Reinventing Bach (Part 2)

Part Two of a lengthy book review/summary.  Part One is here.

A few more figures Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach introduced me to (again, interspersed with youtube videos)…

(well, it wasn’t really an introduction but) Glenn Gould (1932-1982):

Elie convincingly reads Gould’s work as that of the first great artist to come of age in the era of recordings.  His first recording of the Goldberg Variations (1955) [link is to full recording] comes near the start of the LP era – a format that was designed and introduced with classical music in mind.  Gould in fact reported having listened to Arthur Schnabel’s Beethoven (his 2nd piano concerto) on 78, and imitating the pauses that his 78-based listening entailed.  Classical music on 78 required flipping a record every 7 minutes or so, which was automated by the end of the 78 era, but still required a pause while the machine flipped it over.

[I can remember something similar from the dawn of the CD era – Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever CD contained a little public-service-announcement that began “Attention CD listeners.  Now is the point in the album that if you were listening on LP or cassette…”]

I learned a little bit more about Gould’s first recording from this book, like that based on the outtakes, he was perhaps not planning to record the Goldberg Variations at all, but instead the 2 and 3 part inventions (a work he did record later, though one Elie thinks is one of his weaker efforts).

He also closely considers Gould’s (incomplete) Art of the Fugue recording.  Elie describes it as the closest anyone had yet come to an electronic rendering of Bach.  Gould sought to remove all the “personality” from this, and render it in as abstract a fashion as possible – to capture the music as Bach thought of it in his head.

Lastly there’s Gould’s 1981 Goldberg Variations recording (link is to a video version made to accompany the record release), near the end of the LP era (and Gould’s unexpectedly shortened life).  Elie sees this as a set of variations upon the earlier ones, in the sense that they presuppose them and comment on them.  The biggest difference you’ll notice is the slower tempo, but what that tempo does is allow further disassembling of the counterpoint.  I myself go back and forth on which recording I prefer -at any rate the 26 years that intervene brought a lot of changes to the recording industry, and that’s the main contrast Elie uses to weave them into his history.


Walter/Wendy Carlos (1939-)

First something I didn’t know – they’re the same person, Walter having undergone a gender transformation partway through his life.  While he was still Walter, he produced Switched-On Bach.  I can’t locate a youtube video, nor is this on Spotify.  What I found on YouTube were other imitators.  If you own a record player, I recommend going to a used record store and buying a copy (Reckless in Chicago had like 6 – this sold scads and scads of copies in the 70’s and there are a lot out there).  Strangely, Reckless places this record in “lounge/easy-listening.”  I have no idea why it wouldn’t just be in the Bach section in classical.

At any rate – this record was awesome. I remember a conversation with Nates a long time ago where he asserted that the 70’s were way more future-oriented and way less nostalgic than what he then called “now” (this was in the early 00’s).  Listening to this recording will nostalgically bring you back to that futurism.  It will feel like you’ve taken a trip to Epcot center in 1982.  It is a novelty, but it is also (for me anyway) remarkably intimate.  Glenn Gould described it as “the record of the decade” (that’s the title of Gould’s review – couldn’t find it in a quick scan of the internet but it’s probably out there).

On a more personal note – this reminded me of a period in the 80’s I spent programming Apple II’s.  Cleverly using BASIC (specifically its “data,” “read,” and “poke” commands) you could key in number sequences that described the duration and pitch for its internal synthesizer, and make it play things like Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, and then do funny things like double or quadruple the tempo, change the key signature in odd ways by changing all E’s to E-flat’s, etc.

Carlos’s Switched on Bach is from the generation before that, so it was probably more difficult for him to do.  He used an original Moog synthesizer, and I have no idea the details of production, except that the Moog could only generate one note at a time, which means Carlos had to overdub several tracks to get Bach’s textured wholes.  Most of the pieces he selected are crowd-favorite Bach, but this makes no difference: it’s an incredible listening experience.  I wish I could find it on the internet to share.

Yo-Yo Ma (1955-)

The book didn’t reveal too much about his story, other than that his dad was very strict, he was a bit of a rebel, he recorded the Cello Suites, and he was friends with Steve Jobs.  It suggested that his version of the Cello Suites, as opposed to Casals’, were more technically adept and more sonorous, but perhaps less personal.  Again, I haven’t listened to either of them enough to characterize them or their differences.

Otto Klemperer (1886-1975)

Klemperer (along with Stowkowski – see my previous post) was used to exemplify the “Big Bach” period, during which increasingly larger ensembles and choruses were assembled to perform Bach’s works – especially his sacred music.  Klemperer recorded a more-than-three-hour St. Matthew’s Passion (link is to only part 1 – which is more than 98 minutes).  I listened to it once, so again, can’t pronounce on it, but the Bach work itself is, obviously, awesome.


Joshua Rifkin (1944-)

Rifkin provides Elie with the other side of the contrast – not “Big Bach” but small Bach – historically-informed-performance (HIP) Bach.  “Early music” Bach.  I found it interesting that apparently classical music moved through a more experimental, modernist phase, and then reverted to this “we have to get the original intent of the performer just right” sort of thing (that being the opposite, at least from one perspective, of what happened in literature study over roughly the same period).

Elie discusses Rifkin’s groundbreaking recording of the B-Minor Mass.  You’re sort of comparing apples and oranges if you compare this with Klemperer’s Passion, since the B-Minor Mass is a different piece of music, but you’ll get the relevant difference in feel.  Rifkin used single singers, rather than choral sections, to record the singing parts within the mass, on the premise that this is how Bach intended it to be performed.

I guess there’s an ongoing debate within classical music about which is better – modernist reinterpretation or the historical-informed-performance accuracy.  Having read so much of what Glenn Gould had to say, I incline towards the modernist perspective – which is not to say that there might not also be merit in historically oriented performance.  Clearly both perspectives could generate good music, which is sort of the point.  But the HIP approach tends towards a sort of false conservatism, sort of like original-intent jurisprudence.  On the other hand it’s sort of neat to hear what Bach might have wanted us to hear.  It’s also neat to hear what someone else might make of Bach’s ideas.  Since it’s music, and not the constitution, it seems to me – the more the merrier.  Still, though, it sounds like the lines are drawn in a very ideologically charged manner.

One last tidbit – I’ve heard of this book, though never read it.  I’m not sure if it’s worth the time or effort, given that it’s huge.  Elie mentioned it really briefly, and then proceeded to use the phrase “strange loop” a bunch of times.

So, that’s all.  Towards the end, Elie notes that the problem (and the awesome thing) about Bach is the “superabundance” of it.  There are hundreds of pieces, and they all start to feel inexplicably complex the more you listen to them.  You can never get your head around it, no matter how hard you try.

I recommend the book but what I recommend more is giving yourself a few days trying to “get into” Bach if you never have.   Bach seems to be one composer that, even among classical music people, it’s socially acceptable to say something like “I just don’t care for Bach.”  Give it a try.  If it were me, I’d start with Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations, and move on from there to at least try the recordings I’ve linked to.  Or maybe I’d start with Casals’ Cello Suites.  Or the B-Minor Mass, or St. Matthew’s Passion or wherever.

It really doesn’t matter but if you really want something you won’t be able to get your mind around, Bach is that thing.

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4 Responses to Reinventing Bach (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Reinventing Bach (Part 1) | Original Positions

  2. Nates says:

    I’m glad you remember my claim about the 70s. I still believe this, and I’ve been thinking of backing it up by exploring the music of that decade. That probably won’t include W. Carlos, although I did used to have the CD of that album. (It disappeared somewhere along the way.) I recall finding it very interesting, and then barely ever playing it. By the way, the 90s band Stereolab did a shout out to Carlos by calling their first compilation album “Switched-On Stereolab”. I’m sure this is how I learned about Carlos–it’s funny how these musical lines of acquaintance run.

  3. Josh says:

    Which music do you have in mind for your re-exploration? I must confess knowing very little about 70’s music except for the beginning (late VU) and the end (i.e., punk), but those things both feel more like they belong respectively to the 60’s and the 80’s.

  4. Nates says:

    Well, there’s Zeppelin, Floyd, Queen, and Fleetwood Mac, just to name some of the bigger bands. And there’s an interesting splintering into separate genres going on: metal, southern rock, country rock, etc. I’m interested in re-exploring the broader pop landscape, including the cheesier stuff–which I have a pretty high tolerance for.

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