Fugueing around with Sufjan Stevens


My buddy Nick started a year-long blog to accompany his reading of the book Godel, Escher, Bach – an eternal braid – by Douglas Hofstadter.

In his effort to explore Bach’s fugues… he explains recursion and performed a Fugue.

recursive-beardnessHere is my attempt.

To get my head wrapped around Bach’s Fugues, I made a Fugue version of some Sufjan Stevens songs. This artist writes really interesting, melodic music with some sparse parts, making it easier to fugue.

The song: We are Night Zombies!! has a perfectly Fugueable opening line, it turns out. It even follows the rule, as the first four notes are the theme for the fugue.

Here is a link to the original song, along with my fugue version:

Play original version
Play original version of They are Night Zombies!!
America at the Crossroads (Complete MP3)
The Fugue of They are Night Zombies!!






The Fugue is a style of music composition with strict mathematical rules. I learned that these rules make creating harmonies easier. When I tried to write something in totally free form, it usually was harder to do.

Most of my efforts were failures. Banjo music with chords is very hard to Fugue, but one song with a clear opening melody did work.

Writing a piece with more than two “voices” in Fugue form was exceedingly difficult. Now I understand how amazing Bach was to write a fugue with six voices.

Only certain instruments were good for Fugue. Guitars and Banjos are harder because they use chords. You also need a musical theme that has some emptiness in it in order to leave space for more voices.

In this song I used all of these allowed transformations of the original musical theme:

  • Pitch shift (playing the same piece up a 5th of an octave)
  • Time shift (playing the same piece time-shifted against itself)
  • Tempo shift (slowing down or speeding up the theme against the original voice — both kinds of shift appear in it)

I could not manage to fit an inversion of the Fugue theme in here, though that is also allowed.

It was interesting that I could make reasonable chords with a pitch shift and change the song’s key.

The only tools I had available were copying pieces of the music using the Audacity MP3 editor.

I also remixed one of Sufjan Steven’s longer musical pieces (All Delighted People, 2010) into a shorter one that combines the best of both his published versions:

Play All Delighted People (hybrid remix)
Play All Delighted People (hybrid remix)


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