Paul Elie and Donal Fox: Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie, author of Reinventing Bach, is spelling out a wonderfully homey theory about the greatest musician who ever lived. And jazz pianist Donal Fox is demonstrating the idea in real time, on my piano. We’re blessed to share it, in praise and thanksgiving, as a Christmas offering from Open Source.

Why, we ask, does Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), “the Leonardo of sound,” sit virtually alone and god-like, in so many testimonies, at the peak of all artistic creation? The great clarification here is that Bach left not just a multitude of masterworks; but further that in his notebooks and albums of instruction, in exercises for his children and minimal “inventions” for keyboard students ever after, he made clear he was giving the world a “source code” of music. He composed, in effect, bone-marrow or stem-cell music, ready to be extended into new shapes and sounds, new limbs and organs, new life and insight and delight until the last trumpet sounds.

Much of Paul Elie’s marvelous book recounts the Age of Recording, starting in the 1930s, and the ways it accelerated and compounded the meanings of “reinventing Bach.” Albert Schweitzer made an organ thunderbolt of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to wake a dying Europe in 1935. In Hollywood the next year, Leopold Stokowski transcribed the same music from organ to full-orchestra for the opening theme of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Pablo Casals’ recording of the then unknown Cello Suites in 1939 was called “a Catalan cry of the heart” at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Casals declined to play the Bach Suites in his native Spain — or even in the Kennedy White House — as long as Generalissimo Franco lived and ruled. In much the same spirit the pianist Leon Fleisher decided he could not play “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” or “Sheep May Safely Graze” in George W. Bush’s White House, in fact wouldn’t perform at all. Yo-Yo Ma’s performance from the Cello Suites at Steve Jobs’ funeral reminded everybody of Jobs’ legendary judgment that those pieces and Ma’s playing of them made “the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.”

From the Swingle Singers‘ scat versions of Bach instrumental pieces in 1963, more recently Bobby McFerrin’s singing the “Air on a G String,” Savion Glover‘s tap dancing to Bach and the infinite mash-up possbilities, Paul Elie looks forward to almost endless extensions on his catalog of Bach reinventions. And still isn’t the heart of the story in the beginning? That is, in Bach’s own handwritten notebook for his nine-year-old son William Friedemann? It held musical sketches of melodies and implied harmonies, basic exercises in rhythm and counterpoint; but many pages were left blank, as Elie writes, “to be filled with pieces that father and son, teacher and student, would compose together.” The exercise was to discipline fingers and ears, mind and heart, to cope with tension and dissonance, design and surprise, inversions of phrases, the pulse of a bass line, the tempos of life. What Bach is still offering us, as Craig Smith used to say, is “a way to live.”

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  • Ley Westcott

    Ah, Chris, you’re never better than when writing about art — particularly music. Or is this because I am biased to it? All right, I confess: Politics, from necessity — Art, from love!

    Bach is glorious, and you eloquently articulate his imaginative genius. Dazzling and inspiring, like the master himself. It is evident, Chris, that you are deeply immersed in the glory of his music as well.

    Craig Smith was surely right. Bach – and many other great artists – offers us a way to live. Transfixed, immersed in perceptual harmonies, rhythms and counterpoints in the great ocean of Being that is the miracle of life. The possibility of Mind in Matter.

    And you keep such good company! along with Johann Sebastian. He lives and converses yet in such company. And with us. Thanks for the gift and for word of Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach. Can’t wait to hear the downloaded music with Donal. A beautiful gift at Christmastide.

    Would that our politics could be as harmonious as Bach’s art. But we have the model of living he gave us in the glorious integration of all voices — in time, played in all their majesty and complexity upon the simple, fundamental sound and melody of One essential voice.

    Perhaps Bach should be required listening in the halls of the Capitol, particularly at this moment in our politics and history. Is there not an organ there for such occasion? And for contemplation, inspiration?

    If we legislate without inspiration I fear we make bad law — and worse politics. Where is comity, harmony, counterpoint — and Listening? Where the give and take? The surrender of one voice to another in the weaving of One integral fabric? To the end of one harmonious purpose?

    Praise be indeed that there is such glory within us waiting to be plucked and stirred. Music is so powerful because it is so palpable. Felt like no other art. The language that is music, the music that is language. If we but remember it can be.

    Thanks, Chris. This is truly wonderful.

  • Alexandra

    Absolutely wonderful intellectually, musically, emotionally and spiritually. Thank you !

  • Potter

    So Bach left his work to be interpreted, and as a pedagogy. Donal Fox picks up on that with his own lesson for us (wonderful), a transmission across time. So too this is about inspiring creativity (across time) and arriving, connecting in a spiritual place.

    I am on my second round listening. The sound is terrific: Donal Fox’s playing Bach, jazz improvising is “genius”, your great sounding piano complies with its notes bouncing off the smooth surfaces in your apartment — just wonderful. Out of words…. but the pairing with Paul Elie’s narration on Bach too is perfect. This is a gem, a gift.

    Best wishes, Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones and too for the coming New Year.

  • Jeremy Ahouse

    This is a rich vein. What of John Lewis’ jazz interpretations? or Jacques Loussier? How did these escape mention?

  • I am loving the series from Cairo and then, suddenly, this! Fabulous stuff. Really original and effective format. Rich and satisfying in its own right, and a model for other podcasters.

  • What an inspiring podcast – I love how casual you make it all sound (just some guys jamming, talking… only it happens to be that they conversation is extremely interesting and the music they’re playing is Bach).

  • PJ

    Dear Christopher,
    Good one. Really good. Thank you.

  • Kate McShane

    This was so nice. I don’t know music, really. I grew up with my father playing classical music as a way to cope with very long days in a ball bearing factory, but I didn’t really learn about it. I saw/heard Donal Fox when Garrett shared tickets to Donal at the Charles one evening. It was wonderful for me, since I can count on two hands how often I heard jazz in the 38 years I lived in Boston — and Garrett paid for two of those events. I’ve felt terrible, in a way, ever since, because I’ve never repaid him. This program reminded me of how intimate and moving it is to listen to one of your programs. Thanks.