Glenn Gould, the virtuoso pianist and great interpreter of Bach, once described the way recordings of music “insinuate themselves into our judgments, and into our lives,” thereby giving recording artists “an awesome power that was simply not available to any earlier generation.” Listen to a favorite record often enough, and it becomes authoritative; a different interpretation, however fresh and ingenious, arouses suspicion. Is there a better performance of the “Et in terra pax” from Bach’s Mass in B minor than Nancy Argenta’s on the 1986 recording by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (for example)? Yet while repeated listening may accentuate our tastes, it does not necessarily refine them. For that we go to the concert hall, where we also encounter risk. A live performance is subject to constraints that a beloved CD or MP3 file is not: differences in interpretation, an off night, a patron’s abrupt cough and, above all, no second takes. But a concert holds various types of appeal that even a perfect recording lacks. For one thing, a concertgoer does not listen to the music while reading or working or making a daily commute, as we so often do today; a concertgoer can concentrate. Also, a concert is an ephemeral thing that exists for a time and is gone. In those brief moments, anything can happen.
Music in the age of recording is the subject of Reinventing Bach, an unusual book by Paul Elie that champions recording technology as the means of survival for classical music generally, and the music of Bach in particular. It is the latest in a wavelet of books by authors with no claim to any kind of musical expertise who discover classical music, fall in love with a composer, and write a book about the experience. Two recent titles are Wendy Lesser’s Music for Silenced Voices, about Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets, and Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites, a book on one of Bach’s masterworks. Elie owes a considerable debt to Siblin’s research on the history of the suites.
Classical music has experienced years of diminishing ticket sales and the indifference of young listeners and so must exploit technology, Elie believes, in order to endure. To prove as much, he lived for “a thousand and one nights” with Bach’s music on compact disc, MP3 and radio, and he emerged on the other side of the experience eager to proselytize both the music and the recording technology that captured it. Against the instinct of purists to denounce the ubiquitous cheapening of classical music in ringtones, overheated movie trailers and hip-hop songs, Elie contends: “The more various our encounters with Bach, the more objective his genius is.”
In its approach to the subject, Reinventing Bach follows in the footsteps of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which explored the emergence of pragmatism in late nineteenth-century America through the lives of four prominent individuals. Elie profiles four men who took part in Bach recording milestones. His book is a study of an idea, told through the diverse lives of that idea’s proponents. But unlike Menand, who assembled a book from four relatively independent profiles, Elie seems to have attempted Reinventing Bach as a sort of fugue, wherein a series of independent melodic lines are added to one another and then exist in a complex braid of counterpoint. It is an ambitious undertaking, but it requires Bach’s ability to retain clarity in each strand while working the whole into a seamless harmonic design.
Reinventing Bach’s four subjects are Albert Schweitzer, the organist and philosopher, who recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in 1935; Pablo Casals, who rediscovered Bach’s cello suites and made the first recordings of them in the late 1930s; Leopold Stokowski, the flamboyant conductor who paired with Walt Disney to create the film Fantasia (1940), which features Bach’s music; and Glenn Gould, whose 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations were the bookends of his career and a golden era in classical recording. In addition to these men, Elie devotes pages to other figures in classical music, sketches a biographical portrait of Bach, and offers a running discussion of advances in recording technology. The result is an engaging but fairly unwieldy affair.