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J.S. Bach Part 1: How He Changed my Life

June 9, 2010

In late 1968 Johann Sebastian Bach’s music changed my life. I was a freshman at Wesleyan University in a year that saw an invisible pendulum swinging from hell to heaven, from the terrible assassinations of our heroes to celestial visions of the sort that visited me one day in my first week of college. Up to that day I’d dutifully followed the path of science, one laid for me by parents and grandparents when I was young. In light of those visions of another world, my path appeared dull and dusty; the journey ahead appeared to be one that I wasn’t up to. My heart was not in science, had never been.I’d been playing and singing since the year before the Beatles, inspired by music that just got better and better each month in Rock’s golden age. But no one had ever suggested to me that music might be a career, and it had never occurred to me.

Until one December afternoon that fall. In a monk-like cell, a listening room in the basement of the Wesleyan Music building, I huddled in the twilight over an ancient record player listening to my latest assignment in Music 101. It had an intimidating name – the Bach B Minor Mass – and indeed, as I heard those first thundering chords of the Kyrie, I was a little afraid. Here on earth, tucked just beneath its skin in this basement, I heard a sound that seemed to issue from the realm of those celestial visions of a few months before.

I had heard little music in my house growing up aside from my dad’s occasional plaintive harmonica playing. The exception came in the weeks before Christmas, when our house filled with the carols he loved and played incessantly on our old record player.

Those carols were made of the same harmonic materials as the Mass, and therefore prepared me for this first listening.

What I heard was not a modest period version such as is in vogue today, but Von Karajan’s rich romantic rendering, with a full orchestra and a monster choir, recorded in what sounded like a cathedral. And the piece itself was a cathedral in sound–the little chapels of my father’s humble carols vaulted by the hands of genius into the lofty reaches and spires of a musical Chartres. I listened to the Kyrie again and again that afternoon, because every time I put the needle down I caught some new detail in that monumental edifice, like a glimmer on stained glass or the eyes on a stone angel. I’d stumbled on the secret of great music: each listening reveals a little more of the magic.

I stepped out into the dark, my notion of music having expanded beyond the Beatles, Hendrix, and even my lately beloved Jefferson Airplane. It was a world too big, too beautiful not to explore. I changed my major to Music and never looked back.

Ten years later I again faced a new career crisis. I had fled performing a few years before, pursued by a fearsome demon: stage fright. Now my friend Livingston Taylor used his considerable powers of persuasion to lure me back on stage, and a big stage it was – opening for Linda Rondstadt before 20,000 people a night. I’d jumped back on the horse that had thrown me, but the demon still wouldn’t let go. I was miserable up there, and knew it was only a matter of months before I’d quit again, and this time for good.

In addition to my nightly terror, the tour was frustrating. I found it ironic that though a mutual love of music was what had our band out on the road, as opening act the only music we got to play each day was a brief sound check and a 20-minute set.

The tour bus sat empty in the parking lot of some Holiday Inn each morning before sound check. It had a ¾ scale synth keyboard built into the wall. I had brought a collection of piano pieces. Bach called to me from it, from something called the“ ‘Echo’ from French Overture.”  I had never learned to read music, and now in the long afternoons before the show, I sat and struggled to learn to read with this piece by the Master. I thought I was just trying to find some way to make music on this unmusical tour. I was unaware that a new purpose was manifesting within me without my knowledge.

I’d been writing pop songs for years. With melodic bass lines in counterpoint to their melodies, they’d always been influenced by Bach,. And more recently, as I taught myself orchestration, they were getting big for their britches, more mini-symphonies than pop tunes. Now as I neared the end of my performing career, I knew that without performing them myself they would never find an audience. Had the internet existed then, it might have been a different story.

When I got home from the road, for good this time, I was in a state familiar to musicians fresh from touring – exhausted to the point of delirium, yet filled with an agitation that had me pacing the 20 feet of my apartment, bouncing off the walls after months of covering thousands of miles.

I sat down at my girlfriend’s piano and began writing a song without words, scratching notes on paper. Soon I was composing every morning. But before I wrote a note I would hack away at something from Bach’s bible of counterpoint, the Well Tempered Clavier. I’d never have the piano chops to perform any of those pieces. Guitar would always be my axe. But I’d heard that Beethoven had performed the Well Tempered Clavier when he was 12. That hadn’t seemed to harm his composing chops. I figured I could get some of Bach’s harmony and counterpoint into my fingers.

How to make a living with this new music I was writing? I  produced singer/songwriters and bands, but they never had much money. I heard of some contemporary Classical composers, but they too were broke, or taught, because few would pay for their dissonant music.

Bach intervened again in my life, this time with the example of his career.

He’d gone where the money was at the time– the church and court. He’d written what they needed:  background music for services and ceremonies. Someone told me, “Hey, they sometimes hire composers over at Polaroid.”  They hired me, and paid me well. It was the beginning of a long a career composing for corporations –for sales meetings, training videos, annual reports. Rocker friends sniffed at me, as though what I was doing was worse than selling out, beneath contempt. It was before everyone including Dylan and the Beatles appeared in ads.

I didn’t care. If it was good enough for Bach it was good enough for me.

Hearing Bach set me on the career path of music. His career inspired mine.

He has also enriched my daily life more than any person outside of family and close friends. A week rarely goes by when I don’t listen to him, whether at the hands of Glenn Gould, or the voices of Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam chorus. Whatever my worries, whatever my mood, after an hour of Bach I’m a little closer to that higher place.

image by Ralf Lotys via Wikimedia commons

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From → Classical Music

12 Comments
  1. Great Post. Sometimes you just can’t go wrong with Bach. I’m not particularly intersted in Symphonic works, having been forced to stduy Beethoven’s somewhat leaden 1st Symphony so Bach suits me fine. Personally, I prefer his keyboard works. I have a wonderful Harpsichord recording of the Italian Concerto and a collection of organ works, my fav being the Fantasy and Fugue in G minor. Great stuff!

    • Thank you. I’m among the musicians who believe that Bach is the one composer you can’t go wrong with when your playing him: as long as you hit the notes his music comes through. Have you heard much of Glenn Gould?

  2. I’ll have to rethink ol’ Johann Sebastian. I’m certainly aware of, but not all that familiar with, his works (if that makes sense). I’ll have to give the Mass a shot and then go from there. Most of my classical explorations have been in the Romantic era and among the Slavic/Russian composers (Dvorak, Smetana, Glinka et al.), but I’ve thought for years I need to dig a little more. Of course, the same can be said about any genre of music; there’s always something to learn.

    • Even though it was the Mass that got me early, you might want to work up to it -Gould’s Goldberg Variations (the later), His French and English Suites; Neville Marriner’s Orchestral Suites are good places to start. Or just dive into the Mass.

  3. Mark Paul permalink

    For me, the the first Bach recordings that knocked me out was a version of The Art of the Fugue that was rather freely arranged (fantastic percussion effects) by William Malloch and conducted by Lucas Foss. Around the same time, I first heard Casals’ recording of the solo cello suites.

    Edgar Meyer recorded three of the cello suites a few years ago — on the double bass! I started to play the CD for a bassist friend of mine and he insisted I shut it off after a few minutes. Totally unnerved him. Meyer’s made a lot of records with Yo-Yo Ma and I would love to read a transcription of Yo-Yo’s reaction after first hearing the tracks.

    • I’m going to hear Pieter Wispeley play the cello suites at Tanglewood in July – he’s supposed to be the current best.

  4. Interesting perspective for the goods and bads of a career path. Thank you!

  5. My brother suggested I might like this website. He was totally right.
    This post actually made my day. You cann’t imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  6. I admit your website also made my day and also after extensive searching. I guess this site could use a tad hilarity: I actually found it searching under ‘classical music composing games’. Of course no such thing exists anywhere. That is a place where people who often hear new such music in their heads, can refine which ability and share the bounty thereof, with other like minded individuals in a fun, inactive, multiplayer game environment. Why is it the games companies can’t see sense? Surely you don’t need to be Einstein to work out that it is in the best interests of such companies to provide such a Soaring Music Seedbed for their potential composers? Of acquiring such a creative pool, only too glad to avoid years of privation, misery and energy drainage, spent studying in the music departments of demonic hives masquerading as universities? Or maybe I should be writing to them? Or are they all too mindless? By the by: I am currently working on a booklet entitled Special Update and would be happy to email you the latest draft should you be interested.

    • Mark,

      Thank you for your comments. My company Manchester Music has pursued scoring music for games, with a little success. It’s a very competitive business, but there are many brilliant folks at the top of it. Unfortunately not too many are into classical music, though. But why not pitch your idea?

      I have been absent from blogging because I am finishing two novels, one of which is out at publishers doing the rounds. I can’t seem to blog and write long form at the same time. Once my first book is published I shall have to in order to market it! That will be interesting.

      I was happy to see the New York TImes music guy naming Bach the #1 greatest composer of all time.

      On Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 9:59 PM, Luminous Muse

  7. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking the time and actual effort to make a superb article…
    but what can I say… I put things off a lot and never seem
    to get anything done.

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