Program notes for the upcoming premiere at the Portland Jazz Composers’ Ensemble

Fugue as we think of it today dates back to the baroque period (c. 1600-1750) when it became not simply an imitative contrapuntal technique but a type of musical composition with a somewhat rigorous structural process. The term “process” is often favored over the term “form” to describe fugue because the music unfolds in a series of continuous events rather than in distinct repeated sections. The composer we most often think of as the master of fugue is J. S. Bach, but several composers have also made very significant contributions to the genre, including Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Shostakovich, and Hindemith, to name only a select few (ok, so all of these guys were absolute masters of counterpoint, and each wrote monumental masterpiece fugues, but who’s counting? . . .) Anyhow, fugue is a less-used process in the world of jazz composition.

As much as I hope my piece, Fugue in E-flat, will be enjoyed regardless of its underlying structure, it may be helpful upon a first listening to explain a few of the ways in which the music follows some typical fugal ideas, and a few ways in which it does not. All fugues have a subject (this is like the main theme, and there is always at least one), an exposition, at least one episode, and subsequent entries. The subject of my fugue is played first by the drums, then by the low instruments. It’s short, about seven seconds, and you’ll hear it a number of times throughout the piece in various guises. In fact, you’ll hear it six times (the drum statement being the first) during the opening passage, called the exposition.

Each time one group of instruments plays its version of the subject, it will continue on with its own stream of counterpoint as the next subject voice enters. All together, there are five “voices” in this fugue–not including the drums–that create the counterpoint of this piece. The voices are not assigned to specific instruments; rather, the term “voice” describes one melodic stream that may be passed around to different members or combinations of members of the ensemble.

After the exposition, you will hear a passage–called an “episode”–followed by a reappearance of the subject–called an “entry”–followed by another episode, etc. This is quite typical of what you might find in any traditional fugue. Where this piece takes a slightly different course is at the improvisational passage in the middle. When the soloist finishes, the fugue returns, with a new exposition of the subject in disguise (the pitches are now spaced very close together, and what were originally short and loud notes are now long and softer notes), followed by a drum solo (I don’t think Bach had any drum solos in his fugues, either), and a final contrapuntal passage.

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