Debauched Bach?

Whether alphabetized or not, when it comes to classical music composers, Bach’s at the top of the list. It’s hard to overstate his influence and legacy. But, as this excerpt from Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History shows, he was no saint.

J.S. Bach the rebel
I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits—on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen groschen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices—or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties?

Hilary and Johann

It’s pretty scary reading about how talented Hilary Hahn is, how much she achieved at such a young age. But, as this interview with Guernica shows, it’s all about the music, and Bach in particular.

Hilary Hahn: Entering the sublime
When I play the solo repertoire, the way Bach writes is pretty progressive. I believe he would be considered somewhat experimental even by today’s standards. He was a tonal composer as opposed to atonal or twelve-tone and he used acoustic instruments because he had nothing else; but when I listen to the progressive aspect of his music, I feel like he’s a master of disguise. You are going with him in one direction—you get there, but you realize you are not where you thought you were. You look around and notice a door, but when you get to the door, it’s a wall. You look around and notice that the floor you’re standing on is a trap door. You go down the trap door to what you think is the basement, but it’s the attic. Bach feels a lot like that—a really interesting fun house. The dimensions are different from a distance than when you get up close.

Hilary Hahn – J.S. Bach: Sonata for Violin Solo No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 – 4. Presto

Otherworldly talent. But as this video shows, she is human.

Hilary Hahn does the Ling Ling Workout

Happy birthday Bach

I love this Google Doodle, though even Bach can’t rescue my appalling lack of musical ability!

Google’s first AI-powered Doodle is a piano duet with Bach
Starting on March 21st, you’ll be able to play with the interactive Doodle, which will prompt you to compose a two-measure melody or pick one of the pre-existing choices. When you press the “Harmonize” button, it will use machine learning to give you a version of your melody that sounds like it was composed by Bach himself.

happy-birthday-bach-1

Various Google teams were involved in this project, including Google Magenta. There is an incredible amount of detail about the technologies behind the Bach harmonies on their own site.

Coconet: the ML model behind today’s Bach Doodle
Coconet is trained to restore Bach’s music from fragments: we take a piece from Bach, randomly erase some notes, and ask the model to guess the missing notes from context. The result is a versatile model of counterpoint that accepts arbitrarily incomplete scores as input and works out complete scores. This setup covers a wide range of musical tasks, such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions, rewriting and elaborating existing music, and composing from scratch.

happy-birthday-bach-2

I cannot begin to understand what’s going on there, but it sounds good.

Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project

Yo-Yo Ma’s touring again, but his Bach Project isn’t just a series of concerts.

Yo-Yo Ma — The Bach Project
It is a journey motivated not only by his six decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. […] Alongside each concert is a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.

As well as the concerts, he’s been meeting with students, community groups and artists to share the idea that culture connects us and is needed now more than ever.

Yo-Yo Ma’s days of action
Ma said that he had come to Anacostia because of the community’s efforts to strengthen itself through culture. “You give of yourselves from substance,” he said. “It’s not money, it’s not just work, it’s that you give of yourselves, and, when you do that, that’s when beauty emerges.” He then played the Prelude of Bach’s G-major Suite. Kymone Freeman, the station’s co-founder, approved. “This is the type of culture that should be exposed to our children,” Freeman told his listeners. “The first thing that gets cut is art. The last thing that gets funded is art.” […]

At the Bowl, Ma said little, disappearing into the music. For the cathedral concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, he was in a more boisterous mood. He wore a colorful scarf around his neck, and explained that he had found it at an Anacostia boutique called Nubian Hueman. “I’m doing all of my holiday shopping there,” he said. At the halfway point—there was no intermission—he motioned for the audience to stand, which was taken as a signal for an ovation. But Ma wasn’t seeking adulation: he wanted everyone to stretch. He proceeded to do a few jumping jacks while holding his multimillion-dollar cello in one hand.

Here he is explaining the reasons behind the new album and tour.

Yo-Yo Ma – The Making of Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

But I couldn’t resist also adding this video here, too. It’s quite remarkable, not just to Yo-Yo’s playing at such an early age, but for Bernstein’s wonderful introduction.

Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma’s high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy
The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts” was to be held with “a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program’s attention by Casals.”

As biographer Jim Whiting noted, “the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo’s name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times.”

From the comments:

It makes me weep to see how Bernstein articulates a vision of open internationalism and welcome in this nation, which has now become so closed.

Yo-Yo Ma played before President Kennedy at 7, and also played for President Obama’s inauguration. What a life for him!