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Reinventing Bach [Kindle Edition]

Paul Elie
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $17.00
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Sold by: Macmillan

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Book Description

The story of a revolution in music and technology, told through a century of recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach

In Reinventing Bach, his remarkable second book, Paul Elie tells the electrifying story of how musicians of genius have made Bach’s music new in our time, at once restoring Bach as a universally revered composer and revolutionizing the ways that music figures into our lives. 

As a musician in eighteenth-century Germany, Bach was on the technological frontier—restoring organs, inventing instruments, and perfecting the tuning system still in use today. Two centuries later, pioneering musicians began to take advantage of breakthroughs in audio recording to make Bach’s music the sound of modern transcendence. The sainted organist Albert Schweitzer played to a mobile recording unit set up at London’s Church of All Hallows in order to spread Bach’s organ works to the world beyond the churches.  Pablo Casals, recording at Abbey Road Studios, made Bach’s cello suites existentialism for the living room; Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, with Fantasia, made Bach the sound of children’s playtime and Hollywood grandeur alike. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations opened and closed the LP era and made Bach the byword for postwar cool; and Yo-Yo Ma has brought Bach into the digital present, where computers and smartphones put the sound of Bach all around us. In this book we see these musicians and dozens of others searching, experimenting, and collaborating with one another in the service of Bach, who emerges as the very image of the spiritualized, technically savvy artist.

Reinventing Bach is a gorgeously written story of music, invention, and human passion—and a story with special relevance in our time, for it shows that great things can happen when high art meets new technology.




Editorial Reviews

Review

Praise for Reinventing Bach:

“This intelligent, wide-ranging book brings Bach’s eternal music into conjunction with the forces of history. Paul Elie makes us realize how even great music, if it is to last over time, must change in order to stay the same.” —Wendy Lesser

“By juxtaposing the LP and the iPod, Elie reminds us of how technology has democratized and universalized Bach . . .  Elie has many strengths and strands: detailed and beautifully described moments of listening, engagingly narrated summaries of scholarship, alert attention to telling facts, and a loving knowledge of many different kinds of music, including Robert Johnson and Led Zeppelin. There’s plenty of audiophile information—wax cylinder, recording, mono, stereo, different kinds of tape, 78s, long-playing records, CD’s, iPods—and a lot on the placement of microphones. Wearing his learning lightly (with wonderful endnotes as a ground), Elie is polyphonic and contrapuntal . . . Elie’s book is held together by chain of voices following one other as they make an entrance, step back, overlap, and enter again to reveal a new aspect against the changing conversation: Schweitzer to Casals to Stokowski to Gould to Ma. Other voices too move in and out, filling out the progressions: Tureck, Schoenberg, Einstein, Jobs, even the musically fantastic Mickey Mouse. The voice hovering over all is Elie’s own, modest, serious, attuned to the whole . . . It is a pleasure to read such a serious and inventive book on Bach, and that’s saying something.” —Alexandra Mullen, Barnes and Noble Review

“Thoughtful and elegant . . . Elie remains throughout a thoughtful guide.” —Guy Dammann, The Guardian

“In Reinventing Bach, Elie weaves . . . several lives together in order to make an effective case that Bach’s music, like all classical music, can never be ‘played’ exactly, with total fidelity to the source; fidelity isn’t even the goal. Performed live, it has always been ‘interpreted’ by conductors, musicians, singers, and scholars. In other words, no one plays like anyone else, and everyone’s interpretation is inflected by his or her time and character . . . Recording technology is also what makes Elie’s story about more than the interpretation and reinterpretation of musical compositions by Bach . . . Passing from shellac discs and the gramophone through LPs, cassette tapes, compressed digital files, YouTube, and smartphones, Elie assembles a satisfying history of audio recording that’s as concerned with reasonable explanations of how vacuum tubes work and how to splice tape as it is with a tour of Abbey Road Studios and a description of Glenn Gould’s trusty ‘wood-framed, slender-legged’ folding chair . . . Conventional wisdom suggests that as a result ‘our lives are half-lives, our experience mediated, and so diminished, by technology.’ What holds this new book together is Elie’s belief—and here I’m tempted to call it a religious belief—that, ‘to this conviction, the recorded music of Bach is contrary testimony. It defies the argument that experience mediated through technology is a diminished thing.’ Our lives are whole lives—a modern reality that recordings of Bach make obvious . . . Having arrived at the end of a several year journey, ‘touching the keys again and again with the ten digits of my two hands,’ he writes, ‘putting one word after another in the hope that a couple hundred thousand of them, mastered and sequenced, will amount to a kind of music,’ Elie completes what he calls a ‘spirituality of technology’: his very own reinvention of Bach.” —Scott Korb, The Los Angeles Review of Books

“From the stately ‘Sheep Shall Safely Graze’ and the solemn St. Matthew Passion to the wildly exuberant Fantasia and Gould’s Goldberg Variations, the music of Bach often serves as a listener’s introduction to classical music. In this brilliant and passionate appreciation, Elie (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) offers not only a brief biography of the great musician but an exceptional study of the ways that numerous musicians have rendered Bach’s music through the years through various technologies. Bach’s music has been interpreted to suit new inventions, from the 78-rpm record, the LP, and headphones and Walkman to the compact disc and digital file. These inventions have taken the music into new contexts, from the living room to the open road to outer space (Voyager carried a recording of the first prelude of book one of The Well-Tempered Clavier). Bach himself was an inventor, fashioning a new musical instrument, the lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord, and composing “Inventions,” short, tight keyboard pieces. Elie devotes chapters to various artists who used the technologies of their time to reconsider Bach and introduce his music to a new audience. The famed medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, for example, was also an accomplished organist whose biography of Bach as well as his recordings of Bach’s Fugue in D Minor on wax-cylinder recordings introduced Bach’s music to a world beyond the church. Pablo Casals recorded Bach’s cello suites on 78-rpm record albums, bringing Bach into living rooms everywhere. Reading Elie’s stately and gorgeous prose is much like losing oneself in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, for his study convincingly demonstrates that the music of Bach is the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003) returns with a tour de force about Johann Sebastian Bach and a description and assessment of the recordings that have made his work an essential part of our culture. Elie, a former senior editor with FSG and now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, tells a polyphonic tale, weaving throughout his narrative a history of the recording industry and brisk biographies of Bach and the 20th-century performers who first recorded his work for mass audiences, including Albert Schweitzer, Leopold Stokowski, Pablo Casals and Glenn Gould. The author begins with a snapshot of Bach’s pervasive presence today, then takes us back to 1935 and Schweitzer’s recordings of Bach’s organ works on wax cylinders. Throughout the text, Elie moves us forward in the history of technology—from 78s to LPs to tapes to CDs to MP3s, showing how Bach managed to remain relevant. We also follow the careers of his principals; Elie’s treatment of the talented and troubled Gould is especially sensitive and enlightening. Occasionally, the author enters the narrative for a personal connection, perhaps nowhere more affectingly than in his account of the time he danced in the rain on the Tanglewood grass while Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach cello suite. Elie also tells us how other cultural figures have employed the music and the man—e.g., Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach, the 1968 album Switched-On Bach and the use of Bach in films and on TV. The author’s passion, thorough research and imaginative heart produce one revelation after another.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“Fascinating and engagingly written, [Reinventing Bach] emphasizes that Bach—whose greatness as a composer, for Mr. Elie, is ‘total and inviolable’—was also a pioneer of technology: not just a master organist but a master organ builder and repairer; a theoretician who investigated the possibilities of a tuning system that changed the way music sounds and is still in use; a composer who embraced the art of transcription and would not have minded at all, and maybe anticipated, that his pieces would one day be reconceived for Moog synthesizers and small ensembles of swinging, scatting singers . . . [Elie] writes beautifully about music . . . the book is a page-turner with astute accounts of Bach’s life folded in.” —Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

“[Reinventing Bach is] erudite, poetic and occasionally provocative . . .  Elie, an author and editor, is the kind of listener-enthusiast who once rode a train from New York to Durham, N.C., with no other company than a multidisc set of the St. Matthew Passion and an album by B.B. King. And his enthusiasm is catching.” —Bill Marvel, The Dallas Morning News

“[Reinventing Bach] is structured around a well-informed and empathetic biography of Bach, intercut with lively accounts of five pioneering performers who made famous Bach recordings: Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma. Linking them through their love of Bach is intriguing, even if in other respects they are slightly strange bedfellows. Elie interweaves their stories, cutting-and-pasting them into a vivid mosaic, though his sudden juxtapositions can be as jarring as they are stimulating. Elie is an acute and passionate listener, writing sensitively about music’s impact on him.” —Susan Tomes, The Independent

“Paul Elie’s passionate and grand book . . . is a weave of stories, emulating the play of voices in Bach’s music . . .  Elie places a lot of faith in recordings, and writes wonderfully about their power and their atmosphere.” —Jeremy Denk, New Republic

“[Reinventing Bach] is an . . . ultimately impressive testimony to Bach’s power to speak to successive generations.” —The New Yorker

“An appreciation of Bach that is both impassioned and subtle.” —Ivan Hewett, Reinventing Bach

“Paul Elie...

About the Author

Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in 2003. He lives in New York City.


Product Details

  • File Size: 1261 KB
  • Print Length: 509 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0374281076
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 18, 2012)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0080K3DQU
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #262,590 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Frustrating and fragmented January 6, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is several books in one. There is a good biography of J.S. Bach, several biographies of Bach interpreters (Schweitzer, Casals, Gould), a history of the emergence of recording technology, and more. These are woven together but do not form a single fabric. Elie appears to be attempting to connect the way musicians interpret Bach with the way recorded music evolved. This attempt, at least for me, sank under a weighty burden of elaborate metaphors and literary prose. More than anything these sections reminded me of writings about art or literature: I understood every word, the occasional phrase, and not a single sentence. The metaphors are stretched beyond breaking point: a description of the working methods of James Watson and Francis Crick is included simply to show that the working methods of post-war recording engineers were similarly improvised and ad hoc. I frequently found myself asking "What is the point here?" and was rarely able to find a satisfactory answer. Surely the point must be more than "music can be interpreted in different ways and Bach's is particularly open to varied interpretation"? The biography of Bach is welcome, the remainder tries far to hard to make an argument that doesn't seem worth the effort.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bring Your Own Bach December 8, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As others have pointed out, there are some mistakes in a few details, but I was not reading this book for technical details. The further I got into it, the more I realized that Elie was not teaching me, except to teach me one writer's joyous response to perhaps the greatest music ever.
Reinventing Bach could just as well be called Celebrating Bach, in different countries, different times, different media. The music of Bach runs through the book (not really; I spent a lot of time on Youtube chasing down performances), holding together a history of the twentieth century.
Just about every day that I read this book, I posted a sentence or two on Facebook, hoping to get someone else to join the party.
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His Master's Voice September 24, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Reinventing Bach is an extremely fluid and enjoyable read. Elie does his readers the greatest service of reminding us that while Bach is frequently the gateway composer for people's classical music experience, he was anything but common--a radical innovator in composition, performance and in the refining and inventing of musical instruments. Elie then uses this portrait of Bach as a framework over which he lays out the innovations in performance, instrumentation and recording of Bach in the modern age. In addition the book gives us remarkable and welcome context in the overall musical recording world that wonderfully explodes what could otherwise be a narrowly focused study. Growing up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, my own first encounters with Bach were delivered by middle-aged, mid-Atlantic or mid-Western church organists who could somehow manage to make a fugue feel like a funeral march. When I first discovered my parents' Switched-On Bach LP, I almost couldn't believe the compositions hadn't be altered. Elie celebrates this idea--that so often our appreciation of music is affected by the medium, time and place of its delivery. The high point of my own journey with Bach and his various innovators came at Carnegie Hall listening to Yo Yo Ma's marathon performance of the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Many thanks to Mr. Elie for increasing my appreciation for and understanding of that journey!
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18 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nonfiction event of the season September 23, 2012
Format:Hardcover
If Elie's first book, THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN, was a sonorous quartet, REINVENTING BACH is a polyphonous cantata, well-tuned, well-tempered, in its every note. I've never before written an amazon review, but then I've never before read such an astonishing survey. To intertwine a musical biography of Bach with a history of sound technology is a singular achievement and, for my money, the nonfiction event of the season. If you already love Bach, your devotion will be deepened. If you've been unacquainted till now, a lasting friendship will ensue. Substitute 'Elie' for 'Bach' in the last two sentences, and they'll be just as apt.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bach for Our Time March 13, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Having listened countless times to Glenn Gould's recordings of the Goldberg Variations, I thought this book might offer insights into why I found them so mesmerizing, and I did. The first part of the book intersperses an account of Bach's music making with those of mid-20th century performers who recorded his work--Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Wanda Landowska, Leopold Stokowski, Rosalyn Turek, Leonard Bernstein and Gould, of course. This was my favorite part of the book, because it showed the progression from wax to vinyl to digital, and Elie tells their stories well. His focus on Gould's music and the arch of his life is well done and instructive, but sad. Then along comes Yo Yo Ma to brighten things up.

As with other books I've liked about the making of music, I find it frustrating that book and music publishers can't find a way to insert excerpts of a work being discussed into electronic books. Often, I have trouble remembering specific works or parts of works without a cue, and even though Elie describes those passages in some detail, it doesn't trigger my memory unless I hear them. Even a measure or two from some nameless performer would help illuminate words on a page.

Elie explains how Bach was the composer whose work seemed to most insinuate itself into the pop music of the sixties and on, and he mentions plenty of examples. but too often they are described in less loving detail. What we gain from digitized music--fidelity, portability, widespread distribution--has brought into focus the purposes for which live performance serve to bring us together. And Elie describes numerous performances he attends. Toward the end, there's a lot of listing of names that obscures the points he makes. Perhaps there was just too much to say.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars If you love bach....
This is a really broad study of Bach, his music, times, etc., and would be of help to performers and composers of all music in increasing musical depth of perception.
Published 1 month ago by James E. Barr
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read
I thought this was an interesting survey of Bach interpretation since the beginning of the recording era. Much of the focus is on Casals, Gould and Schweitzer. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Doug S.
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read about Bach and those who channel him
A compelling read - a series of biographical sketches of Bach and some of the greats who interpret his music.
Published 4 months ago by David Gill
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating--Timely
I found this book to be utterly fascinating as Elie takes us through newer and newer technologies and shows the effect on how performers adjusted their way of performing. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Jeanette Gross
4.0 out of 5 stars Who knew Bach has permeated our current life in so many ways?
There were parts of the book that I didn't understand not being a music major, but found it fascinating to trace Bach's life and the performances of his compositions over the... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Karen F Daniel
4.0 out of 5 stars Creative Look at Bach's Music
Writer Elie allows us to creatively look at Bach's music through the eyes of pianists,
cellists, conductors, recording artists. Read more
Published 9 months ago by David W.
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Bach
If you want to learn more about Bach this is not where to go. Full of info about other famous figures though.
Published 12 months ago by Ron
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put it down!
I loved "The Life you Save May be your Own" and awaited this new book by Paul Elie. Even though I'm not an expert on music, the development of the technology of music, and JS... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Julie Balamut
4.0 out of 5 stars Given as a gift
I gave this as a gift to one of my music teachers who loves Bach and she said she enjoyed it immensely - she doesn't have time to read a lot but found this interesting enough to... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Margaret Gagnon
4.0 out of 5 stars Painstakingly researched, lovingly considered, and deftly written
All that is left of Johann Sebastian Bach is script. He produced over 1,100 individual works but all of it is inert, frozen in place on paper in an age when few of us can read... Read more
Published 14 months ago by C.E. Alexander
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