Bach to the future

I’m not a big classical music guy for the most part, but I never get tired of Bach.

This stodgy eighteenth century Lutheran doesn’t seem a likely inspiration for a hipster electronica producer like me. There aren’t too many other wearers of powdered wigs in my record collection, and Bach is the only one in the regular rotation. Why? When I studied jazz guitar I was encouraged to learn some Bach violin and cello music. I learned a lot about music theory that way but I had a surprising amount of fun too. Those pieces are complex and technical, but they’re easy to memorize – it’s one catchy hook after another after another.

Why is Bach’s music so much cooler than anything else of his time and place? There are plenty of beautiful melodies and interesting thematic developments in other Baroque music, but they’re usually buried under tweedly curlicues. I get exhausted from all the jumping up and down between adjacent scale tones.

You never get the sense that Bach is just throwing notes at you to fill the space between ideas. This spare, economic quality shows most clearly in his solo instrument stuff. The single lines spell out both the melodies and the chord progressions clearly, using the spaces between the melody notes to deploy fragments of basslines or arpeggios. Bach gives your imagination just enough data to easily fill in the rest. Leaving notes out is a great way to draw in the listener. It invites us to participate in our heads.

Nowhere does Bach build more attractive melodies out of arpeggiated chords than in his cello suites. The first movement of the G major suite is a total cliche thanks to its heavy TV and film exposure, but for good reason. I can’t think of a better use of a melody to spell out harmony. You can have your Pablo Casals and your Yo-Yo Ma; as far as I’m concerned, Mstislav Rostropovich owns the cello suites. I can’t embed the video of him playing the first movement, sadly; click here to enjoy it.

Bach has huge geek appeal. He favored puzzle-like musical forms, canons and fugues, where the melody gets repeated as its own accompaniment. Even outside of such self-referential formalities, Bach’s music is dense with references and quotations, of other works, and of itself. Bach’s love of recursion inspired Douglas Hofstadter to write a whole computer science book about him (and Gödel and Escher.) Fans of Gödel, Escher, Bach might enjoy the Tumblr devoted to it. Here’s a nice quote from the New York Times review of GEB:

A theme enters, then appears again, inverted or reversed or in a different key or a different tempo; the transformed melody then blends with its original. Figure and ground may unexpectedly change roles. Even though each of the notes is heard distinctly–and in Bach the notes have a logic only slightly less formal than that of the Russell-Whitehead language — the ear cannot always resolve their relationship.

Bach was a great quoter of the popular music of his time and place: hymns and regional dances. Since most of the music he was paid to write was for church services, it’s no big surprise that Bach did so much reworking and embellishing of hymns.

There’s a cool album called Morimur by Christof Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble. It combines the chaconna from Bach’s violin partita in D minor with the hymns it derives from. Poppen plays the violin music, the Hilliard Ensemble sings the hymns, and then they do them both simultaneously. The effect is haunting and gorgeous. You couldn’t ask for a better education in what it means to embellish a theme than to hear Bach’s lines superimposed on the simple hymns. No wonder jazz musicians love him so much, the effect is similar to the way Charlie Parker sounds improvising on a showtune. (Bach was known in his lifetime as an improviser, which adds to his jazz cred.)

Morimur’s liner notes go on at length about all the elaborate numerical codes embedded in the music, but who cares? This is the kind of dry and tedious pedantry that scares people with feelings away from classical music. On the other hand, I’m both convinced and moved by the theory that Bach wrote this melancholy piece based on hymns about death in tribute to his first wife, who had died a year before.

The chaconna is a dance form. It doesn’t sound rhythmically very much like what we’re dancing to now, but there are some structural similarities. A short theme repeats continually, with variations, over a predictable and simple chord progression spelled out in a looped bassline. Bach’s chaconna implies the bassline more than stating it, but your ear fills it in easily. Bach’s use of repeated modules evokes grid-based electronic music. There’s something very algorithmic about the rule-oriented forms he wrote in, the canons and fugues, all that complex counterpoint. Every note that Bach ever wrote is on the web in MIDI format. His music sounds pretty decent when played by robots (though it’s still livelier when it’s played by humans.)

Bach wasn’t very highly regarded in his lifetime outside of a small devoted circle of groupies. He didn’t hit the cultural big time until a hundred years after his death. He’d probably be amazed now at his elevated stature. His music probably works better outside of its original context than it did inside it. No context shift is too radical. Wendy Carlos’ 1968 all-synth album Switched-On Bach is goofy, but it still makes its own weird kind of sense.

There have been plenty of other sassy modern interpretations of Bach. Apollo 100 did a groovy retrofuture pop version of “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” in 1972 that shows up in The 40-Year-Old Virgin soundtrack.

I guess Bach makes so much sense in the present because he combines rigorous formal logic with the spirit of an improviser. I can’t think of a better way to describe the rest of the music I like listening to.

Update: see the connection between Bach and Paul Simon.

Further update: my remix of Morimur:

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