Johann Sebastian Is One of the Cool Kids in 'Red Hot + Bach'

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Red Hot + Bach (Sony)

The motto of Red Hot, the organization started by John Carlin and Leigh Blake in 1989 as a response to the AIDS epidemic, is “Fighting AIDS Through Popular Culture.” To raise money and awareness for HIV and AIDS, Red Hot has released albums featuring Beck, John Legend, Feist, The Beastie Boys, Marisa Monte, Aloe Blacc and the Dessner brothers. The list goes impressively on.

Following that motto, what comes next? Rightfully, the answer is Bach—total, full-on Johann Sebastian, re-imagined by people fit to join Red Hot’s ranks.

The album "Red Hot + Bach," released on June 17, enlisted musicians, DJs and producers to create work inspired by certain pieces of the composer. Ranging from the Kronos Quartet to Julianna Barwick, the artists have created diverse tracks representing the wide-reaching influence of Bach over today’s musical quilt.

As a listener, the album functions both as a collection of music and an observable universe as the tracks become landscapes for the Bach themes to traverse. Listening suddenly turns into participating. In Stuart Bogie and Grey McMurray’s The Watchmaker, you feel the melodic lines of Cello Suite No. 3 hum, swell and steep within the electric guitar. The Bach creates a three-dimensional space for the song’s deep, muffled beats and sweeping vocals to live. 

With Passacaglia, the Icelandic band amiina tackled Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, a haunting piece for organ. Their arrangement, for strings, percussion, vibraphone and other instruments, translates the grandness of the original piece into small, individualized emotions. The passacaglia’s terror becomes beautifully digestible. It’s effective in the way a half-remembered nightmare survives through the day.

Some of the tracks from "Red Hot + Bach" differ little from the style of Bach’s time period and still exhibit innovation. Shara Worden’s Time Drinks Three Shots, a piece for treble viol, bass viol and violone (instruments from Johann’s era) from the opera You Us We All, echoes the topography of the Prelude and Fugue in D Minor while being a baroque-inspired world all its own. The album opener, Rob Moose’s arrangement of the Partita No. 5 in G Major called Minuet for guitar and mandolin (performed with Chris Thile), satisfies every tonal nerve. Others manage to simultaneously inhabit the 1700s and the 2010s, such as Om’mas Keith’s Concerto No. 5, which is what would probably happen if you placed Bach in a Nintendo video game.

To quote Gabriel Kahane’s album closer Dear Goldberg, go ahead and “recline with a glass of wine.” Travel through "Red Hot + Bach" and all its unrelenting invention. And remember the lessons delivered through its baroque essence: AIDS is an ongoing battle, one still being fought around the world and one that deserves albums like this. Important, intoxicating music happens when artists collaborate. And, of course, Bach is popular culture. Never forget that. 

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