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Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie's serious and inventive book asks: How has Bach in our time become a Godlike being whose center is everywhere?

November 15, 2012

Reinventing Bach By Paul Elie Farrar, Straus and Giroux 512 pp.


Reviewed by Alexandra Mullen for Barnes & Noble Review

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More than 300 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in the small German town of Eisenach. Unlike his contemporary Handel, he never traveled very far. But from this intense central point, Bach – or at least the sound waves representing him – seems to be filling up the universe. Three of his pieces are on Voyager's golden disc which is now approaching the brink of interstellar space; and at the same time, as Paul Elie, the author of Reinventing Bach, says, "He is in my pocket." How has Bach in our time become a Godlike being whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere?

By juxtaposing the space capsule and the pocket, Elie captures two elements of Bach – the domestic and the transcendent. They were certainly evident in his own life of playing, rehearsing, composing, teaching, and performing music, where there was not much distance or difference between the clavier at home and the organ at church. By juxtaposing the LP and the iPod, Elie reminds us of how technology has democratized and universalized Bach – all of us can "play" him now whether we're picking through a score at the piano or listening to recordings of Edwin Fischer's impassioned wrong notes or Glenn Gould's equally impassioned right ones.

I single out Fischer and Gould's piano recordings because while both Fischer and Gould give highly individual performances, they represent two different ways of thinking about what a recording is. Fischer's recordings sound old, not just because of the background hissings and pops but also because they are embedded in concert practice: one continuous take, one continuous flow distilling concentrated experience with that particular piece at that particular moment in that particular space, warts, felicities, and all. Gould's recording of the same pieces sound – well, newer, certainly, but in some sense out of time and even location: Gould consciously exploited "take-twoness" – not so much to eliminate flubs (although that too) as to craft peaks of brilliance on an instrument inhabiting its own sound-world.

For Elie, whose previous book, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," concentrated on four American Catholic writers, the spiritual and the technological are not antithetical:

In an age of recordings, the past isn't wholly past and the present isn't wholly present, and our suspension in time, our intimacy with the most sublime expressions of people distant and dead, is a central fact of our experience. This is at once a benefit and a quandary, and in it, I would venture, are the makings of a spirituality of technology.

Some Bach pianists have the gift of bringing out lines of music in a score that I've never noticed before – I think particularly of Gould's and Simone Dinnerstein's startling different but utterly compelling versions of the Goldberg Variations. Elie has a similar ability to hear new connections between well-known notes. I find him particularly thought-provoking when he marks long historical phrases. In one passage, after considering the physical placement of the church organist (literally lofty, back turned to the service), Bach's chorales, and the goals of the Reformation that lead "every believer [to] hope for a direct encounter with the thing itself," Elie moves outward to our day: "Recordings heighten the effect, completing the transition from eye to ear, from seeing to hearing, that the Reformation had brought about. The organist is done away with. So is the church building. So are the limits of space and time, of stamina and attention. The music of Bach is all that is left. The recordings pour out perfection: they enable the listener to import transcendence into an ordinary room, to "play" the music without making it." Is it just a fluke that some early recording studios were deconsecrated churches?


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