Bach 360°: Cross-Genre Reinventions

What Makes Bach's Music So Adaptable?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

For years everybody's shortlist of imaginative takes on the music of Bach began and ended with Walter Carlos's crossover classic "Switched-on Bach," which came out in 1968 — back when Glenn Gould was still alive and young, a “long-playing” record could spin for just 22 minutes before you had to turn it over, and a synthesizer like Carlos's Moog could play only one note at a time. But creative people have been reinventing Bach continuously since then in all sorts of musical and artistic disciples. Here are three of my favorites:

Bach Choir director Joshua Rifkin's 1982 recording of the Mass in B Minor was dubbed the “B minor madrigal” for its use of only one voice on a part: nine at all. It's faithful to Bach's text, but it doesn't sound the way you expect a Mass to sound: the singers might be doo-wop singers under a streetlight, or Baroque ancestors of the Philadelphians who sing around a fire in a barrel in "Rocky." They don't sound like a chorus: they sound like some people singing – singing Bach.   

C.K. Williams' poem “Time: 1976” isn't about Bach per se: it has to do with the way certain crucial moments circulate fugally in the memory, so that as they occur they seem to anticipate the fact that we'll remember them later on. The poet is in his apartment in Paris, where a recording of Bach's Musical Offering is playing and his wife is reading a book aloud to his son — and he feels his mind rushing forward twenty years into a moment, same apartment, same music, in which he regrets the loss of the moment he is in here and now. He feels he is in the future already and Bach has taken him there: “It must be the music – / the Bach surely is real, I can hear it / that drives me so poignantly, expectantly back / to remember again that morning of innocent peace a lifetime ago when I came towards them."

Scholars used to debate whether Bach was more painter or poet – but this poem shows how his music can call forth poetry strongly suggestive of Bach.  

Just out of conservatory, guitarist Peter Blanchette turned to an instrument specially fashioned so that he could play the music of Bach with a full array of contrapuntal lines. The archguitar, as he calls it, has a body akin to a baritone ukelele, a broad fingerboard with eleven strings, and a neck that comes off — so he can stow the instrument in an airplane's overhead bin when he travels to Europe, where he spent the eighties playing Bach in piazzas. His Archguitar Bach recording is at once self-sufficient and generous, austere yet not antiquarian.  

The pianist Donal Fox has been said to blend Bach and jazz – and Bach and Thelonious Monk in particular – but that's not quite right. When Fox plays, you can hear that the music has long since been blended by his sensibility, so that words like “crossover” are brittle and unnecessary. It may be that I hear his music that way because I had the privilege of sitting next to him at a piano in Boston while he worked some variations on Bach right on the spot. But you can hear it for yourself in his “Variations on a Bach Fugue,” with quartet, or his composition “Toccata on Bach.” So put away those Jacques Loussier and Swingles Singers records and get some Bach by Fox!   

Paul Elie's book Reinventing Bach, published in 2012, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

Author Paul Elie Discusses The Beatles' Use of Bach:

Free Download [Expired]: Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach's Prelude in B minor

Simone Dinnerstein and singer-songwriter Tift Merrit collaborate on the new album, "Night," which shows how the worlds of classical music, folk and jazz increasingly intersect. The recording contains songs from the likes of Franz Schubert, Billie Holiday, Brad Mehldau, Leonard Cohen and Henry Purcell, as well as Merrit herself and even a touch of Bach, as heard in the above download. (Available at

Programming Highlights for Wednesday (All Times Approximate)

7:00 am    Well-Tempered Clavier a la Turk // Django Reinhardt with Stephane Grappelli and Eddie South

8:00 am    Leopold Stokowski // Wendy Carlos 

9:00 am    The Swingle Singers // PDQ Bach

11:00 am Anton Webern reimagines Bach

12:00 noon Bela Fleck, Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer

1:00 pm    International Contemporary Ensemble

3:00 pm    Leopold Stokowski // The Luce Trio

4:00 pm    Modern Jazz Quartet

6:00 pm    Chris Thile // Barroco Andino, an ensemble playing indigenous Andean instruments

9:00 pm    Bob Sherman & the Young Artists Showcase celebrate Bach

Slideshow: A Gallery of Cross-Genre Bach Recordings

The Modern Jazz Quartet: 'Place Vendome'
The Swingle Singers: Jazz Sebastian bach
Jean-Pierre Jumez
Lalo Schiffrin: Towering Toccata
Jacques Loussier: Play Bach
Django Rheinhardt
Procol Harum: A Whiter Shade of Pale
Modern Jazz Quartet: Blues on Bach


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Comments [9]

Paul Hunchak from Syosset

I was hoping there was a mention of this album. As a kid in the early 70s I wore out the album listening to the Switched on Bach, it introduced me to appreciate the classics in a new way. I agree with Jean it also gave me a life life love of Bach.

Mar. 31 2013 03:29 PM
J. Palermo from New York City

I have had a peak experience listening as much as possible this week to the music of J. S. Bach. How wonderful it's been to come home at any time day or night, turn on the radio, and hear Bach. Every Cantata that I heard was glorious. I finally realized the greatness, profundity and magnificence of Bach. How was it possible that one man could write such glorious, harmonious music? I heard late at night this week the unaccompanied violin piece, (I don't remember the title) but it was around 2:00a.m. when I awakened and thought I would go into another planet. It was so beautiful that I don't have the words to describe the intense feeling and pleasure I had in listening to it. Some previously have written comments that they would change the station this week as it was too much Bach. It is never too much Bach. It is not enough Bach.
Thank you WQXR for such a wonderful idea to have Bach for ten days. I hope I can recover as I have been truly transported.

Mar. 29 2013 11:16 PM
Tommy from Raleigh, NC

The end of "All You Need Is Love" quotes Bach's Invention no. 8, F Major (BWV 779).

Mar. 29 2013 10:25 PM
Bobbie O'Connor from Carlstadt, NJ

For some reason, i was never into Bach but after listening to him all week long on wqxr, got addicted and adding Bach to my list of favorites (which are Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saens, & Tchaikovsky). Thank you, wqzr!

Mar. 28 2013 11:56 AM
Russ from Plainfield, NJ

Although I played piano as a child, "Switched on Bach 2" and Emerson Lake and Palmer's "Pictures At An Exhibition" were what got me interested in classical music as an adult in the early 70's. Another interesting cross-genre artist that does interesting Bach is Tomito. He has taken what W. Carlos started to a new level.

Mar. 27 2013 11:49 PM
Eileen Vance from Baltimore, MD

The cover of the digital re-issue of "Switched-On Bach" acknowledges that the artist formerly known as Mr Walter Carlos is now properly referred to as Ms Wendy Carlos. Why are you still calling her "Walter?"

Mar. 27 2013 07:42 PM

So glad you're playing the Swingle Singers and Switched-on Bach! As a teenager in the 1960s, I was already well acquainted with Bach, and enjoyed his music, but these versions made it so relevant. I still enjoy them immensely -- even after getting a degree in music and studying musicology for a whle. This just shows how timeless and adaptable Bach's music is.

Mar. 27 2013 01:08 PM
Sam Rosenberry from Poughkeepsie NY

In the late 1960's my father worked for IBM. One day his manager sent him a young musician who had approached IBM for help with a novel musical instrument called the Moog Synthesizer, and my father's manager thought my father might be able to help him. Walter Carlos had a vision for recording Bach with the Synthesizer, and wanted to make use of it's almost limitless sound capabilities. I never did discover what help my father was able to provide him. But some months later a large flat package arrived in the mail. We marveled at the different sounds we heard, and I immediately fell in love with Bach, and that album, a love that has lasted a lifetime. On the dust jacket, Mr. Carlos had written, "Porter, thank you for all your help. Walter Carlos." Thank you WQXR for refreshing a favorite memory from my youth.

Mar. 27 2013 10:17 AM
Jean Kuhn from Bedminster, NJ

When I was young in 1968 and my musical tastes were limited to The Hallelujah Chorus, The Beatles, and rock and roll, I was given the album Switched On Bach. I wore that record out. That gift gave me a life long love of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and I have saved that old vinyl to this day.

Thank you WQXR for feeding my addiction to Bach for so many days.

Mar. 27 2013 08:22 AM

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