Making Bach

Chinese brush painting: George McPherson processing: James Mokarry

Chinese brush painting: George McPherson
processing: James Mokarry

This essentially instrumental piece had a long gestation, and was only finished after a series of encounters and accidents.  We see how projects quite often gel in unexpected ways.  And there was to be an eventual happy twist in the tail, making it even longer.

Teldec, based in Hamburg, Germany, was one of the best classical record companies in the world, with real style and character.  It was started and run by real enthusiasts, and consistently turned out immaculate and inspired productions.  During my time working in new media for Warner Music International (1994-6), I met many people there and made lasting friends.  This great company, along with Erato in Paris, had been absorbed into Warner Classics and a few years later would be folded by them in favor of gray corporate consolidation in London.  Thus were summarily demolished two great lineages in music-making which had taken decades to evolve. So much for skill, culture and craft.

Bach is always having some convenient centenary of some aspect of his life and work.  The A&R person at Teldec called and asked if it might be possible to recast Bach’s compositions for a CD ‘in a contemporary manner’.  I presumed out loud that he meant danceable and using synthesizers.  OK.  Sounded good. Unfortunately, the deadline barely allowed time for a full-scale album recording, let alone the writing/reconstruction/arrangement that would be necessary.  But I said I’d try out a demo, just for the fun of it.

The record business is littered with disasters, variably pretentious and well-meaning, results of co-opting classical work into the pop mainstream.  Some were wildly successful as well as being horrible.  Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’ Switched On Bach was an instant big seller in the sixties, realizing Bach’s pieces on Robert Moog’s newly invented synthesizer.  Not bad, really, but it left me cold. It felt so limited and simplistic compared with the originals, although it did expose the great man’s music to a wider, first-time audience.

For me, the real reach-for-the-off-switch track (even on the radio) was A Fifth Of Beethoven.  It wasn’t the only mid-seventies disco-era classicsploitation, but it was the most successful and therefore the most obnoxious.  It basically just added a banal rhythm section under extracts from that most famous of symphonies.  In this work especially, Beethoven’s motor rhythms don’t need support to make you tap your foot.  Exquisitely arranged and produced, it still was barely more than tacky kitsch.

To side-step dealing with vocal issues on top of everything else, I chose to tackle his warhorse organ masterpiece Toccata And Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565).  At all times the proverb ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ rattled in my brain.  I was tangling with a wildly popular masterpiece by one of the all-time greats, a man who clearly possessed extra bits to his brain that I would never have.  I was set up to fall flat on my face and look very silly if I didn’t pull it off. I bought the score and set off, beginning at the beginning.

The computer sequencers, those compositional devices which are now ubiquitous, keep the music volatile. You can develop an arrangement, keep/change the notes and change the sound/instrument at any time. Also, large-scale structural changes are not scary any more. Although the computer can facilitate music which is clichéed and regimented, these two aspects of control mean that you can explore much further. If you found yourself up a blind compositional alley in the multitrack tape days, you would have to start over, very expensively. Likewise if you got the tempo or basic structure wrong.

Bach’s piece starts with an utterly memorable hook. Three simple notes followed by just six more. It’s as recognizable as the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Obviously, the first task is to state it. This is where the issue of musical time compression arrives.

The Uptown Horns, 2005The Fifth Of Beethoven sounded silly in part because the music was over-dense. As I mentioned, you didn’t need drums to tap the foot. If I added drums, the music would overload. The solution was to expand the pace of the music in time. If you add things, they should take longer to speak. I set off with the first three notes grafted on a chord progression and found myself with about a minute of ethereal introduction. Time to introduce the next six, which are played by the full Uptown Horns section in what is the start of a genuinely virtuoso contribution. No: how about just a fragment to wake the house up? They pretty much know the next bit. Tease them a little.

In this way, I gradually built up what was to be the first half of the piece, feeling my way with the material and going back to the original score when the portion was composed. Confusingly, Bach’s musical development moves at 90mph, faster than I should move in this different idiom even if I had the skill to work out my new alternative fantasia. After four minutes of my music development, I had only tapped the first page and a half of his score. I realized I could make a whole CD from the richness and exuberant inventiveness of his original material. Way to go.

I pulled out another jewel of a musical motive and continued. Compare the original with my fantasia and you see that I was quite selective in the portions I used. Although the closing chords could be nothing other than Bach’s, I extended them in time also. Taking advantage of the computer’s flexibility, I reached the end then fiddled with the rest to make it all self-consistent. Very few composers can lay out a piece sequentially, lean back in the chair and congratulate themselves that it’s done. (Even in basic pop music, changing one part ripples through the piece: change a note in the intro and the implication is for other parts to be different in reflection.)

The mixing was duly done, bringing in such decidedly non-Bach elements as Lene Lovich’s vocal sounds. I was very pleased with it, and its simplicity belied the long gestation and evolution. I couldn’t make a living doing stuff like this if it took so long. A conductor friend was over for dinner. I played it to him.

Eugene Castillo is at home in all musical areas, noted for innovative and stimulating programming. He was about to move from California to Manila to take over the country’s leading orchestra, the Philippines Philharmonic Orchestra. He liked the piece enormously. I joked that if he twisted my arm, I would score an orchestral version for him. After that I thought no more of it. And Eugene ended up exactly on the other side of the world.

The next I heard from him was by E mail. He had scheduled it for later that year.

We all have our HOLY SHIT moments. This was one of mine. Over the years, I had arranged for every instrument in the orchestra (barring harp), scoring on paper for most of them. But not all together. And not to a performance deadline. This looked like a serious challenge to be faced down. Off we go. Bach must now return to the classical department.

A transcription is far more subtle than most people realize. You don’t just get different instruments to play the same notes. Maybe, the same tune. Atomic sound machines don’t work that way. And if you don’t take advantage of the particular characteristics of an instrument, you’ll end up with a pale, generic music which has little performance drama. The leap from rhythm, horns and piano to full symphony orchestra was huge. In the evolution, the structure is very similar, with a few details like extending the dramatic pause before the last chord (I suggested to Eugene that while it lasted he might pick up and read a newspaper, ostentatiously).

And they all lived happily ever after. The premiere took place in December 2005, and went down extremely well. I was stuck in New York, since the planned performance at the end of January became, at short notice, that performance. 12 hours’ time difference means it’s hard enough to get to talk on the phone, let alone go there and be physically comfortable for the party. The one recording of the concert is verging on inaudible. The next application of computers might be to lay it out for sampled orchestra. It won’t be as good as the real thing, but better than nothing. Watch this space.

– MT March 2006