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Interview with Marcin Masecki

img  Tobias Fischer

Few works in the history of music have been as closely analysed, as minutely studied and as frequently performed and recorded as Johann-Sebastian Bach's "Die Kunst der Fuge". When it comes to this all-time classic, therefore, one would expect that there's no longer any space for mystery, unanswered questions or unresolved riddles. In fact, the exact opposite is true: Are we to think of "Die Kunst der Fuge" as a collection of clever exercises or a grandiosely conceptualised work? Which of the four existing autographs is most accurate? How can it be made to work in a live setting? What is its correct ending? The deeper one zooms in, the muddier things get – in the end, not even the exact order of the compositions can be ascertained with absolute certainty, nor its intended instrumentation be determined. On the other hand, this very fuzziness has inspired generation upon generation of performers to add their own perspective and interpretation to the canon. As a result, the amount of recordings of this monumental work can be as daunting as detecting the differences between two renditions can be complex. And yet, even within this long and proud lineage, Marcin Masecki's recent recording of "Die Kunst der Fuge" sticks out. His interpretation is the result of myriads of public and private performances as well as the conviction that he would either have to deliver an utterly unique and original contribution or remain forever silent. To reach a new level of immediacy and the particular sound he had in mind, Masecki decided to stay clear of expensive recording studios and state of the art technology and instead recorded the entire composition with a cheap, generic dictaphone. What might seem respectless to purists turned out to offer an intriguing glimpse behind the facade of established wisdom and supposed facts that have amassed over the centuries.  Like a breath of fresh air, it cleanses our ears and makes us think of Bach's masterwork from a new angle: Perhaps we're not meant to solve the riddle, but to savour it. 

"Die Kunst der Fuge" didn't enter your personal sphere of interest for a long time. Now you've spent quite some time with it, what does it mean to you?
I haven’t been playing "Die Kunst der Fuge" for about half a year now and I’m not planning to in the near future. I have sort of exhausted the piece. After releasing the CD, I played some concerts and now I've had enough. It is a colossal piece, extremely demanding intellectually, and to perform it in a concert setting is quite an experimental endeavor. It is not written in a linear way - it has no beginning, development, ending, no climax - so it is very difficult to give it a narrative feel and to make it into some kind of story. Especially since my approach was very dry. I did not want to make the listening experience any easier by giving each fugue its own different character. I was playing them more or less the same, with similar tempi and dynamics. So I was presenting a tremendous musical monolith, an imposing idea more than a musical piece. I feel that "Die Kunst der Fuge" was created somewhat like a philosophical treatise but written in notes rather than words. And I wanted to convey this feeling to the listeners. I know it sounds barely possible, but it is this absolute and idealistic aspect of the piece which most attracted me. The fact that it is a musical tribute to man’s stare into heaven.

I assume that you listened to a few recordings of the piece prior to recording your own version of it. What's your favourite version so far – and why?
For the same reasons I already mentioned, I don’t really have a favourite. Any human performance falls short of the idea in the piece in one way or another. But one version that did illuminate me was Pieter Dirksen's. His interpretation is also quite dry - as is his harpsichord - and monolithic. By the time you get to the 8th fugue, you sort of stop listening to the music and start floating on some kind of higher plateau. I really love it when music does that to you. When it becomes merely a door through which you see all these wonderful, completely unmusical things.

How did you prepare for your recording in terms of technique?
It is a very difficult piece technically, but fortunately it is all pure finger technique. There is no athleticism as in everything from Chopin’s "Etudes" onwards. So I prepared only by playing the fugues very slowly and doing some basic finger exercises which my grandmother taught me. Apart from that most of the work was conceptual. I was endlessly searching for the right tempo, dynamics, articulation, rubato, ornamentation etc.

Before deciding to go with the dictaphone, you tried a few other options. Why did they feel dissatisfying to you?
At first, I was recording the piece on a Wurlitzer Electric Piano. I thought this was an unused sound for Bach. But the instrument was not capable of the precision I needed. Then I experimented with the clavichord, only to find that now I am incapable of the precision it demands. Also, I stumbled upon Richard Troeger's wonderful recording and realised there is no need for another. Then I recorded the piece on a student harpsichord and various types of electronic organs and synthesizers, but still I was unsatisfied. I don't know exactly why. None felt quite right. And then, by pure chance, we were recording a song with the band Paristetris using the dictaphone and I realized this is the perfect solution for KDF.

Did you experiment with different placements of the dictaphone?
Yes, I did. I also tried various dictaphones. The final recording uses a Sony walkman for the first 10 fugues and then switches to a Panasonic in the middle of the 11th. Both are very cheap and basic models. Also I recorded on used tape, (The Beatles I believe. So if you listen very carefully, sometimes you can hear a very soft leak.

How does this approach change the impact of the piece, do you feel?
Well, the piano recorded via dictaphone becomes a different instrument. Which in itself is an awesome fact for an instrument so tired of its sound as the modern piano. It becomes flatter and less dynamic, getting closer to the harpsichord in some way. It is also a completely fresh and unexplored expressive tool in the world of classical music recordings, which are always made to sound as if you were at a live concert. Not only does the dictaphone introduce the recording method as an element of interpretation, but it does so with the lo-fi aesthetic - something very foreign to the classical music industry. So you can listen to the music, or you can listen to the incredibly rich and unpredictable tape noise. Or both of course.
So in all those ways I found the dictaphone to be a great vehicle for KDF.

There's a thin line between a gimmick and a genial idea. You've spoken out against cheap jazz versions of Baroque music or meaningless experiments. When it comes to your dictaphone-approach to Bach, where does it run from your point of view?
What I don't like is when one style of music is blatantly thrown onto a template of another. This is especially easy with jazz and Baroque since they do have a lot in common - or bossa nova and pretty much everything. So the typical example is to play a fugue and add swinging brushes to it. Not very creative for my taste. What I appreciate is when the fusion of two styles is done so thoroughly that one can't hear them separately anymore but ends up hearing a third, new quality. Same goes for other sorts of experiments. I love what Wendy Carlos did with Bach because it shed a new light on the music. It gave us a new insight into how it can sound and therefore what can it convey. I think my dictaphone approach is of similar nature.

The CD has so far mostly been reviewed and sold in Poland. What's the feedback been like so far?
Quite positive. Some of course disapprove of the whole idea and don't see the point, or remain unconvinced. But in general it has been well received. I'm slightly surprised how the dictaphone element has overshadowed any discussion about the actual merits of my performance. I would have wished it wasn't received only as a weird experiment, but as a new interpretation of the work, unconventional but nevertheless aiming at the piece, not just at creating hype. In the end at the heart of the CD lies the music, not the recording method.

Many classical musicians claim that their main goal is to represent as best as possible the "composer's intentions". What do you think, would Bach have said?
In the case of KDF, the very fact that we do not know what the composer's intentions were was very attractive to me. We can't really decipher how it was meant to work. We know that it doesn't really work in live performance, but it's hard to imagine what it really meant for Bach and his audience. I think in a world where public concerts didn't really take place and private musical culture was very high, the KDF worked as a book. One read it, silently or aloud, and marveled at the structure and mastery of the author's contrapuntal craft. So it was a very intellectual pleasure. And it is this sensation of intellectual awe that I was trying to transmit in my interpretation, as impossible as that sounds.

Marcin Masecki Interview by Tobias Fischer
Marcin Masecki Image by Tomasz Dubiel

Homepage: Marcin Masecki
Homepage: Lado ABC Recordings