Music for Several Instruments: Bach the Terminal Point

August 1, 2016

Heitor Villa-Lobos called Bach “…a kind of universal folkloric source, rich and profound.”  He mined a particularly rich Bachian vein throughout his career, as have so many other composers, including Mozart, Chopin, Debussy.  “Study Bach,” said Brahms, “there you will find everything.”  One way to pay back this influence is to write music in homage: Villa’s Bachianas Brasileiras, Stokowski’s orchestral adaptations of preludes and fugues, Shostakovich’s great Preludes and Fugues for piano, Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion. There are hundreds, thousands, of others.

For this project Matt Haimovitz commissioned six composers – Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford, and Luna Pearl Woolf – to write music for solo cello that would naturally lead into six different movements from the Solo Suites. In a process that Bach the every-day professional musician would have found familiar, these commissions interrupted the composers’ current work – on Glass’s opera Appomattox and Woolf’s opera Better Gods – or started a back-and-forth collaboration between composer and performer, as happened between Haimovitz and Iyer. The composers’ ideas encouraged Haimovitz to explore new techniques: microtonality in the music of Du Yun, the jazz bassist’s repertoire of pizzicato and a different forms of scordatura with David Sanford, and an exploration of the five-string cello piccolo in the work of his partner Luna Pearl Woolf. He uses a variety of bows – Baroque and modern – throughout. None of this trial-and-error and technical innovation gets in the way of the music; it all sounds completely natural and organic. There is similarly no jarring transition between the new music and Bach, which is a tribute to the composers, the performer, and genius of Bach himself.

As with all the best encounters between artists, the more each composer focusses on Bach the more personal the music becomes. Haimovitz is demonstrating in these commissions and his superb Bach performances the truth of Borges’ statement in his essay Kafka and His Precursors: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

“Bach is a terminal point,” Albert Schweitzer once said. “Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads up to him.” So all music in homage to Bach is really a kind of overture.

The Pentatone CD will be released September 9, 2016.

By Dean Frey

Read at: Music for Several Instruments

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