Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Switching on Bach

Time for a confession: the first Bach recording I ever purchased was Walter/Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach a synthesizer version of some popular Bach pieces released in 1968. I think I bought it in 1970. I was at the time an electric bass and six-string guitarist, recent member of several different bands and new admirer of classical music. Here is an example of the kind of arrangement found on that album:

I am reminded of this by an article in The Nation about a new book by Paul Elie. Reviewer Michael O'Donnell describes it as follows:
Classical music has experienced years of diminishing ticket sales and the indifference of young listeners and so must exploit technology, Elie believes, in order to endure. To prove as much, he lived for “a thousand and one nights” with Bach’s music on compact disc, MP3 and radio, and he emerged on the other side of the experience eager to proselytize both the music and the recording technology that captured it. Against the instinct of purists to denounce the ubiquitous cheapening of classical music in ringtones, overheated movie trailers and hip-hop songs, Elie contends:  “The more various our encounters with Bach, the more objective his genius is.”
 At the end O'Donnell comments that Elie should spend less time with recordings and more time listening to Bach live. Well, sure, but I think it would be even better to take a few lessons and learn how to play a little Bach. You don't need to be a virtuoso to experience playing Bach and it will connect you with the music in a way that no amount of listening to recordings or going to concerts will do.

But what I really want to talk about is how these kinds of disputes between people who argue for popularizing Bach by playing him on synthesizers or jazzing him up or playing him in subway stations as they recently did in New York and people who argue for more historically-informed performances of Bach are actually a kind of category mistake.

The notion of a category error comes from a 1949 philosophical inquiry by Gilbert Ryle in a book titled The Concept of Mind and it is a useful notion. To give a musical example, you might be giving an introduction to classical music to a friend by taking him to an orchestral concert. You point out the different instruments to him: those are the violins and over there are the flutes. He says, "ok, I see the violins and the flutes and the other instruments you pointed out, but I don't see the orchestra. Where is the orchestra?" He has made the category mistake of not understanding that all the instruments together constitute the orchestra.

I think that nearly all the typical disputes about Bach, or classical music generally, are plagued with category mistakes. When we talk about performing Bach on synthesizers or on harpsichord, in a concert hall or a subway platform, on a recording with digital editing or in your music room at home we are talking about the accidentals of music, not the essence of music.

I notice that much discussion of aesthetics avoids the words 'good' and 'bad' as if they were infectious. The paragraph I quote above twists around, but ends up saying that Bach's genius is "objective", which I take it means 'good'. When you play Bach you can handle a phrase well or badly. Your texture can be clear or muddy. There are a thousand things you can do that work or don't work--and by 'work' I mean are musically effective. It is this sort of thing that matters. If I want to demonstrate how a phrase should (or could) be shaped effectively, I could do so on a guitar, a piano, a synthesizer or a copy of an historical harpsichord and which I chose would be nearly irrelevant. I say 'nearly' because some qualities, like speed of decay or type of attack, could influence how I shaped the phrase.

You can deliver an effective performance of Bach in many different ways on many different instruments which is why transcriptions of Bach are so frequent and so successful. You can also deliver many different kinds of ineffective, maudlin, muddy and wobbly performances of Bach on many different instruments. This is the kind of distinction that matters: between good and bad, not between this model synthesizer and that kind of violin bow, between a performance on piano or one on harpsichord.

We admire the performances of Glenn Gould not because he had an eccentric personality or sat on a funny chair or hummed when he played or isolated himself in the studio or chose a certain editing procedure, but because he played Bach well. Really well. That's the only thing that matters.

Bach endures not because of the use or non-use of any particular technology or even musical instrument, but because his music is aesthetically powerful. This is what drives everyone from Carlos to Gould to me to play Bach and a host of others to listen to Bach.

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