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Reinventing Bach [Hardcover]

Paul Elie
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews


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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

>>1>> This, you say to yourself, is what the past sounded like: rougher, plainer, narrower than the present yet somehow more spacious, a place high-skied and open to life.
The pipes ring out once, twice, a third time. Then with a long, low swallow the organ fills with sound, which spreads toward the ends of the instrument and settles, pooling there. The sound is compounded of air and wood and leather and hammered metal, but how the sound is made is less striking than what it suggests: the past, with all its joists and struts and joinery, its sides fitted and pitched so as to last a lifetime.
The organ is a vessel on a voyage to the past, and that opening figure is a signal sent from ship to shore—a shout-out to the past, asking it to tell its story.
Now the sound spreads emphatically from the low pipes up to the high ones and down again, tracing a jagged line of peaks and spires—an outline of the lost city of the past, a message tapped out from the other side.
>>2>> Albert Schweitzer recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on December 18, 1935, at the church of All Hallows by the Tower in London.
He was the world’s best-known organist, although he lived many miles from an organ; he was far better known than Bach himself had ever been, and the fact weighed on him, for he thought of Bach’s music as a refuge from his fame—as the music of an earlier, purer time.
He climbed the steps to the organ loft, took off his coat, and tried to concentrate. For two nights he had played Bach’s preludes and fugues to the empty church. It was the oldest church in the City of London, already seven hundred years old when it was threatened by the Great Fire of 1666. Now the worn stone of its walls and the smoky glass of its windows seemed to echo his fear that European civilization was ending—“beginning to melt away in our hands,” as he put it. The old City was overrun by motorcars. The organ was recent and mechanized, not the trim eighteenth-century type he favored. The windows rattled when he sounded the low pipes. He and his two apprentices took turns climbing a ladder to dampen the loose glass with towels.
Making a recording was complicated, too. The technicians spoke English, a language he had not mastered. He had to stop playing in odd places or repeat whole fugues three and four times. The recording process would never fully capture the sound of the organ in its surroundings—the essence of organ music, in his view—and he would never be a natural recording artist.
Yet as he settled behind the organ he felt at home. After two nights, he was familiar with the two keyboards and the hand-worn wooden stops. He sat upright, exhausted but invigorated, in vest and shirtsleeves, feet on the pedals, arms spread as if to echo the two wings of his white mustache, eyes on the pipes tapering up and out of sight.
Thirty years earlier he had renounced a life in music for one in medicine, training to run a clinic for poor people at the village of Lambaréné in the French Congo—to be a “jungle doctor in Africa,” as the press put it. He had wanted to do “something small in the spirit of Jesus”—to make his life an argument for a way of being that was grounded in what he now called reverence for life. But his act of renunciation had turned into something else: a double life in which he spent half the year in bourgeois Europe describing the poverty of Africa. Was this really the way to be of service—to become a freak, an exhibit of human virtue at its most self-congratulatory? Might it not have been better to do something small the way Bach had done, hunkering down behind the organ in Leipzig and making music that shouted from the housetops about reverence for life?
It might have been. But it was too late. At age sixty, he felt old—“an old cart horse … running in the same old pair of shafts.” He had written an autobiography as a kind of testament. He had made arrangements for the supervision of the clinic after his death. Germany was lost to Nazism. Europe was going to war again, and he was struggling, in a book, to set out the political and social dimensions of his philosophy as a corrective. For the first time in his life, the words would not come.
The recordings offered a way out. The hope of making them had sustained him on long nights in the tropics, as he played Bach on a piano fitted with organ pedals and lined with zinc to ward off moisture. The sale of them, in a pressboard album of shellac discs, would raise money for the clinic—for medicines, lamps, an X-ray machine. More than that, they would do with a few nights’ work what he had striven to do over several years in his book about Bach’s music. They would express his life as a musician and spread it across long distances. They would set the past against the present, and would put forward the music of Bach as a counterpoint to the age, a sound of spiritual unity to counter “a period of spiritual decadence in mankind.”
To his schedule of lectures and recitals, then, he had added these recording sessions at All Hallows. The technicians had brought equipment from the EMI compound in St. Johns Wood, crossing London in a specially outfitted truck, which was now parked in the lane outside. A microphone hung from the ribbed vault in the nave. Electrical cables threaded up the aisle and around the altar to the sacristy, where the disc-recording console stood at the ready.
Now a handbell rang, a signal from the technicians that a fresh cylinder was turning. It was time to make a recording.
The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: it was in this, the music of Bach, especially, that Schweitzer felt reverence for life—felt the “real experience of life” that had led him to medicine and Africa. Making these recordings, he was fully alive. He straightened his back and began to play, repeating the opening figure once, twice, a third time.
He played for about ten minutes, pausing once while the technicians replaced one disc with another. He played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue the way he had played it in Paris in his student days: as a sermon in sound, an expression of the unity of creation that he feared lost forever.
>>3>> For those ten minutes Schweitzer’s life overlaps with ours. In the music, he is present to us—more so, it seems to me, than he was to most of the people who were actually in his presence while he was alive.
At the peak of his renown Life magazine called him “the greatest man in the world.” Since then he has faltered in the test of time; the adjectives once affixed to him have come unstuck, and the great man—doctor, musician, philosopher, humanitarian, and celebrity all in one—now appears a problematic, compromised figure: his project paternalistic, his methods condescending, his view of the people he worked with in Africa more akin to the crude racial stereotypes in Kipling and Conrad than to any ideal found in the gospels.
But his take on the Toccata and Fugue hasn’t lost its power. The music he made in those ten minutes is still bright, brave, confident in its cause. It beams Bach out into the night with an electric charge, which will outlast us the way it has outlasted him.
The question is: How does that happen? How does a snatch of recorded sound survive? How is it that a little night music made a long time ago can withstand the wear and tear of time?
The obvious explanation is that it is the music of Bach that survives, brought to life in Schweitzer’s performance. That composer, that work, that church, that instrument, that organist, that night—all combined to produce an “inspired” performance, one that (fortunately for us) was recorded.
That is true, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story. The performance is extraordinary, and yet so much of the power of this Toccata and Fugue in D Minor seems to be more than merely technical. The mysteries of that experience of music-making were cut into the grooves of a spinning disc that night, and now they are to be found between the lines of the recording—in the blurred edges, the high notes ground down to points, the surfaces that seem part of the structure, like the rattling windows of All Hallows.
Schweitzer characterized Bach as a technician of the sacred and a representative of a prior epoch in which spirit and technique went hand in hand. “In that epoch, every artist was still to some extent an instrument maker, and every instrument maker to some extent an artist,” he declared, setting the mechanical present against a past in which knowledge and know-how were indistinguishable. But to read Schweitzer on Bach is to recognize Schweitzer too as an exemplar of such an epoch, in which to “play” music was to take up an instrument, and in which examples of the music perfectly played were not near at hand but existed mainly in the imagination.
The Toccata and Fugue recording registers the technique of that age. By professional audio standards, it isn’t a “good” recording. It isn’t clear or accurate; it isn’t high fidelity, not even close. At times the great organ seems to wheeze, its sound as small and fragile as an accordion’s; in range, the recording goes from black to gray, from muddy to soupy, from loud to a little less loud.
This lack of fidelity is the source of its power. Recordings usually become more transparent the more you listen to them, until you feel that the recording is the music itself. Not this one. This is a recording, and it sounds like one: the more you listen to it, the more audible its extramusical qualities become. It is an old recording, and it sounds its age: the dark corners and muddied entrances are pockets of mystery; the hiss of the tape transfer is the sound of the mists of time.
It sounds like the past, that is. It isn’t timeless; ...
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