Tag Archives: Bach

Bach Brazil Barcelona

Johann Sebastian Bach and Brazilian music have always enjoyed an intimate relationship. This is evident from the towering figure of Heitor Villa-Lobos and his magnificent Bachianas Brasileiras to subsequent Brazilian musicians (such as guitarist Baden Powell) who also found inspiration in Bach’s music and combined it with their own distinctive style.

Originally scored for soprano and an orchestra of cellos, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 suite is probably Villa-Lobos’s best-known work. A special rendition of the suite’s famous Aria (which has been also arranged for soprano and guitar by the composer) was recently made by singer Ilona Schneider and guitarist Diego Caicedo. Based in Barcelona, the duo delivers an emotionally charged and delicate performance, which is further enhanced by the atmosphere of the  accompanying video.

In fact, Barcelona claims a very special connection to Bach. This is largely due to legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals: In 1890, when he was still 13 years old, Casals chanced upon a copy of Bach’s six Cello Suites in a second-hand sheet music store in Barcelona. Several years later, after having studied them laboriously, Casals would perform Bach’s suites  in public and record them between 1936 and 1939.  They have since been performed and recorded extensively, and are now considered to be among Bach’s most important works.

A highly original take on Bach’s famous Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 can be heard from Armonipiano, a duo formed by harmonicist Rodrigo G Pahlen and pianist Gilles Estoppey. Also based in Barcelona, the two musicians perform a fresh and eclectic blend of jazz, tango, and Brazilian music. And a little bit of Bach, that is.

As shown by such brilliant and novel approaches, the mix of Bach, Brazil and Barcelona makes indeed for an exciting musical cocktail: A sort of baroque-flavored caipirinha, served in the music bars of the Catalan capital.

Take a sad song and make it better: Led Zeppelin, Bach, and music plagiarism

Last week, one of the most important legal cases of music plagiarism in recent years came to an end when a jury in Los Angeles cleared British musicians Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (authors of the iconic Stairway to Heaven) of stealing the opening riff of one of rock’s most famous and enduring anthems.

The lawsuit had come from the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California), guitarist of the  LA-based psychedelic band Spirit, on the grounds that Led Zeppelin had used the intro of Taurus (an instrumental composition by Spirit from 1967) for the opening of Stairway to Heaven (released in 1971), pointing at certain similarities between the two passages.

Drawing by Mona Shafer Edwards

A courtroom illustration from the recent trial showing Jimmy Page (right) and Robert Plant (left) / drawing by Mona Shafer Edwards

It is not the first time that Led Zeppelin have been accused of lifting musical passages; other famous examples include claims on behalf of blues masters such as Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon (whose names have subsequently appeared on song credits on some of the band’s reissues), or American songwriter Jake Holmes, whose Dazed and Confused was covered by Led Zeppelin in their debut album without credit (a lawsuit by Holmes was eventually settled out of court in 2012).

News of the latest lawsuit against Led Zeppelin brought to mind some older instances of alleged music plagiarism, such as the copyright infringement suit against George Harrison for his hit song My Sweet Lord in the 1970s (where he was found guilty of ¨subconscious¨plagiarism) or the debate around the similarities between Hotel California and We Used To Know by British rockers Jethro Tull.

As Ian Anderson puts it, ¨it’s not plagiarism, it´s just the same chord sequence… it’s difficult to find a chord sequence that hasn’t been used.¨ Now that’s a very interesting remark because it appears that musical ¨borrowings¨ have actually been around as long as music itself. As  a matter of fact, even Bach himself lifted entire passages or melodies from other composers, a practice that was not uncommon or unknown to musicians before (as well as after) him.

It was only with the advent of modern notions such as intellectual property and copyright infringement that such borrowings came to be considered as violations rather than simply loans. Musicians, not unlike scientists, make advances and breakthroughs by building on previous discoveries. Isaac Newton’s famous maxim “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” might as well have come from Bach or, for that matter, Led Zeppelin.

As with all arts, there can be no parthenogenesis in music. Picasso’s ¨good artists copy, great artists steal¨ remains as valid today for visual artists as for music composers. Building on a previously existing body of work should not be reprehensible; on the contrary, it is necessary, if not inevitable. The important thing is not to avoid borrowing from past masters, but to successfully use and mold the old knowledge into something new that has its own value and significance.

Perhaps the essential difference between imitation and originality is best captured by Ernest Hemingway, who once said: “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”

The seasons they are a changin’

Earlier this month I visited the beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana for a performance of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) by German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her ensemble. It was an excellent concert and soon after the last notes of Vivaldi’s “Winter” were heard, the audience burst into a grand, extended applause anticipating Mutter’s return to the stage.

Sure enough, the famous virtuoso and her select group of skilled instrumentalists were soon back for a bis – a treatment of the thunderous Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto. Although this could well have been sufficient, the crowd’s enthusiastic response and continuous cheering resulted in yet another encore. This was when things started to get slightly, ehmm, metamodern.

As soon as Mutter and her ensemble started playing (the piece was an arrangement of Bach’s famous Air from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major), I found myself surrounded by people reaching out to their mobile phones, cameras and tablets, struggling to capture as best they could every single second of that final performance. And there I was, hopeless and helpless, utterly incapable of enjoying the beauty of such sublime music and the unique setting.

I know what you are thinking: “This is happening in nearly every concert nowadays, so what’s the big deal?” And yes, I (as I am sure you too, dear reader) have also indulged in similar practices on one occasion or another. But here’s the thing: It’s quite different taking a photo (or video) during a rock gig or a large pop concert than doing the same during an intimate performance where music (classical or otherwise) is played on acoustic instruments and all its color, subtleties, and nuances are of the essence.

As Bach’s Air was about to end, I couldn’t help but think that the uplifting qualities of such magnificent music had somehow been suspended, the atmosphere irreversibly ruined; in short, the magic had been lost.

photo

Thinking back on the incident, an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise came to mind, where the author relates a visit to a tourist attraction known as “the most photographed barn in America”:

People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

Although sightseeing is not identical to a concert hall visit, there are certainly some eerie resemblances on how more and more people are experiencing the two. I would like to believe that taking pictures, making selfies or videos, buying postcards and seeing “only what the others see” have not yet displaced the essence of attending a music performance, i.e. nurturing one’s mind and soul with sounds that please, excite and stimulate.

The seasons are changing, and mobile devices have invariably made their way into the concert hall. Still, as much as it is about entertainment, a gig (regardless of music genre) can also be an opportunity for contemplation or the cause of life-changing insights. It can be indeed a religious experience, where one willingly becomes part of a collective perception, to use DeLillo’s words. My hope is that it doesn’t degenerate into “spiritual surrender” or any short of mindless “tourism.”

All of Bach, Bach for all

Bach’s complete works recorded and filmed

In September 2013 the Netherlands Bach Society, in view of the upcoming celebration for its first 100 years, embarked on a remarkable and highly ambitious project: the performance and recording of every single note penned by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Since the first recordings were made available on 2 May 2014, a new Bach recording is released every single Friday. In this way, the complete corpus of Bach’s music is slowly but surely being made available to the public through a series of excellent performances and videos of outstanding quality.

The pieces are performed in a variety of locations, always according to the nature and original intent of the music: cantatas in churches, chamber music in living rooms, and so on.

The Netherlands Bach Society

The Netherlands Bach Society is the oldest ensemble for Baroque music in the Netherlands and one of the oldest in the world. It was founded in 1921 for a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the Grote Kerk in Naarden and has performed the work annually since then in the Grote of Sint-Vituskerk (Great Church or St Vitus Church). It has played a prominent role in Dutch cultural life for many years, giving around 50 concerts all over the Netherlands as well as abroad each season.

 

All of Bach

You can learn more about All of Bach and check out the new recordings as they are being released on the project’s website and Facebook page.

The -vinyl- music challenge

I was recently challenged to come up with a list of my 10 favorite records. No easy task, especially as one’s musical taste tends (and ought) to change along with -and because of- one’s life experiences and influences. In fact, any such list is essentially a moment frozen in time: no doubt my choices will be different if I try this exercise again in a month, year or decade from now.

Having said that, I tried to think how I could make my -inevitably arbitrary and ephemeral- selection a bit more meaningful. I wanted to make a point and so I decided to consider only records from my vinyl collection. Vinyl still persists amidst today’s technological frenzy, and for a good reason: apart from its full, warm sound it brings with it a whole culture, from the process surrounding its purchase to the actual listening experience and the sheer pleasure of enjoying its artwork.

So here’s some of the most memorable vinyl records I have acquired over the last few years (arranged à la Nick Hornby in chronological order of acquisition):

1) Sviatoslav Richter – J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier

The world’s greatest pianist meets the world’s greatest composer. Amen.

2) Neville Marriner – Amadeus [Original Soundtrack Recording]

As if Mozart’s sublime music wasn’t rewarding enough, listening to this record reminds me of Milos Forman’s epic masterpiece, one of my favorite movies ever.

3) The Beatles – Rubber Soul

Someone once said there are three great Bs in music: Bach, Beethoven and… The Beatles. He was right.

4) Jacque Loussier Trio – Play Bach No. 1

I’ve hinted at the artistry of French pianist Jacque Loussier in an earlier post about Vivaldi, but it was with his inspired take on Bach that he made his breakthrough.

5) Baden Powell – Poema on Guitar

I love everything about this record: its title, its beautiful cover, and above all Baden Powell’s tuneful guitar sound and dreamy compositions.

P1030279-001

6) Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert in Central Park

I still get goose bumps every single time I listen to this. Timeless.

7) Led Zeppelin – IV

I bought this in a vinyl shop in Istanbul. Like the Quran in mosques or the Bible in churches, I think it should be freely available at all conservatories and music schools.

8) Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

A deeply evocative work by a remarkable and highly idiosyncratic composer whose music truly makes time stand still.

9) Thanasis Papakonstantinou – Ο Ελάχιστος Εαυτός (The Minimal Self)

The finest and most original composer that has emerged in the last 20 years in Greece. His records are like rays of light amidst a vast darkness…

10) Paco de Lucía – Almoraima

A true miracle of technique, composition, and expression – the more I listen to it, the more I admire Paco’s astonishing skill as both guitarist and musical innovator.

125 years of sublime sound

On April 11, 1888 an orchestra of 120 musicians together with a chorus of 500 singers performed works of Wagner, Handel, Bach, and Beethoven in a new building in what was then called Nieuwer-Amstel. It was the beginning of the story of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s famous and much beloved concert hall. And no doubt it’s been a long, fascinating story…

This year, the city’s oldest and grandest classical music venue celebrates its 125th birthday. Due to its remarkable acoustics, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls worldwide – and for good reason. Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to attend a concert in the magnificent Grote Zaal (‘Big Hall’) is familiar with the unique aura and enchanting atmosphere of the venue.

The Concertgebouw in 1902

The Concertgebouw in 1902

Throughout its long -and at times turbulent- history, the Concertgebouw has been host to an astonishing string of world-renowned composers who came along to present premieres of their works, such as Gustav Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Béla Bartók.

But by no means is the list confined to the classical genre alone. Legendary figures from the world of popular music have also performed in Amsterdam’s historic venue. Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey have all been guests of the Concertgebouw, along with rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Personally, I always regard a visit to the Concertgebouw as a kind of pilgrimage to one of the world’s unique music temples. Along with Vienna’s Musikverein or London’s Royal Albert Hall, it ranks as one of the most beautiful concert halls I have ever visited. But more importantly, it is a place where music can be experienced most fully and intensely, and thus I think the word ‘temple’ should not ring too much out of place.

In all my years in Amsterdam, I’ve had the chance to see some truly amazing performances at the Concertgebouw. I was there for a solo piano recital by Daniel Barenboim for the celebration of Chopin’s bicentennial. I saw Earl Wild performing shortly after his ninetieth birthday, attended recitals by some of the world’s greatest pianists (Evgeny Kissin, Alfred Brendel and Grigory Sokolov to name a few) and saw celebrities like Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang showcasing their extraordinary skills and virtuosity on stage.

One of the most-visited concert halls worldwide, the Concertgebouw seems to have not only a glorious past but also a promising future. And I look forward to being part of the experiences it yet has to offer.

Ray Manzarek on the intro of “Light My Fire”

Ray Manzarek explaining how the introduction for “Light My Fire” came to life.  The background music is Invention No. 8, BWV 779 by Johann Sebastian Bach, which served as an inspiration for Manzarek.

The song’s distinctive organ intro has been characterized as “one of the most recognizable sounds in the history of rock music”.

Ray Manzarek (1939-2013)

In Ray’s words: “It just came out of, you know, fifteen or twenty years of music practice”.