The Well-Tempered Clavier is all well and good, but that’s not the sound Michael Bay’s going to want in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. So my friend was puzzled and said to me: why are you writing in a style that isn’t the style you want to write?
I tried explaining. I’d been writing bigger pieces, and while the filmmakers and I were very happy with them, it was hard work. I hadn’t felt “in control” over the notes as quickly as I would have liked in the process. If you want to be able write huge, powerful scores – thousands-of-notes-on-the-page – you have to control the notes on the page like Neo controls the Matrix.
Fugal form also develops handy skills (if you’re not familiar with the form, try the Wikipedia entry or this funny video by a composition major). For example, fugue lets you write a very small amount of material that can be easily varied into a long piece. Bach’s B flat major fugue in the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I has just three short melodic phrases that keep switching between the fugue’s three continuous voices. You write four good bars of music, and you have everything you need for two and a half minutes of music. It’s a handy technique in a film where you have to develop a musical mood over a long time.
That explanation wasn’t bad, but here’s perhaps a pithier one: Fugues are like wrenches and dodgeball. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. If you can write a fugue, you can write a score.