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Reinventing Bach Hardcover – September 18, 2012


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (September 18, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780374281076
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374281076
  • ASIN: 0374281076
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #515,974 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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’s new book on Johann Sebastian Bach is a wonderful piece of writing that’s hard to categorize: a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, a history of recorded sound, an analysis of Bach's interpreters over the years, and a virtuoso attempt to explain why Bach is simply the greatest composer of all time . . . None of these descriptions does justice to Elie’s Reinventing Bach, which is written like a great piece of music—with its own rhythm, counterpoint, moments of deep reflection, and spectacular flourishes of verbal dexterity. Elie . . . accomplishes all this by following the classic advice to writers: show, don’t tell . . . Elie’s felicitous word choices make this compendium consistently entertaining . . . Through all these recordings, as he notes, ‘the dead continue to speak,’ and Elie’s book has brought the composer and his interpreters brilliantly alive.” —Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times

“[Reinventing Bach] is a book of epic sweep, like a novel made up of multiple strands . . . Elie deploys considerable scholarship . . . and he writes beautifully. He makes a strong case that within less than a century a succession of new recording media . . . have brought Bach’s music, in multiple versions, to vast numbers of new listeners at the press of a button. It is a luxury previously unavailable even to princes, who in order to enjoy live performances had to employ entire orchestras. Recording technology has made a monarch of everyone. A chapter or two into the book, you will find yourself reaching out for your ‘Goldberg Variations.’” —The Economist

 

“Confident and informative, unafraid to judge but never polemical, Elie’s big book shows how, and asks why, Bach’s works have been so valuable, and so adaptable  . . . Elie gives fluent force to Bach’s biography . . . You can learn a great deal of music history—and of other history: the wars of religion, the civil war in Spain, the history of television—from Elie, but he has not simply told good stories. Instead, he uses these stories (including Bach’s own) to make his own always attentive and sometimes exultant claims about how Bach’s compositions work, and about what great performers have done with and for them . . . Elie’s ‘gratitude for the music of Bach’ (as he puts it), and his attention to others’ gratitude, has an inevitable spiritual cast, one consonant with Bach’s writings and with Bach’s life: if this music, so “manifestly a source of transcendence,” does not require us to thank a Creator, its power and its persistence can make us feel glad and grateful nevertheless.” —Stephen Burt, National Book Critics Circle


Reinventing Bach is a curious and wonderful book, delightful and challenging at the same time. Among musicologists and classical music lovers, Johann Sebastian Bach’s place in the canon of western music is secure, but what Paul Elie demonstrates is that Bach has a place much bigger than that . . . [Elie’s prose] is cognate with the musical forms and procedures that Bach used in his own creative and very personal vein. At the end of Reinventing Bach Elie says, ‘…our experience of the [Bach] recordings, as the recorded life of Bach reveals, has made us fluent in the practices that traditions of the spirit prize: scrutiny of the past, communication across the ages, a reluctance to judge by appearances, and the recognition that the dead continue to speak and the sounds they make, amplified right, are a kind of music.’

This is the meaning of this curiously inventive book, a book that performs a literary counterpoint among the various stories that the author tells to enlighten our hearts and minds with the depth and spirituality of the music of Bach—but not only that. The author imitates in his craft that spirit of invention that he carefully shows characterized the music of the great master. It takes some time before the reader understands why in any deep way the personalities he chooses and their stories are allowed to invade this life of Bach, but eventually the literary invention becomes clear. It is a vehicle to engage the invention of Bach himself. The book itself is not about only the music of J. S. Bach and the effect of his music through the centuries since his death. The book is also a narrative of the technology of recording and how various well-known musicians contributed in astounding ways to the historical narrative around that technology that we usually take for granted . . . [works] are woven into the narrative, but Elie often gives interpretation and commentary that is usually spot on . . .The kaleidoscopic perspective of this book is thrilling and very satisfying.” —T. Frank Kennedy, S.J., America Magazine

“Elie . . . has the ability to weave together many small stories to narrate a big story . . . Elie’s narrative is like a well-crafted oratorio.” —Christian Century

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.


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Customer Reviews

Great book and well researched.
Hugh Brakebill
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.
James E. Barr
A compelling read - a series of biographical sketches of Bach and some of the greats who interpret his music.
David Gill

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 35 people found the following review helpful By B. Abramson on 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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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By C.E. Alexander on February 4, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
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 sheet music. The composer's legacy is constantly in flux now, in reinvention, and no single reinvention is more equal than the others. Brace yourself, but there is no essential Bach.

Paul Elie makes this case on nearly every page of his book Reinventing Bach, but it is page 71 before he asks the corollary: "How are we supposed to listen to so much music, all of it so good?" Elie is referring to Bach's compositions for organ-"near three hundred works, every one sublime"-but he could pose the question for all music that predates the gramophone. Bach factored heavily in that technological debut, and has factored in each subsequent advance since then.

Or rather his performers have, those sometimes unwitting celebrities who interpret Bach posthumously and lend him a voice again. It seems like our generation has won an undeserved indulgence; after all, Bach's contemporaries knew him only from weekly, live church performances and palace appearances. Is it not unnatural that modern audiences in North America, Asia, or Africa should know him so much better than Europeans knew him while he lived, over 250 years ago? That is a rewording of Elie's question: how do we listen? Were vinyl and tape-recorded by irascible, sometimes neurotic virtuosos-the best way? Elie's response is an unqualified yes. For some, technological advances such as shellac and tape were as scandalous then as the pirate bays are now. So it is telling that Bach-incredibly prolific, and therefore as subject to unaffiliated recordings as any man or woman who has ever lived-was still dominant.
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful By David Kidd on 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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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Michael L. Segers on 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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