Reinventing Bach: On Writing, Music, and Technology

by Iza Wojciechowska

Whether or not you’ve known it, or whether or not you’ve wanted to, you’ve heard the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. You’ve certainly heard him on the radio or on CD if you listen to even a bit of classical music; but if you steer clear, you’ve still heard him. You’ve seen a commercial for American Express or iTunes, or you’ve heard old Nokia ringtones, or you’ve simply been around music during Christmas. Bach, arguably more than any other composer, is ubiquitous, even now, more than 250 years after his compositions were written. But how did he get that way?

One answer is: technology. Paul Elie, a former editor at FSG and a creative writing professor (mine, in fact), has written an astounding book that traces the evolution of Bach’s music through the evolution of technology. From the creation of wax cylinder recordings, through LPs, CDs and MP3s, each stage in technology’s progress coincided with a major breakthrough for Bach’s music. In Reinventing Bach, Elie presents this history, interweaving the story of Bach with those of the musicians who played his music, as well as with his own.

This is his second book; the first, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG, 2003), focused on four Catholic American writers, and Reinventing Bach is, in some ways, similar in its treatment of art and creation. Elie says he already has a new book in the works, but is being secretive about it—but I already can’t wait. I spoke with him recently about music and research and about how his clear passions for Bach and for writing coincide so perfectly in this book.

Iza Wojciechowska: One of the things I noticed throughout Reinventing Bach was your remarkable way of describing music. Every time you focused on a specific piece, you came up with great metaphors and very beautiful ways of describing sound. Did that come naturally to you—describing one medium in another?

Paul Elie: There’s a Greek term for that: ekphrasis. When I was writing my first book, it became clear to me that in literary biography the descriptions of the authors’ books were usually the dull parts. And I asked myself why that was, and one reason was that the books were usually worked into the narrative based on the date when they were published. From working at FSG, I knew that the time when the book is electric in the author’s imagination is when he or she is writing it, more than when it goes out into the world. Once you understand that—that you need to dramatize the book when it’s being written, not when it comes out—it gives you a whole different relationship to the text and how you’re going to describe it.

When I turned to Bach, that experience led me to think about how to describe music in terms of how it fit into the story I was telling—when the records were made and when I heard them as a listener—rather than simply when they were issued by a record company.

My first book was about the power of other books, and I knew that the passages about the books themselves had to be as intense for the reader as the rest. I thought it would be the same for music in this one: no time-outs for the music, the music is the point, the passages about the music have to be really outstanding.

IW: A lot of the book is about the evolution of recordings and the technology used to make and listen to music. Is it important to listen to old recordings in their original forms? How does that compare to listening to re-mastered MP3s of something originally recorded on a wax cylinder, for example?

PE: I heard most of the old recordings in the book on CD, not in the original formats. There’s a school that says that if the recording was first issued on LP, you have to hear the LP, on vinyl, played on turntable player at thirty-three and a third RPM. There’s something to that, but I’m less interested in trying to approximate past experiences of technology, and more in the generative power of the technology—how the technology helped create this or that approach to Bach’s music. Take Glenn Gould’s first recording of the Goldberg Variations, really a breakthrough Bach LP. It was released in 1956. Now that it exists, it’s less important what format I use to listen to it than the fact that the invention of reel-to-reel tape and the vinyl LP made it possible for the recording to be made in a certain way in the first place.

Also, I wrote both my books while having a full-time job here at FSG. A lot of my strategy as an author had to be, well what can I do? How can I get this book written? In this case, I had Academy Records downstairs on 18th Street, with shelves full of old recordings re-mastered on CD. It may not be the perfect way to hear those old recordings, but it’s what was possible for me to do in order to get this book written.

And once I started writing, I found that again and again, the major figures in the book took a similar approach. Glenn Gould, for example, is usually represented as a philosophical advocate of the recording studio over live performance, and he wrote prophetically about recordings, but the fact is that he quit touring in 1964 and limited himself to making studio recordings in New York and Toronto because he found that that’s what he personally was able to do. He was socially awkward and was driven nuts by travel, and he figured out that he could make twice as much music if he just cut out the high-society side of his career and focused on making records with a few key people he trusted.

reinventing bach

IW: You’ve brought up your first book a couple of times, and I was wondering if you could talk a little more about the parallels you found in the process of writing the two? Anything you learned from writing The Life You Save May Be Your Own that you brought to or stayed away from when writing this one?

PE: The first book is a group portrait of four American Catholic writers, with a four-part narrative that ultimately becomes one narrative. As I wrote it, I learned a few things about how to make four stories become one story, and about how to keep the temperature up when writing about works of literature and art. Essentially, the new book is more like a six- or seven-part narrative with the narrative strands running together, and I had to figure out two things. One was how to get the strand of Bach’s story going through without using italics or some strained effect. The second one is that people in my first book were great writers, and much of the energy in the text comes from their words, not mine. Walker Percy’s a genius, Dorothy Day is a pungently outspoken activist, Thomas Merton had something to say on everything under the sun, and Flannery O’Connor’s every utterance is both funny and wise. When it comes to Bach, much of source material is 250 years old, or it’s in translation, or it was written by musicians or archivists, not writers. I found that I could rely on the words of others less, so I had to find more and better words of my own.

IW: Can you talk a little bit more about how you did all your vast research for Reinventing Bach?

PE: Well, I think that if you are writing what is going to be a long book, it’s important not to get too far ahead of yourself. For me, the excitement of writing a book has to do with the act of discovery or invention, if you will; you’re figuring things out as you go. If you do all the research first, you’ll run out of gas by the time you get around to writing, especially if it’s a long book. This may sound mystical, but you try to get yourself into a position where you know enough to get a book contract and make a general plan for your book, but then you keep yourself in the dark about certain things. In nonfiction writing, if you know what happened when, a lot of your work will be done for you, because you can see connections emerging. When I started, then, I worked up a detailed chronology and got a general sense of what had to happen where, but some crucial ideas emerged along the way—the role of invention, for example—and there were lots of vital recordings that I didn’t know well until the time came to write about them.

There’s a passage near the end of the book about Bach’s Musical Offering, which Bach composed after visiting Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, toward the end of his life. The Offering is mentioned in a C.K. Williams poem I first read when I was working on Charlie’s Selected Poems at FSG in 1994. Over time, the poem grew in my mind, so much so that I didn’t want to listen to the Offering. I thought: so there’s one significant Bach work that I’ve never heard—cool. Let me save that one. The text of my book was practically in copy-editing when I checked a CD of the Offering out of the Columbia library, opened Selected Poems, and listened and wrote. I saved the Offering so that at the end of a long arc I would have a fresh work to dig into and respond to for the first time.

When we talk about literary nonfiction usually it’s assumed that that’s something distinct from books that are researched and that’s one of the distinctions that I hope to erode. Maybe in a writing program, the expectation is that the material is from personal experience. There’s lots of personal experience in the book, but it’s the experience of seeking understanding. And to understand the effect of Bach coming around, and to go into the story of Bach’s life and the story of how his music had been reinvented over and over again all tries to give form to this encounter that I had with his music.

IW: And when you say that you started out knowing just a little bit and then relied on the research you would do, were you completely confident that it would all come together?

PE: I knew that there was a good story to tell about Bach’s music beginning when his music became widely available through recordings in the 1930s. The more I looked into the story, the more I realized how the advances in Bach’s music coincided with new advances in audio technology. So that became a bigger part of the story, to the point that I tried to construct the book as something like a Bach suite with the six chapters as the six parts of the suite. Each part dramatized a great adventure in the reinvention of Bach’s music, and also a significant new invention or discovery about new ways to record and distribute music. Then, not so early, I realized that not only did Bach compose an important work called the Inventions, but he had a firm idea of what an invention is. That was the eureka moment: Oh wow, Bach was an inventor! The idea of invention—the “pattern of invention,” one Bach scholar calls it—joined my two narratives, the narrative of Bach and the narrative of technology, in the person of Bach himself.

IW: Would you say that this book could only have been written about Bach? Surely technology affected the way other classical composers’ music was preserved and propelled through time, but do you think that it all had to come together with Bach?

PE: Definitely the points I make about technology are true of many composers and many artists outside of classical music. But it seems to me distinctive to Bach in a number of ways. One is that among composers, Bach has gotten progressively more central and popular since recordings became ubiquitous. Beethoven has arguably declined in stature, Mozart has held steady, but Bach has risen in stature to the point that after the World Trade Center was destroyed, WNYC, which had run only news programming in the days afterward, returned to music by playing an evening of the music of Bach as the impetus for reflection. To me, it’s amazing that we turn to a German composer from 1725 to express a general cultural feeling after a disaster in downtown Manhattan in 2001.

The other point is that musician after musician has commented on the way the music of Bach somehow sits well in a variety of formats and on unusual instruments and remains distinctively Bach. It isn’t “A Fifth of Beethoven,” a jokey popularization; the technological reinvention of Bach seems to stay true to Bach in a way that isn’t so with the music of other composers. I would attribute this to the fact that Bach’s music is invented in the sense that I develop in the book. It is perfectly worked out as far as the notes go, but as for its instrumentation, its timbre, its tempo, in many instances those things are left to the interpreters, who can follow through and make it their own. The result is that there is, say, a grand tradition of guitar music centered on Bach, and many people know the music of Bach mainly through the guitar—even though the music wasn’t composed for the guitar, but for cello, or lute, or some other instrument.

IW: Throughout your book this idea recurs that Bach’s music is symbolically important to the musicians who record it. For Albert Schweitzer it represented a link with the past, for Pablo Casals moral independence, and for Glenn Gould, a coming of age. Do you think it represents something of that nature for you in any way?

PE: Absolutely. After two books, I think it is fair to say that I am drawn to making works about other artists or other writers. After a lot of striving, I see the books as literature, as art, not as secondary works, and in this I take Bach as a model—a model for how you can be a fairly traditional artist, working with established forms such as the fugue and existing materials such as the biblical texts of the church cantatas, and make something that’s utterly artful and original from them. Also, in some humble way I think of myself as a religious artist. Now, Bach is probably the greatest religious artist who ever lived, and also one whose work is open to people of all backgrounds and has been loved by people whose own beliefs are radically different from his own. In this, too, he is a model.

IW: I think some of your stunning personal anecdotes in the book are about seeing Bach played live, like seeing the St. Matthew Passion in downtown Manhattan or Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood. Despite the fact that technology has moved music so far forward and brought it so close to the listener, is hearing it played live still the point?

PE: It’s a good question and one that different people would answer in different ways. The important thing to say about my own experiences with live performances of Bach is that, powerful as they were and unrepeatable as they were, I was prepared for them by my encounter with Bach through recordings. The cold day I went to hear the St. Matthew Passion at St. Paul’s Chapel down near City Hall, I had already heard the Bach Festival on WKCR, the Columbia radio station, half a dozen times. I didn’t own a recording of the St. Matthew Passion, but I had some knowledge of Bach’s musical vocabulary; I was habituated to Bach, prepared for that afternoon of transcendence by the familiarity I had gotten through recordings.

IW: The book ends in our time with Bach on YouTube and downloaded onto iPhones. Do you have a sense of where Bach will go from here? Will technology keep his music thriving for another 250 years?

PE: The latest technology has had a strange double effect. On the one hand, it has suggested future possibilities, say, through the graphic renditions of Bach pieces that feature visual imagery done with computer programs. On the other hand, it has opened up the past to us as never before, through the incredible shareware experience of sites like YouTube, where record collectors for some selfless reason have uploaded whole collections of rare and out-of-print recordings so that perfect strangers can hear it. For the fifty years from the wax cylinder to the compact disc, each format did away with its predecessor, and old recordings were pushed out of sight and out of mind. Nowadays, new technology is making computer-graphic Bach possible, but it is also making it possible for us to hear astonishing Bach recordings from 1915 without hunting tag sales or going to the Library of Congress. Due to the new technology, our sense of the world of Bach is so much larger because of this new technology. I have to think that’s going to be a good thing for the music of Bach.

IW: What do you hope a reader gets from Reinventing Bach?

PE: For me, falling for the music of Bach was like falling in love, and I hope some of that love comes through. I hope that the person who already loves Bach will recognize that we’re kin, and that other people will come to the book new to Bach and will end up falling for Bach because of it. There’s something forbidding about books having to do with classical music, and it need not be so. I don’t think this book is a popularization at all, but my access to Bach is more like that of the prospective reader than that of the usual classical music writer. I came to the music as a listener, through recordings, rather than through a conservatory. I am sure that that’s the case for many, many people. I hope that they can recognize that their experience is represented in the book, and can feel their own participation in the story.

Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in 2003. Reinventing Bach is his most recent book.

Iza Wojciechowska works at FSG. You can find her online @Iza_Woj.