300 Years After His Birth, Bach Still Has A Lot To Say To Me

Peter Gregson is a brave man. The 32-year old Englishman is a renowned cellist and composer, but I mention bravery first because of a record he put out in October 2018. It was titled Recomposed: Bach — The Cello Suites, and was the aural equivalent of an architect trying to recreate the Taj Mahal using brick and mortar. What Gregson did was reinterpret one of the most loved pieces of music in Western classical music and make it sound brand new, three centuries after they were created.

Johann Sebastian Bach: 1685–1750

The Taj Mahal analogy is apt because the six Cello Suites are as well-known. No one expects a musician to play them differently, let alone change the way they were composed. They are massive, supremely moving works that cellists spend lifetimes trying to play, recording and re-recording them at various stages as their relationships with them evolve. Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the most famous classical musician alive, has played them since age 4, and released his final recording of them — his third — in August, 2018. He chose to celebrate the milestone by embarking upon a two-year journey across six continents, playing all six suites in single sittings.

Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach between 1717 and 1723, the Suites are often considered the foundation of the repertoire for cello, the high watermark of artistic accomplishment for the instrument that few composers have dared approach. Gregson did two things that ought to have prompted howls of outrage: he used an ensemble of five other cellists, and employed synthesizers to create a bed of sound over which the Suites were played. The results breathe new life into a much-loved work of art, justifying Gregson’s bold plunge that a lesser artist would hesitate to take.

Peter Gregson’s take on The Cello Suites

This begs the question: Why are musicians still trying to reinterpret music written centuries ago? It is a rhetorical query on par with others that wonder why Van Gogh’s work moves us, or why a new production of Shakespeare is possibly being mounted in some corner of the planet even as you read this. 300 years after Bach appeared, his work continues to fascinate, occupy and obsess all kinds of minds across cultures, a testament to his art and its ability to engage with generations of listeners irrespective of race, sex or creed. It is the humanity of his music that gives it power.

Bach is a surprising name that also comes to mind when one considers the question of what it means to be a man in 2019. If this sounds like a stretch, one has only to look at the circumstances of his personal life, the constant struggle to make ends meet, the act of creating vital, life-giving music in the face of some public hostility and much indifference. His story, for me, is one of establishing the right priorities that ought to govern one’s life, irrespective of what we are expected to focus on.

Another thing that prompts me to turn to Bach, again and again, is the sense of discovery that established works of art continue to offer those willing to put in the time and effort required to seek it. Our ideas of consumption now extend to art as well, reducing interactions with the Mona Lisa to a moment on Instagram, devouring great food for the right to check in to a fine dining restaurant, picking and choosing tracks from beautifully crafted albums to entertain us on long drives back home. What is lost, in this relentless ticking off of experiences on shaky bucket lists, is the pleasure of spiritual and intellectual awakening that only years of engagement can reveal.

A lot of what makes Bach so resilient is how every reaction to his work is personal. I remember listening to the Brandenburg Concertos as a teenager, and dismissing them as pretty music that blurred into one long piece. By the time I turned 30, listening to it had begun to feel like a spiritual act, one that required a setting aside of time and space. I began to appreciate the nuances, each dance evoking an emotion that was never the same with every listen. Another revelation came via the Goldberg Variations, when I heard Glenn Gould’s recordings. What he did in 1955 was radically at odds with his final interpretation in 1981, and I could decipher a world of meaning in why those two recordings sounded so different.

From a new edition of the collected works, called Bach 333

There are all kinds of reasons why people study, listen to, or obsess over Bach. They transcribe his scores for various instruments, embark upon superhuman projects like recording his cantatas chronologically over years, and even launch new works inspired by and relying on his canon. It’s why, over the past month alone, I could listen to András Schiff’s electronic reinterpretation of the Prelude and Fugue in C, the Flinders Quartet and Genevieve Lacey’s re-invention №1 for Descant Recorder, former ABBA member Benny Anderssons’ Orkester’s live recording of the Badinerie, the Flute Sonata in E Minor adapted for Mandolin and Continuo by Avi Avital and Catrin Finch’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations arranged for harp, all on one CD. This coincided with contemporary dance choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker setting a work for sixteen dancers to the Brandenburg Concertos.

In 2015, a musician called Michelle Ross launched a 33-day project called Discovering Bach, which involved playing his solo violin cycle in public spaces throughout New York City. She kept a blog documenting the experience, which revealed some interesting things such as how Bach’s music has been used to treat patients with dementia because its frequent tension, release, and clear harmonic structure help them feel temporarily oriented. She also mentioned the spirituality of the music, its celebration of beauty, which goes some way towards explaining why these deeply religious works are so gratifying for atheists as well. It isn’t always about music either. Mathematicians have been studying Bach for years, with some of them mapping fractal structures in his work. These refer to patterns that seem identical irrespective of whether they are viewed from up close or from a distance.

The album that made Glenn Gould famous

There are three recordings of Bach on a record carried on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft, along with images, other human and natural sounds, greetings in 59 languages and messages to other inhabited planets and civilizations. Launched in 1977, the record represented mankind’s hope and goodwill, and featured Bach’s Prelude & Fugue №1 in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, his Brandenburg Concerto №2 in F Major, and Partita for Violin Solo №3 in E Major. The music was selected by a team headed by American astronomer Carl Sagan, who asked a number of people for suggestions on what should be included. Apparently, the biologist Lewis Thomas recommended Bach’s complete works, before adding, “But that would be showing off.”

I have now spent more than half my life listening to Bach’s work. I still can’t read music, don’t play an instrument, and struggle to tell a gigue from a courante. What I do know, however, is that this music makes me feel as if I am constantly standing at the edge of an ocean, a speck trying to fathom an immense, unfathomable wonder. All I can do is jump in.

— First published in GQ India, June 2019