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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2013
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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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2013
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.

Those readers coming fresh off of Matthew Guerrieri's The First Four Notes should be prepared for a much wider scope. Reinventing Bach is significantly longer, and Elie introduces far more characters, many of whom do not survive their introduction. The often cruel lives suffered by pre-industrial artists are well-illustrated here, and Guerrieri's Europe-a place without light bulbs or metronomes-is downright pasteurized compared to those of Reinventing Bach. Elie reminds us that, by age ten, Bach had lost two brothers and both parents. When he was 35 he lost a wife and infant son within a year of each other. Ten of his children did not survive to adulthood. It reads as miraculous that the composer survived the pathogens and heartbreak at all, and truly unfathomable that his output was so high, so excellent, with so little duplication between any one piece and the rest.

Neither is Bach is the star of this book. He ages two years here, five years there, and composes hundreds of pieces of music while our backs are turned. Bach's list of posthumous advocates is the true emphasis; Elie introduces the perpetually nostalgic Albert Schweitzer, a German theologian and medical missionary. He presents Pablo Casals, the Spanish cellist and conductor who would become an outspoken protestor of the Franco regime, and who refused to visit in any nation that recognized Franco's leadership. In time we meet Leopold Stokowski, the cultured half of the team behind Fantasia, and soon thereafter we exchange an awkward wave with Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, "some kind of archangel" who took out a Lloyd's of London insurance policy on his hands, and suffered from deep germophobia. Elie reminds us of film score character Walter Carlos, who recorded Bach on an early version of the Moog, which was strictly monophonic and as big as a refrigerator. It is easy to forget that the 78, film soundtracks, multiple recording takes, stereo sound and the analog synthesizer once represented the technological advancement that the smart phone does today-and that some were as controversial as Napster was ten years ago-but Elie patiently, systematically reminds us.

Did all of the pieces fit together snugly? Do they ever? Schweitzer preferred life off of the grid, long before the short-lived Living With Ed. Casals wished his recordings could be sped up "in order to recover the liveliness that was lost during the mechanical process." Gould hated Fantasia and the Beatles-who, with Joni Mitchell, were jointly responsible for the Bachification of popular music-writing them off as "happy, cocky, belligerently resourceless." Gould also couldn't keep from humming during recording takes. Walter's surgical conversion to Wendy Carlos overshadows his (and her) contribution to the Bach legacy. Even Elie himself has reservations about Schweitzer's version of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: "The sonic boxiness of it-very quality that makes it sound historic-makes it hard to listen for simple enjoyment."

At over 400 pages, the book feels long, especially when the thesis can be expressed so simply: technology only moves in one direction. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. But do the arithmetic: dedicating one written page to every three completed works-so many of them masterpieces-is hardly long-winded. Elie seems unconvinced with his own method of drawing parallels between the lives of J.S. Bach and the lives of his interpreters, a method he abandons just as the reader is getting used to it. Perhaps a better way to describe the narrative shifts from composer to performer and back again is contrapuntal, a musical adjective that no Bach reviewer can reasonably discard. Elie can turn a phrase, but rarely does. Yet again, that leaves us breathless when he chooses to. Take for instance the Luftwaffe bombing of London, which left the church of All Hallows gutted by fire. The reader cannot help but read between the lines:

"The bells, long tied up for the nightly blackouts, were set loose as the ropes burned through, and rang wildly before falling to the ground. The tower stood reverent amid the horror as the great organ, all its lead pipes swelling at once with hot air, screamed with the pain of war and then, the cabinet burning, the pipes melting into the air, went silent."

Does this belie the book's most glaring flaw? It is such a lovely passage and so feverish with nostalgia that there is no chance of his description stopping with objective reporting. The reader is forced to wonder if Elie suffers at least some of the retrogressive longings he so cleanly dismantles when they are voiced by others. Even so, Reinventing Bach establishes Elie as another Bach performer, and for the most part this recording is a painstakingly researched, lovingly considered, and deftly-written book.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2012
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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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2012
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
on September 23, 2012
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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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A pianist with very little Bach in my repertoire (Chopin takes the lead), I hoped Reinventing Bach would help me find a way into understanding Bach and his music. The book certainly delivered on that hope, as well as so much more: a cascade of vibrant and interconnected worlds. The book traces the stories of five musicians and how Bach revolutionized their music and how they each in turn affected our understanding of Bach, and all the while, a history of recording unfolds in a way that is very natural to the musicians' stories. Interlaced with these five stories is Bach himself, growing up, falling in love, seeking new professional posts, while doggedly composing one of the greatest canons in western classical music. Of the five musicians, I was especially taken with the story of Pablo Casals, a Spaniard from a humble background who grew into a cellist with an international reputation. The moment when the young Casals finds a dusty score of Bach cello suites in a shop was truly electrifying, as was Casal's subsequent study of the suites, which enabled him to plunge into the interior world of his feelings. I felt that the author truly understands the vital connection that musicians have with the scores they study and even the stories of the composers themselves. If this abundant feast was not enough, other musicians, including pianists such as Rosalyn Tureck and Daniel Barenboim, make cameos throughout the narration, creating the effect of a very rich tapestry indeed. Bach's masterpiece of preludes and fugues beckons--I now feel a desire to learn the Well Tempered Clavier--and for this change in sentiment I must thank Paul Elie for writing such a bountiful book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 14, 2013
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2014
This is the best, most engaging Bach biography I have read yet. The style weaves his story through the stories of some of the most well known Bach performers of the past century (or two). The back and forth nature of the book flows well and I did not find it distracting. It was like several biographies in one. The only gripe--if you can call it that--is that the author seemed to spend quite a bit of time on Casals; however, it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Elie does not get bogged down with overly technical jargon like other biographers but he includes plenty of detail so the reader is not left wanting. I'd say that even if you are not a Bach addict, this biography is thoroughly enjoyable simply for the information and how interestingly it is presented.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2014
First, I like Johann Sebastian. When I proceed to my next existence I hope to handle the bellows of the organ when Bach plays. Yes, this is a good bok. As the name states, it is not so much about Bach as about how the author, several musicians, and others have looked upon and valued him. It gives many different points of view and it opens up new perspectives on Bach. When read, certain parts seemes out of context but then suddenly the view cleared. I liked this book very much and it has deepened my understanding of Bach, his time, and of his music.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2014
This book offered so much more than the title suggested. There was exhaustive review of the career and the writing and the personal life of Bach but, in addition, there was extensive treatment of the prodigious work by Schweitzer, Gould and Pabo Casals in performing and promoting the work of Bach as well as an intriguing and revealing account of the development of recorded music and its influence on those without access to live performance.
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