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Hilda Huang

Hilda Huang is a American pianist who has achieved international acclaim for her performances of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. At the age of 14, she is also the youngest[…]

From a distance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s pieces seem so “simple and pure,” says the 14-year-old pianist. But on “the inside” they are much more complex.

Question: What do you love about Bach?
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rnHilda Huang: I love how complex it is on the inside, but when yourn look at it from a distance, it's so simple and pure and elegant that rnyou would never suspect that it's such an architectural masterpiece. rnLike it follows all of the forms of a fugue, say a prelude, any type of arn dance, but when you just listen to it, it's just a charming piece by rnitself. 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.
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rnQuestion: What is a fugue?
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rnHilda Huang:
So a fugue is when there's two, three, four, five rnvoices—or more if you'd like.  And each voice is basically just a line rnand each line has a subject, but the subjects are all the same in each rnline. So, say the first voice will enter with the subject and when the rnsubject is finished, then the second voice enters and does the subject, rnbut usually in a different key. Then the third voice enters when the rnsecond voice is finished with its subject, then the fourth voice enters rnwhen the third is done and so on and so forth.
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rnQuestion: Why is Bach's music so complex?
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rnHilda Huang:
In Bach's music, there's always a lot of lines going rnand if you have, say, a two-voice fugue, each line is completely rnindependent of each other, which is really confusing to play of course, rnbecause you have to pay attention to one, like, one character, then the rnother one has to be a completely different character. But when you move rnon to the bigger fugues with three, four, five voices, that's a really, rnreally hard task to do because you only have two hands but you have to rntake care of basically five different people playing five different rnlines.
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rnAnd then on top of that, these five different people are interacting rnwith each other in ways that are sometimes a bit surprising. Like rnsometimes they like to say argue with each other, the voices interrupt rneach other and other times they kind of play with each other and it's a rnvery friendly piece. But there's an outline in which they all work. So, rnsay there's a friendly part and they all work together, but then after rnthat, they suddenly turn against each other, so now they're angry at rneach other. So you have to create the distinction between those two rncharacters as well as the five different characters as well as the rninteraction between those five characters. And the list goes on and on, rnof course.
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rnQuestion: What is your favorite Bach piece?
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rnHilda Huang: I'd have to say my favorite is "The Art of Fugue" rnbecause this really showcases Bach's magnificent fugue writing. I mean, rnit's the entire 16 fugues are based on just one simple subject in the rnfirst fugue that comes in four different voices. But then, it's kind of rnlike a set of variations. You have 15 more fugues, with each subject as arn variation of the first subject. And that works really well because eachrn one has a different subject and each subject is unique in its own way rnin the fugue itself. And often times, in each different fugue he takes rnsubjects from different fugues and puts them in. So I think there's somern fugues that you have three different subjects at the same time and rnothers you have two different subjects at the same time. So now you're rnnot dealing with just a fugue, you're dealing with a double fugue or a rntriple fugue.
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rnQuestion: What do you mean by “subject?"
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rnHilda Huang: So a subject is basically like a very specific motifrn in a piece. You have say a line like da de da de da. And that is rnmirrored by da da da da da in the second voice, but then the third voicern comes in doing da da da da da and then the fourth voice comes in and rndoing da da da da da da, so it's always the same. The fugue is, the rnsubject is always set and the sequence of the notes is always the same, rnbut often Bach will take little bits of that subject, cut it up and rnplace it at random places in the fugue, or he'll take the subject and rntransform it to completely different keys, or take it from major to rnminor and put it all over again.

Recorded on June 7, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman