The Greeks had it right
I can count the days left on my fingers until my month-long tour around Australia with the Bach cello suites. Just over a week to go!! I can’t contain my excitement - I know it’s going to be an amazing experience!
As I’ve been working up the Bach suites, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect upon my goals with this music and what I hope to communicate across to listeners. As a string player, there is no denying the fact that Bach’s music is difficult to perform. It is such pure, simple music, and its unaccompanied nature means that there is nowhere to hide. All bad habits (and good ones, hopefully) are there to be seen and heard. Intonation and bowing needs to be controlled to the minutest degree. But more importantly, this music needs to sound beautiful, objective and clear - it needs to flow through us in all its sublimity. Not only must we give attention to the journey of the bass line but also to the melody, all without distorting the tempo too much. Every note of every gesture of every phrase has its own specific place in the unfolding of the music and must be thought out in advance, but at the same time there needs to be a sense of detachment so as to allow the music to speak for itself. And THEN there is the added factor that the music must breathe and come to life. It still needs to sound spontaneous!
So where do we even begin??
Learning and internalizing the notes is hard enough. And playing in tune? Don’t get me started! I think it is the music itself, however, that deserves our attention. What is it about this music that transcends time and continues to inspire countless people around the world? What is it about Bach’s solo cello suites (and solo violin works for that matter) that demands the attention of listeners, regardless of how well they are acquainted with Bach or classical music in general? Why do musicians (cellists, violinists, bassists, trombonists, harpists, percussionists, even jazz musicians among others) all around the globe find gratification in devoting countless hours to the study and improvement of their “interpretations” of this music? Most of all, why is the spirit of his music so palpable and moving?
Perhaps the ratios of notes and harmonies are so perfect in their organization that they align exquisitely with our human senses and offer the most ideal kind of aesthetic pleasure. Or perhaps the rising and falling of the phrases is so natural in its evolution, like the flow of currents in the ocean or the ever-changing rate of our heartbeats. Some just find the suites soothing and therapeutic to listen to. Others admire the way he is able to outline a polyphonic sound world on an essentially single-lined instrument. There are also plenty of people who find this music mathematical and boring. In fact, during his lifetime, most people (even his children) viewed Bach’s music as too complicated and distasteful!
There is something else about this music, however, that I find to be particularly inspiring. Not only does it tap into one of our most basic human instincts (movement), but it also acts as a commentary of human experience through its subtle interplay of keys, harmonies and structure. And sure, one could argue that all music does this. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, the Beatles, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift - all of their music too is a narrative of human experience and emotion. But the difference lies in the fact that Bach does it all with the most minimal musical materials: a lone cello. No symphony orchestra, no piano, no lyrics - just a cello.
In one of my previous posts, “Sunny Sydney,” I wrote about how music gives flight to emotion.. it gives emotion a tangible quality. Well, this was only scratching the surface of something much deeper. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the Ancient Greeks for a second. Some of you may not know that the Greeks valued music so highly that it was one of two essential components to one’s education. The other was gymnastics (or physical activity). Music for the mind, gymnastics for the body. In fact, music was thought to have strong links to mathematics, and even on a spiritual level was believed to have been able to restore one’s inner harmony and teach one about the various “affects” and emotions of human existence. To put it more simply, the Greeks believed that music could arouse a very specific state of emotion or ethos in listeners, and in doing so, educate them about humanity and encourage them to make sense of these emotions in their lives. This is why they found it imperative that one is exposed to music from an early age.
I think they were onto something.
Fast forward several centuries to the Baroque period, when the Doctrine of Affections was widely circulated as a leading theory regarding aesthetics in music and art. The basic idea, similar to that of the Greeks, was that a composer could write a piece of music that produced a specific kind of emotional arousal in the listener, whether it be joy, sadness, tragedy, pride, fury and so on.
Why is this important?
Because of what the Ancient Greeks believed - that by identifying with emotion in music we are subconsciously processing these feelings in a way that will allow us to recall and comprehend them in our individual lives. And let’s face it - when it comes down to it, we as a human species are emotional creatures. It has been that way since the beginning of time and there is so much evidence that shows how we have always sought out art, song and dance as a means of expressing ourselves and connecting with others. Even now, indigenous cultures are known to communicate through song and dance. It is a common thread that ties together life all around the globe. (Is it a potential avenue for peace on earth? Understanding between disparate cultures?.. A post for another time).
It is no wonder that Bach’s suites are so moving - because aside from being beautiful music, they perfectly capture, with minimal materials, the ever-fluctuating nature of human emotion. Let’s take a few examples from the suites. See how the opening d minor triad of the second suite evokes a mood of loneliness and introspection and how this mood transforms through the colors of different harmonies - sometimes more hopeful and questioning, other times more restrained and subdued. And then comes the expanded triad at measure 40, which is far more dramatic with its larger reach, paving the way for the climactic measures of the movement with the insistent dominant pedal. After the pause comes acknowledgement and acceptance with the descending sequence and perfect cadence in measures 51-2. Sombre melancholy to hopeful searching to anxiety and frustration, and then acceptance. Is this not a narrative for human experience?
The same goes for the prelude from the third suite, expansive and generous in its atmosphere, with more diatonic harmonies and progressions than the previous suite. The mood is joyful and celebratory. The wonderful thing about this movement is that it basically consists of running sixteenth notes, but still there is endless variation in its treatment, which allows for continuous fluctuations of mood, from the uplifting quality of the opening, to the restlessness and feeling of doubt in the a minor section, from blissful ease and liberation in measures 33-7 to a calming and serene tranquility in measures 61-71. Once again, with absolutely minimal compositional materials, Bach is able to produce a sound world that is endlessly in a state of flux.
Bach was a master composer. And from these suites we can also deduce that he had a deep understanding of humanity. It does not matter whether or not his compositional process was well thought out or just purely instinctive, because the raw human emotion is there in all its nuance and shading.
Imagine the sonic possibilities when we record this music in outback Australia, with eerie silence.. or in the presence of dancers who suffer from Parkinson's disease.. or for an audience of elderly people who suffer from dementia.. will this music speak to these people too? I wonder just how transformative and powerful this music can be.
So much to look forward to! My girlfriend, Marissa, was just in town for a week - just what I needed during this pre-tour chaos! I’m trying so hard to have her come on the tour, despite her concerns. She has helped so much with tour planning and logistics - I couldn’t have made it this far without her. I know she will be an asset to the team. Help me try to convince her to come!
In other news, I was just in Kalamazoo, Michigan, doing a fundraiser concert for my upcoming tour. I performed Bach suites 1, 4 and 6 and 3 Australian compositions to go with them. I will never forget the beautiful acoustics of that venue - the First Congregational Church - what a wonderful space. The Kalamazoo community is also just so generous and welcoming. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience. I had a blast working with Grace Field’s suzuki studio - such eager, talented youngsters.. reminds me of my suzuki days! A special shout out to Liz Rohs, my wonderful host, and Margaret Hamilton, executive director of the Stulberg Competition, for accommodating me throughout my visit and for showing me such a lovely time. I look forward to visiting again soon!
All for now!
Check out the project website www.bringingmusictolife.com for frequent updates and uploads from the tour! Also, here is a link to an interview I did with WMUK in Kalamazoo: http://wmuk.org/post/bach-music-life-says-cellist-richard-narroway