Category Archives: music

sonic activities

Introducing J.S.Bach

Browsing a couple of days ago at the Milton Public Library, I found a new and previous unfamiliar biography of J.S.Bach.

Bach is the center of my musical universe.  He has occupied that position for roughly the past sixty years.  I discovered him — or he was revealed to me — when I was about fifteen; and I’m about to reach the end of my 75th year.  75 – 15 = 60.

My shelf of Bach volumes — excluding the music scores themselves — amounts to three or four feet of books.  This biography from Martin Geck, published in English translation in 2007, was unfamiliar to me; the last major biography I was aware of came from Christoph Wolff at Harvard, which was published in 2000.

My first impression of the new work (formed as I read the first fifty pages) was that it was a distinctly secondary work.  It seemed constructed of footnotes to one of the major biographies: it assumes the reader’s familiarity with all the major events in Bach’s life, offering comments arising from the most recent detailed scholarship.

But now, around pages 100+, more is starting to happen.  I’m starting to learn the political context of Bach’s invitation to Leipzig in 1723: who were the supporters, who the opponents, what was at stake politically and religiously.  Fascinating stuff.  New to my acquaintance.

Strange Music

I have had a strange experience with a piece of music.

Surfing YouTube a couple of evenings back, I stumbled onto Beethoven’s Op. 106, the so-called “Hammerklavier” sonata. The pianist was Wilhelm Kempff.

That brought back a lot of memories.  When our family acquired its first record-player in 1957, an Opus 106 LP from Kempff’s 1954-7 set was one of my first purchases.

Well, it’s true that my first love was Bach; the Hammerklavier LP had been preceded by Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and Rosalyn Tureck’s WTC II, and a few other things.

But the slow movement of the Hammerklavier began to do things for me that no other music – not even from my beloved Bach – had ever approached. I was in high school, omnivorously literate,  a piano student stoned on Bach, in agonies of ignorance and pain over emotional states and intellectual vistas that my reading had provided no names for.

The adagio spoke to that solitude. It spoke to my spiritual discomfort, my loneliness, to the diffidence and uncertainty that attended my every social undertaking, the endless failures in friendship. Of course, I had read the man’s life, and his own travails, the Heiligenstadt Testament, the deafness; I had read, and wept at, the story of his premier of the ninth symphony. And so I identified myself in that music.

That continued for many years through high school and college.

As time passed though, the angst and the pain of my adolescence subsided.  I cooled, like slow Hawaiian lava.

And so did my connection to Beethoven and the Hammerklavier.  There was folk music to discover, and the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Dylan, all the modalities of popular culture.  I could always depend on friends to tell me about the new music I needed to hear: the guy who introduced me to acid in 1966 brought an LP of Ravi Shankar to accompany our trip; I got hooked on the music but not the acid.

And always my collection of Bach recordings, and scholarly books, grew larger and larger.  In the 90’s I undertook to create synthesized performances of the Bach keyboard and organ works.

And that gets us to two nights ago, hearing the Beethoven slow movement for the first time in thirty, maybe forty years.

It was a devastating experience.  A rare experience.

You know the bit where you reread a book, or see a movie that once affected you deeply, and find it disappointing?   It’s uncommon, upon returning to a work of art you once loved, to find it even better, greater, deeper, richer, than you remembered; but that’s what happened to me with the Beethoven.

Yes, that’s uncommon; but it’s not, in and of itself, strange.

What’s strange with this adagio: since my re-encounter, it has suffused, ennobled, and dignified every kind of music – Joplin, Shankar, assorted Bach fugues, Creedence Clearwater, Billy Joel, childhood hymns – that has crossed my mind.  I experience all of these, now, as though they were episodes in the continuing saga of the Hammerklavier.

I don’t quite know what to make of this.  I hardly know how to describe it with any clarity.  Stay tuned.

Helluva way to begin a new year, right?

An Old Hymn, and an Old Top-40

Several days ago I was afflicted with another earworm, like those I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.  This was a fragment of an old hymn — one of the internal lines, not the first one, and it drove me batty trying to think of the name of the thing.

I looked up the one phrase that had been repeating in my ears: Teach m-e some melodious so-n-net / Sung by flaming tongues above.  Google referred me to a Wikipedia entry for the hymn named “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing“.

Of course.  It had been a staple of church services when I was a youngster.  By the time I was in high school, increasingly aware of hymn texts, the words of this one had begun to register with me as more congenial than some others.  (I detested “I Come to the Garden Alone“, for example, while I loved “Near to the Heart of God“.)

How do these little distinctions get started in our lives?  How do they grow?  What, if anything, do they signal, as they multiply, divide, and deepen throughout a lifetime?  No two people on earth traverse identical musical lifetimes.

And now yesterday Rosemarie, who has been wallowing in Youtube clips of popular songs from her own childhood up to the present, stumbled onto “Seasons in the Sun“.

I have some pretty vivid memories of our daughter Kate — who was eight years old when the song became omnipresent and unavoidable for a while in 1974 — playing it over and over and over, while I bit my tongue from pronouncing curses on that bathetic, weepy, sentimental piece of crap.  I managed to grow a musical hide, a reflex pair of psychological earmuffs.  At any rate, I never screamed out my opinion of the song in Kate’s presence.

And yesterday, as Rosemarie activated the clip, the same Terry Jacks, the 1974 six-million-records track…

…I choked up and got teary-eyed.

Now there’s something worth a few moments’ reflection.  What changed, for me, between 1974 and now?  What has become of my lifelong immersion in the music and the mind of J.S.Bach?  How can I get choked up in the midst of a track that has quite often been voted one of the worst popular songs ever created?

Well now look: everybody has songs they hate, and songs they love.  What music is on whose lists — well, that’s mostly a crapshoot, isn’t it, or at least a random assortment of all the songs there are with all the people who hear them.


Not really random either though.  That’s not the right word.

Picture in your mind a left-hand column listing all the people in the world, and a right-hand column of all the music in the world; now imagine lines from each person to each piece of music that person likes, and then picture the lines from each person being numbered according to how much that person likes that piece of music.

Whatever is going on in such a jumble, it isn’t random.  Not even close.  For example:

  • in the right-hand column some songs will have more lines than others.  More lines means those songs were/are more popular; songs with fewer lines have fewer listeners
  • in the left-hand column some persons have more lines than others.  Some people may have no lines at all; those would have to be the musically insensitive — people who just don’t listen, or don’t notice what they hear, and don’t have preferences at all.  Others may have only a couple of lines — pointing to the only half-dozen songs they’ve ever really attended to and loved.  Some very broadly experienced musical types might connect to lots of popular songs, classical stuff, ethnic things, but no  Country&Western.  Another might connect to nothing but C&W.

OK, that’s the setup for a thought experiment.

The question I’m asking of this experiment is: are some kinds of music really better than others?  Is there music that everyone ought to hear and like?

Stay tuned.  I’ll continue in another posting.

More Wake-up Music

This morning it was one of those flaky Bach melodies.  I said to myself, Aha, that’s some obscure canon or something that I only heard once, or only read about in Goedel, Escher, Bach twenty years ago.

I was wrong.

I should have known better; I’m not quite good enough, musically, to be able to remember, in any detail, things I’ve only heard once.

It turns out that what awakened me this morning was a passage from the fourth of the Five Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’, BWV 769; I’d been intimately acquainted with these since doing a synthesized version about fifteen years ago.

Remind me sometime to tell you about J.S.Bach.  My involvement began when I was around 14.

If God loves me so much, why do I wake up in the morning with songs in my head that I don’t even like?

This has been going on for quite a while now.  I’ve had it.  So a couple of weeks ago I decided to note down the music that was playing in my head when I awoke each morning.  Here’s what I woke up with over a period of two weeks:

  • Old MacDonald had a Farm
  • Loure, from the French Suite #5 of J.S.Bach
  • Jesus Loves the Little Children
  • Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah
  • Billy Joel “I Am an Innocent Man”
  • Sounds of Silence — Simon and Garfunkel
  • something of Edvard Grieg that I don’t know by name and don’t like very much
  • excerpts from the a minor organ fugue, bwv 543, of J.S.Bach
  • something of Schubert that I don’t know the name of
  • On Top of Old Smoky
  • Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling
  • Cantata #50, “Nun ist das Heil,” of J.S.Bach
  • Billy Joel singing “Light as the Breeze” by Leonard Cohen
  • Come on Baby Light My Fire — which I really hate.

…and so it went.  I have no control over the music in my own head.  If it’s not God who puts it there, then who?  What?  Why?

In the ordinary course of a day I can fill my head with any music I please, at will.  In the 70’s I used to play about half of the Well-Tempered Klavier, maybe a dozen of the Goldberg Variations, and so on.  Those are still in my musical imagination.  Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger — sure, don’t need any iTunes tracks, just let’em rip.  But what I wake up with?  That’s nothing I have any control over.

Where do those Sunday School songs, old altar-call hymns, where do those things come back from?  And why?  A few have sentimental associations for me; most of them don’t, and I disowned them decades ago.  Bad theology.

And don’t get me going on Paul Simon.  He and Garfunkel made glorious music with some marvellously incoherent lyrics, and as far as I know the lyrics were entirely Simon’s fault.