the new generation is trying to forge a peace out of the adversities, real or apparent, between their predecessors. Since peaceniks are usually pawns, one hopes for wisdom to do this according to actual achievement and not merely a culturally enforced policy that such-and-such is the only path worthwhile. Otherwise one can make policy that excludes personal defense, always the first agenda item of a really seductive or otherwise dangerous adversary. Policy, whether in the form of an orthodoxy, a law, or an ethic, creates, at best, puppets in a doll house; at worst, it creates targets awaiting identification by a problem or by an unforseen exception, or accidents caused by unknown or poorly considered errors, accidents waiting to happen. Law, ethics, and especially orthodoxy do not create fully human people. The human spirit should never be so law-abiding it cannot think of new things; never so ethical it cannot create some excitement; never so orthodox it forces us to live in the past. Logic alone cannot construct a world, or even bring full awareness of one's own situation: Bertrand Russell had to show Gottlob Frege that he had already fallen on his own sword.

It would be too much to claim that all artists value the attempt at synthesizing: among composers, for example, many simply continue what work or tradition they esteem, maintaining a basically partisan position in the stream of things. Brahms would be a good example of a composer with a consciously limited purview. (A society that acts this way can perhaps grow, but it is almost certainly incapable of solving new problems.) It would be wrong to accuse Brahms of failing his tradition, since he even contributed to the research on its most profound theory, that of thoroughbass, and in his compositions (the only meaningful evidence of some kind of life in a tradition) he made use of this knowledge, which Heinrich Schenker believed Brahms had discovered on his own. But certainly Brahms failed the idea of artistic progress, and in so doing left a corpus of works sometimes noticeably lacking in invention - and the danger of creating boring work is probably the best recommendation against orthodoxy of any kind, whether in art or life. By this time in history, if not long since, it is clear there is a danger in orthodoxy, since its strict observation can result in a failure to improve one's self or circumstances, and in an unethical fraudulence. The puppets in the doll house can appear as people you think you know.

There is wisdom in the words of Bach's tenor aria from the Cantata BWV 31, "Adam muss in uns verwesen, Soll der neue Mensch genesen," which without much apparent fuss gives an alternative to the Arian controversy, or maybe, represents the next step recommended after getting it right. If I take exception to Bach's suggestion, it is principally to make sure that personal death and the wiping clean of the slate of personal memory are not required for desired change. I am convinced that requiring these things is a tactic of minds not as benevolent as they would seem, for example, John Locke's. When Locke said we are born with a mental tabula rasa, he was not, in my opinion, stating a fact. He was getting away with a position. He was attempting a legislation, establishing a condition that worked in favor of the kind of empire that is easiest to control: an empire of amnesiacs. He only seemed to be talking about people as they are by nature - he was talking about people as he wanted them. His achievement is perhaps merely that of a slavedriver telling slaves why things are as they are. "You are born with no memory of the past" can map to "You are slaves because you have nothing."

I don't doubt that Bach knew of this kind of tactic of building empires through philosophy, since he worked quite consciously for the Lutherans doing their spiritual empire-building. I also don't doubt that, if he wanted to or were called upon to, he could have understood precisely a maneuver like Locke's. Since Bach seems to have accepted death and believed in resurrection, he may have thought that upon death we put on a new form which is that of God and that we are called upon to accept a loss of memory of our previous existence. That is, it may be that Bach's reply to Locke is a mere workaround of the situation Locke describes, one which admits at death a temporary defeat or grave sacrifice, but doesn't accept it in the long run. But in fact Christian teachings are for once mercifully silent about whether one must forget. We know that it is possible that Jesus's desciples believed in reincarnation, at least enough to debate the question, since in John 9:1 they asked him plainly whether a certain man's congenital blindness was due to his own sin or his parents'. This question is not unreasonably thought to suggest that the idea is not ruled out of the man having an existence prior to his parents' begetting him. (Jesus's reply is that no one sinned, but like a number of his replies to all sorts of inquiries, he hasn't actually answered the question.)

I think Locke is a less than kind master. Perhaps I have a clue as to why Isaac Newton had a problem with him. If Locke had an idea that there is no more than a tabula rasa available to us why did he feel he should tell us about it? Why does his psychology require that starting point? How can it be that so many other psychologies begin there? I feel his teaching is a stripping of memory to a mental nudity worse than necessary to accept. The slavedriver says we are poor and overworked because that is the nature of things. But how convenient for an empire builder.

Or perhaps it is a form of punishment to deprive memory across incarnations? That is I think the meaning of King James VI's action of depriving the family name to the entire MacGregor clan after their ruthless ferocity against the Colquhouns of Luss. Here we have I think an action similar to that described in Exodus 17, when the Lord says he will put out even the memory of an enemy nation of Israel's, called Amalek. But, interestingly, and crucially in that there seems wisdom if not complete mercy in his act, the Lord tells Moses "Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." That is to say, not all memory of Amalek is gone: Joshua knows about them. ("Joshua" is by the way the Hebrew form of the name "Jesus." Perhaps that name includes the duty of remembering.) And even though Joshua was there at the battle, for some reason the Lord says the whole thing should be rehearsed into his ears, and written into a book. Somewhere, there seems at least a chance that Joshua would forget something as unforgettable as a major battle. Is the book there because it helps Joshua regain his memory across incarnations? And the book is apparently not enough - the Israelites are in addition commanded to rehearse the book to Joshua. The book and the commandment to rehearse it are clearly fail-safes against Joshua's amnesia, but there is nowhere any suggestion he ever had any problem remembering. There is certainly something larger about this memory chore than appears at a superficial glance, and I think it is another place in the Bible that suggests reincarnation was among the concepts under discussion.

The Lord's, and James's, actions are similar to the ancient Roman practice called "Damnatio memoriae," that is, the erasure of memory, in which all reference to a person is by law deliberately rubbed out. For example, the Roman Emperor Caracalla had all public reference of his brother Geta removed from monuments, in order that his brother should be forgotten. It is easy to understand how something is forgotten if it is proscribed. But the Bible seems to be talking about something more than that, something that can even happen to an individual himself. Under the surface of ancient Scripture there are clear examples of other teachings than those we are allowed by the likes of John Locke to discuss.

I feel that such persons require a tabula rasa that is not mandatory - I think they are not necessarily describing reality, they are condemning people to forget. And I think it is possible that in "Adam muss" Bach was not talking about something that involves death at all, merely change. Of course the orthodox interpretation of why Bach's libretto was written is that it is meant to convince (Oops, I meant "teach") people to accept the death that was thought to be required for the change to occur.

To get back to music. Most astute artists do look into more points of view than they know they can use, and though not all of them feel a mission to bridge styles, most of the more important ones do.

Bach is definitly an artist of the sythesizing sort, both of genres and materials. He sythesized into one style the concerted styles of the Stile Concertato (from Corelli to Vivaldi and beyond) with the dramatic idiom of the Opera, which he famously kept alive in his prolific cantata writing. And he synthesized the harmonic language of tonality with the polyphonic language of the ancient European tradition, bridging styles as old as the Ars Nova (which can be easily heard, for example, in the organa-like use of rhythmic modes in pedal tones with polyphony above it in the first chorus of the St. Matthew Passion) with the Franco-Flemish tradition that Monteverdi called the "Prima Prattica," that is, modal polyphony. He certainly was more forward-looking with regard to harmony than the next, harmonically rather regressive generation, which was, only later, by Guido Adler in the 1880s, identified politically with Vienna.

Speaking for myself in my fifties, synthesis is presently a lower priority for me than determining and creating work of adequate quality; figuring out what any kind of work, certainly including non-musical work, may really mean; aligning the useful and the literate; and figuring out the useful and literate way to push that which is not useful or literate back into the sea, a kind of efficiency-oriented way to decide what can't be recycled, and returning it to the source in a non-violent manner, suggested by teachings as variant as the Buddhist doctrine of "dependant arising" (Pratityasamutpada); Hegel's teaching that "The world will always exhibit itself truthfully insofar as thought interrogates it and, testing its concepts against experience, establishes the way things actually are," as summarized by Michael Allen Fox; or the concept of continuous revelation consistent with a number of historical personalities and encouraged in much Christian thought, as well as in Mormonism.

And in music qua music, Schoenberg's principal of continuous development or variation seems to mean the same thing as these and similar philosophies, translated into tones.

Always remembering that every new work involves some degree of newness of proximate, even immediate, problems and solutions, perhaps I can say without too much hubris that I have by now done the main work of stylistic synthesis I have needed to do for the time being and am now concerned about determining where my work can safely stand without a Viennese or other chandelier falling on it. (I was shocked to see that the lantern over Haydn's room in Eisenstadt was cast as a bird through whose head the lantern fixture passed, and I will not be persuaded there is only casual significance to this.) One has to have the right to survive and cry foul against booby traps and incompetence.

Synthesizing and coordinating functions are different one from the other. By the time of this writing in 2012 I have probably worked harder to put old and new back to back in a proper and functional way, than take sides between or synthesize different strands of present musical thought. Like Brahms I say that most new music doesn't merit attention or any effort at inclusion, though this is not alone reason to hear so little of it on American programs, only a complaint that what little we get is usually "the wrong stuff." Having accepted the Wagnerian standard of the intellectual polymath I say that I have long since decided that only a literate and responsible avant garde is legitimate. And I say that only an astute and constructive arriere garde, that knows itself to be the arriere garde and not a competitor of the progressive future, is useful. I would not want to say which one is more difficult to do correctly, but it does seem that it is more crucial for a front-guard to be correct and accountable. The metaphor of driving a car is useful: you have to keep your eyes on the road, you can't look too long in the rear-view mirror. While a conservatorship that allows infiltrations or defections is a disaster, it can do perhaps even more harm for a scout to bring back false information. (The question as to which arriere garde Wagner thought valuable is not often discussed, but I suggest it was probably the Italian Bel Canto.) It is the function of the avant garde to scout the new terrain, and to build the art; the duties of the arriere garde include building and educating the audience. It seems to me that the avant-garde is more creative; the arriere-garde, more re-creative, that is, more performance oriented.

Schoenberg synthesized the musics of Wagner and Brahms, before going on to the implications of his discoveries. Berg melded the twelve-tone technique with Romantic expression. The postwar Americans of the "Uptown" school, Babbitt, Wuorinen, Sollberger, Wolpe, and others, were all about synthesizing Schoenberg's with Stravinsky's discoveries. And, remarkably, Stravinsky himself participated in this movement. Elliott Carter synthesized just about every literate musical Modernism into a single all-inclusive style.

The pitch system of FANTASTIC INTERVENTION is that of the "pitch multiplication" method used by Pierre Boulez, and the occasional moments the piece sounds French are a delight to me, since I believe they are arrived at honestly. The Epilogue uses a Babbitt-like "time-point system" to organize this approach to pitch together with rhythm. The formal contrasts were decided acording to the types of contrast indicated by Xenakis and Carter and the formal details and simultaneities were planned using Carterian time streams.

As I mentioned before, this Second Edition of this piece was prompted by a remark in an essay about Hegel, whose book on Logic was described as a "palimpsest." Here, at last, was a use of this term to mean multiple-level writing in which the levels were interacting and there was no sense that one level was necessarily subordinate to another, or that any level had been written upon to the obscuration of another. This was "palimpsest" as a method of writing, as a type of thought, comparable to a conversation perhaps not unlike the Platonic method of dialogue, and not merely a blackboard that gets erased and written over. Even the idea of an intense flight-of-fancy commentary style emerging from eighteenth-century thought was completely compatible with my modern series of epiphanies prompted by Bach. So as a fantastic intervention to finishing the reading of the Hegel Companion, I set that book aside and prepared the new version and the sound file of this piece. The whole creative process has been complicated but is becoming clearer than I had ever hoped. And I don't deny I am pleased to offer a new experiential way to approach Hegel, and perhaps other writers. Charles Ives felt that modern music was "musical prose," as compared to earlier music, which was "musical poetry." I'm delighted to have written a type of musical prose that corresponds with an existing, unusual sort.

Unsympathetic listeners and readers occasionally want to pretend that music (or prose) like this, and most especially program-note descriptions like this, are "merely academic." But, like other music they often nevertheless admire, this music is philosophy in tones, and furthermore written according to scientific models, philosophy and science that produce the governmental systems and technological conveniences to which they want to claim everyday, even moment-to-moment entitlement. If I have written music no easier to play than Hegel or the Buddha is to read and understand, I can at least be sure it is easier, or at least takes less time, to listen to my music that contemplate these thinkers. The "accusation" of academicism is not a competent complaint, since to return mere repudiation for the causes of astonishment is obviously petty. (One irony of the repudiation for being "academic" is that it is by definition academic. You are classified by that which you classify.) Such listeners and readers sound to me like aborigines who think the swamp is to be preferred to the farm. They sound like ancient Greeks who think is dishonorable that Macedonians or Romans would march in formation. It is their own limited imagination that causes them to push such work away. But since, as I have tried to express, I know there is shall we say a verisimilutude between the use people can put to intellectual advances (be they philosophical or technical), and their own willingness to employ them, it is to their own disadvantage that some persons institutionalize advanced art. (You are institutionalized by that which you institutionalize.)

It should be no surprise that such an ambitious technical agenda as that of the FANTASTIC INTERVENTION resulted in a piece that is very difficult to play. It seems to be a passion of mine to compose tours-de-force. I am grateful for the comparison to Hegel, it can make more sense of both of us. Maybe more people will want to read Hegel if they have this music as a paradigm. Twelve minutes of my music might be worth the effort of the comparison, and who knows, listeners might enjoy it.

I think it can be said that if an expert violinst spent no more time practicing this piece than I spent writing it and preparing the score(s), and this long program note too, they would probably be able to play it. If they also spent the time practicing it that I have sepnt reading to understand it, they would have one hell of a bang-up performance under their belts. Some of the passages in the piece can be I feel be downright luminous in performance. So I am not asking a player to invest more time than I have done. Preparing the second edition of this piece has confirmed me in my enthusiasm for this music and the belief that it has something important to do in the contemporary world.

There is probably a similar though smaller difference between Kant and Hegel than between Bach and my FANTASTIC INTERVENTION. The gist of the piece is dramatic and the context of my music - emerging in a manner very carefully planned in all respects down to the smallest pitch and formal details - from Bach's is meant to both obviate the usual catechisms of stylistic matters and to suggest the marvelous flight of fantasy that I think is possible from, and to, any point in the vast code of human existence that is history. I am especially glad I came up with this music before the idea of internet links was known, so I can say I came by this idea myself.

The use of simultaneous forms is frequent in my work. The use of such forms together with pitch-multiplication operations was further developed in the oratorio SCRITTI DI LEONARDO. A formal design of the piece used during precompositional planning is on the right.

The work now called FANTASTIC INTERVENTION, Palimpsest on Bach was written in 1979 while I was in Edwin Dugger's composition seminar at U.C. Berkeley and first played by Maryvonne LeDizes in France, and then in San Francisco at the 1986 Ariel Valentine's Day Concert while Miss LeDizes was on tour with Pierre Boulez during his historic REPONS tour with the Ensemble InterContemporain.

My antiphonal vocal octet THE SCREAM THAT PEAKS PAST FEAR was also given at that concert. Ariel believed in intense Valentine's Days.

A recording of Miss LeDizes performance, made live at that concert, is on the CD set MODERNISM FOREVER.


First posted November 25, 2009.
The Second Edition of the work was uploaded August 26, 2012.
The first version of this revised program note was posted August 29, 2012.
This page was last revised December 9, 2014.