Paul Elie, Reinventing Bach

Anthony Tommasini reviews a new book on the work of the German composer
Paul Elie, Reinventing Bach
Anthony Tommasini (New York Times):
Paul Elie begins his intriguingly titled “Reinventing Bach” with a charming anecdote that seems, at first, a neat frame for his argument. He recalls visiting a museum of historic musical instruments in Berlin, where he was very moved to see the harpsichord that belonged to Bach.

Looking at the frail instrument built in 1740, with all its strings missing, Mr. Elie writes of how amazing it is to think that the discolored keys “were worn down by Bach himself.” Yet there is a gap for him in the experience, which becomes clear when he overhears people at the museum excitedly crowding around the synthesizer used by Pink Floyd on “Wish You Were Here.”

That synthesizer is “the real thing: the actual instrument played on an album I have heard a hundred times,” Mr. Elie writes. Bach’s harpsichord seems disconnected from Bach’s music. The composer “owned it, but its sound is conjectural.”

Mr. Elie then states clearly: “This is a book about the music of Bach and the ways it has been reinvented in our time.” Fascinating and engagingly written, it emphasizes that Bach — whose greatness as a composer, for Mr. Elie, is “total and inviolable” — was also a pioneer of technology: not just a master organist but a master organ builder and repairer; a theoretician who investigated the possibilities of a tuning system that changed the way music sounds and is still in use; a composer who embraced the art of transcription and would not have minded at all, and maybe anticipated, that his pieces would one day be reconceived for Moog synthesizers and small ensembles of swinging, scatting singers. [Read More]
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