Question: What do you love about Bach?
Hilda Huang: I love how complex it is on the inside, but when you
look at it from a distance, it's so simple and pure and elegant that
you would never suspect that it's such an architectural masterpiece.
Like it follows all of the forms of a fugue, say a prelude, any type of a
dance, but when you just listen to it, it's just a charming piece by
itself. And you don't have to hear like, oh this is an allemande, oh this is a sarabonde. But of course, it helps to know.
Question: What is a fugue?
Hilda Huang: So a fugue is when there's two, three, four, five
voices—or more if you'd like. And each voice is basically just a line
and each line has a subject, but the subjects are all the same in each
line. So, say the first voice will enter with the subject and when the
subject is finished, then the second voice enters and does the subject,
but usually in a different key. Then the third voice enters when the
second voice is finished with its subject, then the fourth voice enters
when the third is done and so on and so forth.
Question: Why is Bach's music so complex?
Hilda Huang: In Bach's music, there's always a lot of lines going
and if you have, say, a two-voice fugue, each line is completely
independent of each other, which is really confusing to play of course,
because you have to pay attention to one, like, one character, then the
other one has to be a completely different character. But when you move
on to the bigger fugues with three, four, five voices, that's a really,
really hard task to do because you only have two hands but you have to
take care of basically five different people playing five different
And then on top of that, these five different people are interacting
with each other in ways that are sometimes a bit surprising. Like
sometimes they like to say argue with each other, the voices interrupt
each other and other times they kind of play with each other and it's a
very friendly piece. But there's an outline in which they all work. So,
say there's a friendly part and they all work together, but then after
that, they suddenly turn against each other, so now they're angry at
each other. So you have to create the distinction between those two
characters as well as the five different characters as well as the
interaction between those five characters. And the list goes on and on,
Question: What is your favorite Bach piece?
Hilda Huang: I'd have to say my favorite is "The Art of Fugue"
because this really showcases Bach's magnificent fugue writing. I mean,
it's the entire 16 fugues are based on just one simple subject in the
first fugue that comes in four different voices. But then, it's kind of
like a set of variations. You have 15 more fugues, with each subject as a
variation of the first subject. And that works really well because each
one has a different subject and each subject is unique in its own way
in the fugue itself. And often times, in each different fugue he takes
subjects from different fugues and puts them in. So I think there's some
fugues that you have three different subjects at the same time and
others you have two different subjects at the same time. So now you're
not dealing with just a fugue, you're dealing with a double fugue or a
Question: What do you mean by “subject?"
Hilda Huang: So a subject is basically like a very specific motif
in a piece. You have say a line like da de da de da. And that is
mirrored by da da da da da in the second voice, but then the third voice
comes in doing da da da da da and then the fourth voice comes in and
doing da da da da da da, so it's always the same. The fugue is, the
subject is always set and the sequence of the notes is always the same,
but often Bach will take little bits of that subject, cut it up and
place it at random places in the fugue, or he'll take the subject and
transform it to completely different keys, or take it from major to
minor and put it all over again.
Recorded on June 7, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman