Customer Reviews: Reinventing Bach
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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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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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VINE VOICEon March 13, 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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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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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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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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on January 31, 2016
Taking music history to a whole new level
"Reinventing Bach" juxtaposes the life of Bach with the reinvention of his music during the 20th century, and it's pivotal role at the cutting edge of musical technology, an innovative and utterly unique approach which is loaded with revelations and insights. The writing is detailed, comprehensive, at times literary, and demands a lot of the reader, but is worth every word. The author brilliantly places Bach in context with contemporary trends in music and elucidates the profound role of music in human culture. This book is for the thinking man (or woman), the historian, the music lover, and is essential reading for anyone who loves the music of Bach.
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— Our lives are half-lives, our experience mediated, and so diminished, by technology. So we are told by our age's best and brightest […] of the struggle to stay afloat in the sea of artifice, the polluted data-stream. To this conviction, the recorded music of Bach is contrary testimony. It defies the argument that experience mediated by technology is a diminished thing.

About 35 ago, after largely ignoring him, I discovered Bach as a personal source of intellectual fascination and spiritual solace. The catalyst for me was a recording: the second of Glenn Gould's two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1981. It also came at a time when I was suffering hand pain from working on a big chamber piece by Brahms. Bach's music was not merely something that I could listen to, but also explore on my own. Badly, I know; even his simpler pieces are deceptively difficult. But there has been some Bach score or other on my piano ever since. And playing has led in turn to more listening, in an era in which Bach is available on recordings everywhere, in every medium from solo instrument to giant mass, and in every interpretive style.

So it is a wonderful resource to have this history of Bach recording, and the artists who have laid down milestones along the way: Albert Schweitzer with the organ music, Pablo Casals with the cello suites, Rosalyn Tureck as merely one of a series of Bach interpreters on the piano who include Glenn Gould, of course, right on (though briefly) to Keith Jarrett and Simone Dinnerstein. He deals with Big Bach as promoted by Leopold Stokowski (and opened to vast audiences through Disney's FANTASIA) and Ascetic Bach as in Rifkin's performances of the St. Matthew Passion and B-minor Mass with one singer to a part. He deals with Wendy Carlos playing Bach on a synthesizer, the Swingle Singers adapting instrumental pieces as jazzy vocal scat, and even with some crossovers with the pop world. Elie's musical descriptions are wonderful, but you do not have to rely on them. The glory is that you can sample just about everything he mentions by a click or two on YouTube, proof positive of his first assertion.

So what's not to like? The book contains far too much information about too many subjects, and lacks focus in prioritizing between them. For example, any given chapter may contain:
• The circumstances of the making of a particular recording.
• A description of the work performed in that recording.
• The life of the performer, both before and after the recording.
• An installment in an ongoing history of the life of Bach.
• An installment in an ongoing history of sound recording.
• Parallel events in world history.
• Further thoughts on artists featured in earlier chapters.

In the first two chapters, focusing on one artist and one work—the D-minor Toccata and Fugue recorded by Schweitzer and the Cello Suites by Casals—the intensity of that focus provides a strong enough armature on which to hang all the rest. There is a lot of interest in how these two artists reflected Bach's moral values with a personal asceticism: Schweitzer by working half the year as a doctor in Gabon, Casals through his self-exile and ceaseless work against the Franco regime. But the Stokowski chapter proliferates with a host of non-Bach detail about Disney and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Tureck chapter segues into a long section on Glenn Gould, as though one were merely the back-up player to the other.

I looked in vain for insight on my own twin approaches to Bach, intellectual fascination and spiritual solace. It was there somewhere, I suppose, since Elie is attuned to just about everything, but it was buried in the excess of other information. I learned a great deal about the ubiquity of Bach in our time, but did not get a strong sense of why. But perhaps I need to turn back to the music for that. The thing that moved me most in the book was Elie's account of how my Peabody Conservatory colleague Leon Fleisher turned back to Bach as part of his thirty-year recovery from the loss of function in his right hand. His description moved me to watch his performance of "Sheep May Safely Graze" again on YouTube, and recall how Leon played it at the memorial service for another colleague some years ago. It is a study in quiet beauty: just the pianist almost motionless at the piano, his hands—both hands—gliding over the keyboard without a wasted movement, and that centuries-old message of consolation and peace.
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on December 15, 2012
I am continuing to read this book on my iPad (Kindle app). I have studied Bach and performed his music all my life and this is a great addition to my collection. JS Bach was an ordinary fellow during his time but also an extraordinary musician with no equal before or since! Great book and well researched.
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on February 2, 2013
Anything but dry, this is the story of recorded music and how it has changed the way music is perceived as well as an entertaining bio of Bach. Warning, it can be an expensive read. I found myself adding many CDs to my collection.

I was delighted when Elise mentioned Pink Floyd early on. This is not a book locked into the past. He gives us an idea of the environment when a Bach piece was created, and contrasts that with the recorded history of the work.
Chapters about Bach are interspersed with portraits of Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Glen Gould and other influential Bach interpreters; their lives, their approach to Bach, and how their recordings influence our relationship to Bach.

Elise does tend to make the same point over and over. Recordings make an ephemeral performance permanent. That has changed the way we hear a composition. Some strict editing would make the book tighter but I forgave the repetition for his infectious enthusiasm. I had many little epiphanies as I read, for example, Daniel Barenboim's conception of music as the shaped air of a certain room on a certain night. I found myself repeatedly reconsidering my relationship to music as I read Reinventing Bach.
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