Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Whole Music: Why Some People Aren't on Board the Bach Train

Iconoclast Glenn Gould, an interpreter of Bach
When music experts discuss the healing power and potential of classical music, they always include the music of J.S. Bach. And I admit I felt intimidated the first few times I listened to Bach's concertos and then later, a mass. It didn't help that the people introducing me to Bach's compositions were academics. And it didn't help that people who spoke about Bach in my distant past, did so in a condescending manner.

Then once I was on the Bach train, metaphorically speaking, I would tout the Goldberg Variations performed by Glenn Gould to people I met. They often said that they couldn't listen to Bach because their stern parents did. Or the really good response was that Bach reminded them of church music and a detested religious upbringing. I guess for those folks the healing power of Bach's music is lost. 

And this brings up the question that if Bach's music triggers bad memories and even panic attacks when recalling memories of childhood abuse, is the healing potential lost. Or is it possible that healing work can be practiced around those triggers? The memory comes up and we can explore emotional wounding and then release it.

I included a section on Bach in my unpublished book, Whole Music. Below I'm pasting an excerpt from the book. I hear that publishers aren't publishing books on music at this point. This breaks my heart in a way because we need the healing power of music more than ever. Music heals trauma and virtually everyone on the planet is healing from one trauma or another. Music releases tension. Music helps us get in touch with our emotions. Music allows us to express our moods and emotions in ways that don't exist in any other type of art. Music therapy, psychoacoustic therapies, and sound healing have over the years acted as cures without side effects.

Let's not turn our back on the powerful gift of music.

A Bach Awakening 

In regard to healing potential, music researchers, authors, and journalists have focused mainly on Mozart’s sonatas than the music of J.S. Bach.  Even though Bach’s music is mentioned as healing in many sources, it hasn’t received as much attention as Mozart’s music.  True, Bach’s music goes back even further than Mozart’s repertoire travels too far back for the average person to comprehend.  While Mozart and Haydn represent the beginnings of classical music, Bach hailed from the baroque period and had another disadvantage of having composed church music.  Mozart at least composed delightful operas and jaunty piano sonatas that have ended up in movie soundtracks, such as in the Swedish classic, Elvira Madigan.

However, we know that Bach also composed architectural wonders for private upper class clients such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations.  The German composer also wrote partitas, sonatas, suites (such as the Cello Suites), fugues, and enchanting keyboard pieces.  And in fact, out of all of Bach’s works that I have listened to, I prefer his piano pieces played by contemporary pianists such as Gould, another Canadian Angela Hewitt, Austrian pianist Till Fellner, and American pianist Murray Perahia.  In addition, I enjoy the violin sonatas and partitas I have heard played by Isabelle Faust and John Holloway who on an ECM recording, Johann Sebastian Bach the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, plays a baroque violin which adds to the magic.

Unfortunately, I have met people who equate Bach’s work with the church and therefore would rather not explore the baroque composer.  Other people think that they’re not smart enough to “understand” Bach as if we need to find a hidden code to unwind the mysteries of the composer.  It doesn’t help that we label Bach a genius which to some people is equivalent to placing the composer in an ivory tower, only available to music scholars and virtuosos.  But even the music experts have their debates about the correct interpretations of the original scores.  Meanwhile, Bach’s powerful healing music plays quietly in the background.  Another opportunity missed.

During the 1990s, during my career as a folk-rock musician, I knew a man who founded a small record label who specialized in high-brow ethereal music.  I ran into this man on a Seattle street one day, his face aglow.  He told me that he discovered the music of Bach, but he pronounced “Bach” in such as way that condescension dripped off the name.  This man, although kind also had an off-putting smugness, which sadly, I associate with Bach for many years after that encounter.  I felt too self-conscious to ask the librarian to show me to the Bach CDs, or to inquire about the composer in the classical section of Tower Records.

Fast forward to 2006 when I landed a magazine article on early music choirs in Seattle and the conductor/music director of Seattle Pro Musica, Karen Thomas invited me to watch a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor at Saint James Cathedral.  I suffered a case of nerves wondering how I would sit through a three-hour choral.  Fortunately, I was already acquainted with baroque music and the baroque orchestra performing with the choir, as well as, the venue, which provides the perfect atmosphere for vocal music.

As much as I would like to say that I left that performance feeling deeply healed, I left it with a migraine.  The choir sang beautifully, but the instruments reverberated off walls and getting lost under the vaulted ceiling, often coinciding with the lines of the singers and sometimes causing a discordant effect.  However, the mass itself though religious, lengthy and in a minor key, provided stunning passages where listeners could easily linger and escape the world.   

Bach’s musical architecture in itself probably would heal a headache, and as much as I enjoyed listening to choral music performed at Saint James Cathedral, the reverberating instruments left me feeling disoriented.  The piece is hard enough to follow even when hearing the music in tandem.  With instruments echoes clashing with choral passages, I wonder how Bach would have solved this problem in his time.

Needless to say, I lost my anxiety of Bach and decided to enjoy the master composer’s pieces just for the sake of music.  I don’t have a music theory background, even though I knew how to read music as a child.  And it’s beyond my capabilities to talk about music manuscripts with anyone, let alone experts.  As a former math phobic, I won’t be joining any conversations about the mathematical beauty of Bach’s compositions.  Nor will I second guess how musicians interpreted Bach’s music during the baroque era, as opposed to modern interpretations.  

 For me, I don’t need an explanation as to why or how music is beautiful. Even knowing that Bach suffered from depression despite his two marriages to women he loved and who blessed him with numerous offspring, I just end up wondering if Bach composed music to cheer himself up, and to validate his existence as a composer, who most people don’t know, wasn’t celebrated during his era.

I already mentioned discovering Gould’s Bach interpretations in 1999 and in 2009, I tuned my radio to NPR’s “On Point” and heard Canadian music journalist and author Eric Siblin discuss his book The Cello Suites, J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece.   

In the interview, Siblin chronicled his journey in discovering Bach’s mysterious Cello Suites.  Similar to the journey of the fictitious “Red Violin” (of the Canadian film of the same name), the author took a journey back and forth through history, focusing on Bach during his era, and Pablo Casals, the cellist responsible for rediscovering the suites in a music shop in Catalan, Spain during the late nineteenth century.

While wearing his heart on his sleeve just a bit, Siblin immersed himself in the world of Bach experts, vocal coaches, an amateur choir, baroque, and classical musicians as he unraveled the origins of the Cello Suites.  His journalistic research and hands-on experience (he sang a Bach chorale in German with an amateur choir and took cello lessons), was thorough. 

In a 2012 e-mail interview, Siblin described his investigative work.  “In order to understand Bach’s career and place in music history I had to explore a great deal of music.  If you want a sense of all the composers who influenced Bach and those who were influenced by Bach, you end up with a pretty encyclopedic chunk of music history.  

 I also developed a soft spot for some of the lesser known musicians who were contemporaries of Bach, composers like Sylvius Weiss, C.F. Abel, and Jan Dismas Zelenka; as well as Bach’s sons W.F. Bach and C.P.E. Bach.  Falling under the spell of the cello as an instrument led me to me to all sorts of cellists and music written for cello, from Haydn to Glass.  The key role of the Romantics in the revival of Bach put me in touch with Schumann and Mendelssohn.  And curiosity about the current state of classical music brought me up to speed with composers like John Adams and Arvo Part.”

However, the key ingredient that attracted me to Siblin’s book revolved around a music journalist delving into the uncomfortable world of Bach academics.  What could spark such a journey? Sure, Siblin possesses both courage and curiosity, but most people with those qualities would feel satisfied visiting their local library and checking out Bach recordings or watching Yo-Yo Ma’s videos of The Cello Suites.

Synchronicity in the form of a Bach recital featuring a solo cellist in Toronto ignited the initial sparks, as mentioned in Siblin’s book.  In our e-mail interview, he elaborated further.  “I was moved by the sight and sound of a solo string player.  It was something I could relate to.  The soloist could have been a folk musician or an unplugged rock musician.  I could see his fingers on the fingerboard and appreciate the caliber of skill involved in playing a Bach suite. And the solo cello has a purity and minimalism that was very refreshing to me after the frenetic atmosphere of rock music.”

After reading the book, I went to the library and I checked out Pablo Casals’ scratchy recording of the suites along with a more recent recording by Yo-Yo Ma.  And while I enjoyed both recordings immensely, I was unable to listen to all six suites at one time.  I came up with my own set of questions.  Why did Bach compose the suites, were they for cello originally or another instrument? Who did Bach compose the pieces for—students, his sons, or for a private client?

The suites themselves possess a variety of emotions and moods, which make it even more challenging to listen to in one sitting.  Siblin recommended, “I don’t think all six suites should be listened to in one fell swoop.  For most people it’s excessive.  Better to take the music in smaller doses, one suite at a time, or maybe two or at most three suites in one sitting.  Each suite does convey a different mood.  

 Different listeners will hear the different material.  I hear youthful ebullience in the first suite; tragedy in the second; love in the third; struggle in the fourth, mystery in the fifth; and transcendence in the sixth.”

Besides Bach igniting the imaginations of musicians, audiences, and scholars, musicians who became famous interpreting Bach’s repertoire such as Gould for piano and Casals for cello have fueled the fire for numerous books and films.  I had heard about Casals for instance, long before I became acquainted with Bach--he was the Spanish cellist who suffered from a debilitating disease in his elder years, but when he played the piano he appeared a healthier, younger man.

In Siblin’s book, Casals plays a major character whose life parallels with Bach.  He intrigues even with his imperfections and controversies because he saw music as a type of medicine and his dedication to the cello suites also revealed his true character

Siblin described his fascination with the Spanish cellist, “Casals conveys a sense of narrative drive and drama that was good inspiration for turning a piece of music into a story. As a cellist he wears his heart on his sleeve.  Some authenticity purists criticize his account of Bach as the equivalent of purple prose.  But every note counts with Casals.  His version sounds convincing, earthy, and authentic.  It’s not the only way to play Bach but it can sound that way when you’re listening.”

I believe everyone can find at least one piece to appreciate for the sake of musical enjoyment.  And it doesn’t hurt to read The Cello Suites and take a journey with someone who isn’t a Bach scholar and whose musical world opened up after his fateful encounter with the baroque composer via distance through time and space.

Personally, I have Bach moods hit me, especially when I’m writing text such as this book.  I read in books and articles that slower to medium tempo baroque music helps us to concentrate and focus better on our work.  And if a listener carries the music over through lunch or dinner, baroque music helps with food digestion too.

Excerpt from Whole Music by Patricia Herlevi 
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