Pulling Bach’s Music into 21st Century

Bach, one of the masters of polyphony, influenced 22-year-old Irish composer Louis Ryan in his composition of fresh, contemporary etudes for the piano.
Louis Ryan playing the piano

Louis Ryan’s 12 Polyphonic Études, composed in 2012, offers a contemporary, sometimes jazzy twist on polyphonic music.

How do you define polyphonic classical piano music?

I think the best definition of polyphony that I ever heard was from Arthur Jacobs, who defined it as “the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies to make musical sense.” One thing in particular that appeals to me about polyphony is the striking harmonies that result from endless possibilities of part combination.

How did Bach, one of the masters of polyphony, influence your composition of the 12 Polyphonic Études?

As a younger musician, I grew up playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I can’t think of another work of art that has had such a profound influence on my musical style, development, and understanding. Its influence is certainly palpable throughout.

To take one specific point: all 12 begin with a short motivic statement, which—with the exception of the 11th Étude—subsequently proceeds to percolate through the texture in a manner similar to a Bach fugal opening. I think it is very important that the pianist clearly communicates this motivic mechanism to the audience, particularly in some of the more dense four-voice Études.

Tell us how you made the transition from pianist to composer, which seems like a chasmic leap to me in some ways.

A lot of my musical efforts were concerned with trying to craft an idiosyncratic composition style. I tried to be encyclopedic in my approach, and made a habit of copyingscores by brilliant contrapuntists, ranging from Byrd to Bartók. Wherever possible, I tried to compose away from the piano, forcing me to develop my inner ear in the process, and strengthening my ability to technically analyze my ideas.

Developing the inner ear is such an important skill, for pianists as well, but the process feels to me somewhat mysterious.

There are several complex factors involved in developing your inner ear, but I really believe it is a skill that can be acquired by most people, provided they are prepared to invest a significant amount of time and effort. Above all, what helped me to develop it was habitual immersion in all things musical, be it sight-reading, improvisation, composition, choral singing; all of them played an indispensible role in my aural development.

Keyboard extemporization still helps me to craft and formulate my ideas, however, and I am never completely without a piano when I compose. So I think in essence I try to balance the spontaneity of keyboard extemporization with the kind of critical awareness that stems from internal composition.

To hear all of the 12 Polyphonic Études, visit Louis Ryan’s YouTube channel.
Louis Ryan is a 22-year-old professional composer and pianist based in Dublin. He recently completed a B.A. in single honor music at Trinity College Dublin, where he majored in composition and attained a first-class honours degree. He has given several public recitals across Dublin.

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