Monday, June 24, 2013

Reinventing Bach

Like Evening in the Palace of Reason, Paul Elie’s 2012 publication is an excellent bibliographic resource for my thesis, but not something I can cite directly. Compared to the Gaines book, there is less of immediate relevance to my topic. Still, it is a fascinating take on Bach, the man and the music and the legacy. The author’s unique approach is an exploration of the role of Bach’s music in the development of recording technology. The “inventions” of Reinventing Bach begin with Bach himself as a master organ designer (one of the main purposes of Bach’s various travels was to inspect and play new organs) and end with the iPod. Along the way, Elie weaves the Bach biography and compositions with the biographies and recorded performances of musicians at the forefront of modern technologies.

So, we have Bach and Albert Schweitzer, Bach and Pablo Casals, then Stokowski, Glenn Gould, and finally Yo-Yo Ma. Organ works on the earliest recording devices; the cello suites on 78s; Bach at the movies and on the radio, the Goldberg Variations in the recording studio; and Bach on the streets in casual performances and earbuds. Ultimately, Elie has given us a portrait of his introduction to, and growing obsession with, Bach and his music. By the time we realize that this is, in a sense, the main motivation for the book, it is too late. The author has captivated with these sprawling chapters that take us back and forth in time – very much the modern story-telling mode – weaving biographies and connecting histories and traditions to highlight the undisputed centrality of J. S. Bach in the canon of western music.

Pun intended, and apt.

The other nice touch is the way Elie teases out the musical meaning of the word, “invention,” by the end of the book. Namely, Bach’s compositions called “Inventions,” which Elie notes are exercises demonstrating contrapuntal techniques and designed for the education of others (notably his elder children) and patterns for them to work from. In that sense, Bach’s music served as a pattern for the exploration of twentieth-century recording technologies; each building on the previous and becoming successively more accessible to the non-musical consuming public.

I doubt there is any truly famous recording that is not touched upon in Reinventing Bach – from Schweitzer’s legendary wax cylinders to pervasive YouTube and iTunes downloads. Technical, biographical, historical – while musicologists will (rightly and understandably) argue about the merits of this contribution to “Bach studies,” it is hard to resist the sheer enjoyment Paul Elie takes in the music of Bach.

Which brings me to my final point: say what you will about the relevance of Bach to today’s world (and even to today’s church), Bach cannot be ignored. There is something about this music that people have to reckon with if they are going to be serious at all about western music. (One of the fun bits Elie brings out is the ways jazz and rock musicians have appreciated, incorporated, and co-opted Bach.) For Elie, as for many, there is a deeply personal and spiritual dimension to the music. There is a reason it is not “easy listening.” Much of it was forged during a time of changing tastes and styles and seems to be obscurantist. Though others read the same material differently, it is unavoidably the case that Bach wrote from a distinctively philosophical (and I argue, theological) framework that understood what was coming in the Enlightenment, knew how to use (or cater to) the new aesthetic, but did not lose his mooring in “the great tradition.” And so, since he did not reject the healthy aspects of the ancients, he remains vibrant and relevant to us post-moderns.

Reinventing Bach will interest (and may infuriate) Bach lovers.  Non-musicians, and worship music leaders who wouldn’t give the time of day to Bach, may read this with satisfaction if only to learn about a man who should not be ignored, and learn too about the technologies that cannot be avoided.

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

P.S. This would make a great e-book, with links to recordings along the way.
P.P.S. special thanks to one of my reading children, who gave me this book for my last birthday.


Christopher Charles Horatio Xavier King III, Esq. said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I have to admit I haven't read it myself, but it does sound up my alley. There are a lot of books out there that discuss how literature has changed with the evolution of new technologies, but I haven't seen much that takes a similar look at music. I'll need to check it out someday!

Chuck King said...

Chris, I have a copy you may borrow :~)