We don’t need to be reminded that the past year was–and continues to be–a particularly emotional and trying experience for most of us, although there were may joyous moments as well.
One positive note is that I once again faithfully kept the same New Year’s Resolution that I made some twenty odd years ago. And that is vowing to get through another year without watching the movie “The Sound of Music.” Not that I have anything against this movie, mind you, but I realized one day that I had never seen the movie and that not watching it would make an ideal New Year’s Resolution.
Rather than presenting you with my usual list of wacky and slightly irreverent New Year predictions–realizing that nothing is more wacky or irreverent than reality itself–I urge you to spend this first week of 2017 with J.S. Bach. I take my cue, not only from a lifetime of listening to Bach, but also from a notice I read about the upcoming Red-Bull-sponsored tour of the Flying Steps dance troupe, who will be presenting their sixth annual mash-up of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and breakdancing. According to a piece in 303 Magazine, this seemingly improbable matching of eighteenth century keyboard artistry with twenty-first century breakdancing originated with the troupe’s founder, Vartan Bassil, who was excited by “the idea of replacing a ballerina doing pirouettes on her toes with a breakdancer doing head spins.” We can only wonder what Bach might think of such a combination, but given the very eclectic nature of his genius, he probably would like the Flying Steps’ interpretation. Of course, Bach purists (and there are far too many of them hanging around) are horrified at the mere suggestion that their idol has any relevance outside his eighteenth century world. But I like to think Bach would enjoy breakdancing more than an evening being surrounded by his party-pooping purists. In any event, check out YouTube for a sampling of Bach and Breakdancing. At this point I am reminded of how the late concert organist Carlo Curley always introduced Bach as “the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll” during his concerts; and I also have fond memories of having breakfast with Carlo at the Waffle House when he performed in Knoxville (he figured he would encounter very few to no Bach purists at his favorite breakfast hangout).
As Paul Elie reminds us in his fascinating 2012 book REINVENTING BACH, Bach has had a very active life since his death in 1750, particularly as a recording artist in a medium that was unknown during his lifetime. In fact, we can safely say that Bach has enjoyed his greatest popularity as a recording artist. There are the famous (and moving) rediscoveries of the unaccompanied cello suites by Pablo Casals, and the many orchestral, vocal, and organ works that have been preserved on vinyl, tape, disc, and streaming (needless to say, I have a Bach channel on my Pandora, in close proximity to my Allman Brothers, Ariana Grande, Booker T. and the MGs, and Blink 182 channels). And let’s not forget the many ways Bach has influenced pop music, with hits by The Toys (“A Lover’s Concerto,” 1965, inspired by a minuet from “The Anna Magdalena Notebook”), Procol Harum (“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” 1967, based ever so slightly on “Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major”), Apollo 100 (“Joy,” 1972, a speeded-up pre-disco version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), pianist Joshua Rifkin’s baroque renditions of Beatles tunes (1965) as “performed” by J.S. Bach, and the Beatles themselves, particularly the Bach-like harpsichord solo in “In My Life” (from Rubber Soul, 1965) performed by none other than George Martin and played back on the tape at double speed. And what would Halloween be like without hearing at least one ominous version of Bach’s “Toccata And Fugue In D Minor”? (an incredible piece that should be heard outside the context of Halloween). As a jazz fan, I particularly enjoy the Jacques Louissier Trio’s improvisations on Bach tunes, as well as The Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1973 tribute to Bach, “Blues On Bach.” And this only scratches the surface. Too bad Bach is not around to hear all this stuff. Well, maybe he could be spared the Apollo 100 record!
Before we leave the realm of pop culture, we should mention two rather different recordings of the Bach repertoire. First we have a true relic from the disco era, Louis Clark And The Royal Philharmonic’s series “Hooked On Classics” (1981) that featured particularly irritating and uninteresting orchestral renditions of classical music accompanied by a disco drum machine track. After trying to endure familiar pieces by Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Handel, and Mendelssohn, we are treated to a six minute segment devoted to Bach, accompanied once again by the same disco beat. If you are not familiar with Bach’s work, please don’t let this be your introduction. You might want to start with a true classic of modern recording, Wendy Carlos’ 1968 album “Switched On Bach,” featuring one of the first recordings of the Moog synthesizer, painstakingly multi-tracked one note at a time (the Moog could only play one note at a time, not chords) by Carlos. This album is still selling copies and is one of the landmarks in classical music recording history. Of course, purists derided the album for its use of synthesized rather than acoustic sounds, but don’t listen to them. It still is a pretty remarkable achievement, even in light of the incredible strides synthesizers have made since the late 1960s (Carlos rerecorded the album in 1973 and again in 2000 using state-of-the art synthesizers).
The world of J.S. Bach is pretty inexhaustible, so I won’t try to even scratch the surface with this column. But I will leave you with a recommendation and a parting quote. My recommendation is that you listen to Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto, No. 6” this month. It is one of my favorite pieces, and I think it perfectly captures both our feelings of apprehension and expectation as we prepare for what’s in store this month and for the rest of the year. And it’s a beautiful piece in a very complex way. As Alex Ross says in his current “New Yorker” column on Bach, the composer’s music (he is analyzing the “St. John Passion”) gives us the “air of being lost in a world of ungraspable dimensions” and “can be more beautiful than anyone’s, but it refuses to blot out the ugliness of the world.” And this is why we need Bach this year, along with so many other musicians–although I won’t, rather ironically, be watching “The Sound Of Music”.
See you next week as we look forward to another year of “Kelly’s Place.”