Indestructible Architecture of Sound

This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, . . . is music complete. This doesn't just mean it's beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you're not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can't. It will expose everything you've mastered and everything you're scared of. And I don't just mean about the violin. I mean about everything. It'll show all that today, and it'll show all that when you play it again in 10 years.  And people who know music, who've seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you've become.

— David Dobbs's violin teacher Malone, quoted at the very bottom of this collection of vignettes

It isn't hard to find sentiments like this regarding the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The concert music world is already pretty prone to hyperbole and romanticization, but even in that context, Bach stands out as deserving special reverence. Here, for another example, is Douglas Adams, from The Salmon of Doubt:

Beethoven tells you what it's like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it's like to be human. Bach tells you what it's like to be the universe.

Further quotes are trivially easy to find; this is a mindset that pervades the heritage of Western concert music. There are certainly dissenting voices — one Baroque music specialist I know inveighed wearily against the "maudlinization" of Bach when that first quote was going around Facebook a while back — but by and large there's a startling degree of consensus on this: Bach is set apart, in a world of his own, just somehow above everyone else.

Why? What is it about the music of this centuries-dead man that inspires such effulgent praise, that would inspire an unrepentant modernist like yours truly to rifle thru his works and record one of them on an instrument he didn't even write for? (An instrument, I might add, that is woefully ill-suited to the piece's technical demands. Martin Amlin, at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, described Bach as being "indestructible architecture of sound" while explaining how you can arrange Bach for absolutely anything and it will still work. The flip side of this, of course, is that Bach isn't particularly idiomatic for any instrument: Vocalists, in particular, are very happy to point out his blithe indifference to the fact that human beings need to inhale occasionally, integrity of the contrapuntal line be damned.)

Part of it, no doubt, is somewhat circular. Even today, Bach's chorale harmonizations are core texts in many introductory music theory classes; the principles of good voice leading — how, on a very micro level, you move from one chord to the next — are often defended by referring to what Bach did in an equivalent harmonic situation; part of what makes a piece "well-written", then, is defined as "being written like Bach". But Bach-as-theory-model didn't just happen; people chose Bach because Bach's music is very good.

Unlike many of my fellow musicians, tho, I don't actually think Bach — at least Bach in his solo instrumental works (I don't really listen to his vocal works) — is very emotionally expressive. I find him remote, distant, inscrutable. His music is music pared down to structure alone, shorn of any comfort-giving augmentation; it has the same rarified purity as abstract mathematics.

This, over and above any technical hurdles, is what makes his works so difficult to play. With more flamboyant composers, the phrases almost shape themselves. Sure, finding the right level of dynamic shaping and performative affect takes practice and work, but Chaikovskii's melodies, for example, are not subtle about the direction they want you to take them in. With Bach, it is all too easy to play what's on the page with icy precision, leaving the resulting music lifeless, inert, dead in the air. At the same time, tho, every note is structural; you can't sweep any of them out of the way as incidental points in a dramatic arc that surges from A to B. Each one of them has to be there; each one of them is doing work. 

Because of this abstraction, there are many ways to turn a phrase in Bach. But implications quickly pile up: If you take the first phrase one way, some options for the second phrase will consequently close for you, and similarly for the third once you've settled the second. It is not enough, however, to merely go with this accumulated flow: There are larger structural points that you need to emphasize and bring out, and often an intuitive phrasing will plonk you down at these points with exactly the wrong emphasis, meaning you have to go back, picking things apart step by step, rephrasing everything so that you land where you need to.

And this, in turn, is why I keep coming back to Bach, not as a locus of expression but as a place of refuge. There is music that I go to when I need to feel deeply, and then there is music that I turn to when feeling is too much, when I need to set my heart aside for a spell and leave off from the turmoil of daily life. Bach is firmly in this second camp. There is too much rigor here for rage, too much structure for the senseless depths of fathomless sorrow, too strict logic for giddy spells of manic joy. Bach can get to melancholy, to benevolence, to calm self-assurance, but he is very much in a bubble, cut off from the raw and ragged edges of living in the world. When the weight of living is too much with me, Bach lets me set it aside, not to exorcize, but to work on later; allows me space, if only for a few spare minutes, to breathe.