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Reinventing Bach [Hardcover]

Paul Elie
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Sept. 18 2012

The story of a revolution in music and technology, told through a century of recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach

In Reinventing Bach, his remarkable second book, Paul Elie tells the electrifying story of how musicians of genius have made Bach’s music new in our time, at once restoring Bach as a universally revered composer and revolutionizing the ways that music figures into our lives. 

As a musician in eighteenth-century Germany, Bach was on the technological frontier—restoring organs, inventing instruments, and perfecting the tuning system still in use today. Two centuries later, pioneering musicians began to take advantage of breakthroughs in audio recording to make Bach’s music the sound of modern transcendence. The sainted organist Albert Schweitzer played to a mobile recording unit set up at London’s Church of All Hallows in order to spread Bach’s organ works to the world beyond the churches.  Pablo Casals, recording at Abbey Road Studios, made Bach’s cello suites existentialism for the living room; Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, with Fantasia, made Bach the sound of children’s playtime and Hollywood grandeur alike. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations opened and closed the LP era and made Bach the byword for postwar cool; and Yo-Yo Ma has brought Bach into the digital present, where computers and smartphones put the sound of Bach all around us. In this book we see these musicians and dozens of others searching, experimenting, and collaborating with one another in the service of Bach, who emerges as the very image of the spiritualized, technically savvy artist.

Reinventing Bach is a gorgeously written story of music, invention, and human passion—and a story with special relevance in our time, for it shows that great things can happen when high art meets new technology.


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Praise for Reinventing Bach:

“This intelligent, wide-ranging book brings Bach’s eternal music into conjunction with the forces of history. Paul Elie makes us realize how even great music, if it is to last over time, must change in order to stay the same.” —Wendy Lesser

“By juxtaposing the LP and the iPod, Elie reminds us of how technology has democratized and universalized Bach . . .  Elie has many strengths and strands: detailed and beautifully described moments of listening, engagingly narrated summaries of scholarship, alert attention to telling facts, and a loving knowledge of many different kinds of music, including Robert Johnson and Led Zeppelin. There’s plenty of audiophile information—wax cylinder, recording, mono, stereo, different kinds of tape, 78s, long-playing records, CD’s, iPods—and a lot on the placement of microphones. Wearing his learning lightly (with wonderful endnotes as a ground), Elie is polyphonic and contrapuntal . . . Elie’s book is held together by chain of voices following one other as they make an entrance, step back, overlap, and enter again to reveal a new aspect against the changing conversation: Schweitzer to Casals to Stokowski to Gould to Ma. Other voices too move in and out, filling out the progressions: Tureck, Schoenberg, Einstein, Jobs, even the musically fantastic Mickey Mouse. The voice hovering over all is Elie’s own, modest, serious, attuned to the whole . . . It is a pleasure to read such a serious and inventive book on Bach, and that’s saying something.” —Alexandra Mullen, Barnes and Noble Review

“Thoughtful and elegant . . . Elie remains throughout a thoughtful guide.” —Guy Dammann, The Guardian

“In Reinventing Bach, Elie weaves . . . several lives together in order to make an effective case that Bach’s music, like all classical music, can never be ‘played’ exactly, with total fidelity to the source; fidelity isn’t even the goal. Performed live, it has always been ‘interpreted’ by conductors, musicians, singers, and scholars. In other words, no one plays like anyone else, and everyone’s interpretation is inflected by his or her time and character . . . Recording technology is also what makes Elie’s story about more than the interpretation and reinterpretation of musical compositions by Bach . . . Passing from shellac discs and the gramophone through LPs, cassette tapes, compressed digital files, YouTube, and smartphones, Elie assembles a satisfying history of audio recording that’s as concerned with reasonable explanations of how vacuum tubes work and how to splice tape as it is with a tour of Abbey Road Studios and a description of Glenn Gould’s trusty ‘wood-framed, slender-legged’ folding chair . . . Conventional wisdom suggests that as a result ‘our lives are half-lives, our experience mediated, and so diminished, by technology.’ What holds this new book together is Elie’s belief—and here I’m tempted to call it a religious belief—that, ‘to this conviction, the recorded music of Bach is contrary testimony. It defies the argument that experience mediated through technology is a diminished thing.’ Our lives are whole lives—a modern reality that recordings of Bach make obvious . . . Having arrived at the end of a several year journey, ‘touching the keys again and again with the ten digits of my two hands,’ he writes, ‘putting one word after another in the hope that a couple hundred thousand of them, mastered and sequenced, will amount to a kind of music,’ Elie completes what he calls a ‘spirituality of technology’: his very own reinvention of Bach.” —Scott Korb, The Los Angeles Review of Books

“From the stately ‘Sheep Shall Safely Graze’ and the solemn St. Matthew Passion to the wildly exuberant Fantasia and Gould’s Goldberg Variations, the music of Bach often serves as a listener’s introduction to classical music. In this brilliant and passionate appreciation, Elie (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) offers not only a brief biography of the great musician but an exceptional study of the ways that numerous musicians have rendered Bach’s music through the years through various technologies. Bach’s music has been interpreted to suit new inventions, from the 78-rpm record, the LP, and headphones and Walkman to the compact disc and digital file. These inventions have taken the music into new contexts, from the living room to the open road to outer space (Voyager carried a recording of the first prelude of book one of The Well-Tempered Clavier). Bach himself was an inventor, fashioning a new musical instrument, the lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord, and composing “Inventions,” short, tight keyboard pieces. Elie devotes chapters to various artists who used the technologies of their time to reconsider Bach and introduce his music to a new audience. The famed medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, for example, was also an accomplished organist whose biography of Bach as well as his recordings of Bach’s Fugue in D Minor on wax-cylinder recordings introduced Bach’s music to a world beyond the church. Pablo Casals recorded Bach’s cello suites on 78-rpm record albums, bringing Bach into living rooms everywhere. Reading Elie’s stately and gorgeous prose is much like losing oneself in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, for his study convincingly demonstrates that the music of Bach is the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003) returns with a tour de force about Johann Sebastian Bach and a description and assessment of the recordings that have made his work an essential part of our culture. Elie, a former senior editor with FSG and now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, tells a polyphonic tale, weaving throughout his narrative a history of the recording industry and brisk biographies of Bach and the 20th-century performers who first recorded his work for mass audiences, including Albert Schweitzer, Leopold Stokowski, Pablo Casals and Glenn Gould. The author begins with a snapshot of Bach’s pervasive presence today, then takes us back to 1935 and Schweitzer’s recordings of Bach’s organ works on wax cylinders. Throughout the text, Elie moves us forward in the history of technology—from 78s to LPs to tapes to CDs to MP3s, showing how Bach managed to remain relevant. We also follow the careers of his principals; Elie’s treatment of the talented and troubled Gould is especially sensitive and enlightening. Occasionally, the author enters the narrative for a personal connection, perhaps nowhere more affectingly than in his account of the time he danced in the rain on the Tanglewood grass while Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach cello suite. Elie also tells us how other cultural figures have employed the music and the man—e.g., Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach, the 1968 album Switched-On Bach and the use of Bach in films and on TV. The author’s passion, thorough research and imaginative heart produce one revelation after another.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“Fascinating and engagingly written, [Reinventing Bach] emphasizes that Bach—whose greatness as a composer, for Mr. Elie, is ‘total and inviolable’—was also a pioneer of technology: not just a master organist but a master organ builder and repairer; a theoretician who investigated the possibilities of a tuning system that changed the way music sounds and is still in use; a composer who embraced the art of transcription and would not have minded at all, and maybe anticipated, that his pieces would one day be reconceived for Moog synthesizers and small ensembles of swinging, scatting singers . . . [Elie] writes beautifully about music . . . the book is a page-turner with astute accounts of Bach’s life folded in.” —Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

“[Reinventing Bach is] erudite, poetic and occasionally provocative . . .  Elie, an author and editor, is the kind of listener-enthusiast who once rode a train from New York to Durham, N.C., with no other company than a multidisc set of the St. Matthew Passion and an album by B.B. King. And his enthusiasm is catching.” —Bill Marvel, The Dallas Morning News

“[Reinventing Bach] is structured around a well-informed and empathetic biography of Bach, intercut with lively accounts of five pioneering performers who made famous Bach recordings: Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma. Linking them through their love of Bach is intriguing, even if in other respects they are slightly strange bedfellows. Elie interweaves their stories, cutting-and-pasting them into a vivid mosaic, though his sudden juxtapositions can be as jarring as they are stimulating. Elie is an acute and passionate listener, writing sensitively about music’s impact on him.” —Susan Tomes, The Independent

“Paul Elie’s passionate and grand book . . . is a weave of stories, emulating the play of voices in Bach’s music . . .  Elie places a lot of faith in recordings, and writes wonderfully about their power and their atmosphere.” —Jeremy Denk, New Republic

“[Reinventing Bach] is an . . . ultimately impressive testimony to Bach’s power to speak to successive generations.” —The New Yorker

“An appreciation of Bach that is both impassioned and subtle.” —Ivan Hewett, Reinventing Bach

“Paul Elie...

About the Author

Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow at 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. He lives in New York City.


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Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Good book, not what I was expecting though. Dec 10 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I guess I don't really know what I was expecting from the book, it just sounded interesting after reading a few reviews of it.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  27 reviews
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Frustrating and fragmented Jan. 6 2013
By B. Abramson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is several books in one. There is a good biography of J.S. Bach, several biographies of Bach interpreters (Schweitzer, Casals, Gould), a history of the emergence of recording technology, and more. These are woven together but do not form a single fabric. Elie appears to be attempting to connect the way musicians interpret Bach with the way recorded music evolved. This attempt, at least for me, sank under a weighty burden of elaborate metaphors and literary prose. More than anything these sections reminded me of writings about art or literature: I understood every word, the occasional phrase, and not a single sentence. The metaphors are stretched beyond breaking point: a description of the working methods of James Watson and Francis Crick is included simply to show that the working methods of post-war recording engineers were similarly improvised and ad hoc. I frequently found myself asking "What is the point here?" and was rarely able to find a satisfactory answer. Surely the point must be more than "music can be interpreted in different ways and Bach's is particularly open to varied interpretation"? The biography of Bach is welcome, the remainder tries far to hard to make an argument that doesn't seem worth the effort.
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His Master's Voice Sept. 24 2012
By David Kidd - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Reinventing Bach is an extremely fluid and enjoyable read. Elie does his readers the greatest service of reminding us that while Bach is frequently the gateway composer for people's classical music experience, he was anything but common--a radical innovator in composition, performance and in the refining and inventing of musical instruments. Elie then uses this portrait of Bach as a framework over which he lays out the innovations in performance, instrumentation and recording of Bach in the modern age. In addition the book gives us remarkable and welcome context in the overall musical recording world that wonderfully explodes what could otherwise be a narrowly focused study. Growing up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, my own first encounters with Bach were delivered by middle-aged, mid-Atlantic or mid-Western church organists who could somehow manage to make a fugue feel like a funeral march. When I first discovered my parents' Switched-On Bach LP, I almost couldn't believe the compositions hadn't be altered. Elie celebrates this idea--that so often our appreciation of music is affected by the medium, time and place of its delivery. The high point of my own journey with Bach and his various innovators came at Carnegie Hall listening to Yo Yo Ma's marathon performance of the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Many thanks to Mr. Elie for increasing my appreciation for and understanding of that journey!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bring Your Own Bach Dec 8 2012
By Michael L. Segers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As others have pointed out, there are some mistakes in a few details, but I was not reading this book for technical details. The further I got into it, the more I realized that Elie was not teaching me, except to teach me one writer's joyous response to perhaps the greatest music ever.
Reinventing Bach could just as well be called Celebrating Bach, in different countries, different times, different media. The music of Bach runs through the book (not really; I spent a lot of time on Youtube chasing down performances), holding together a history of the twentieth century.
Just about every day that I read this book, I posted a sentence or two on Facebook, hoping to get someone else to join the party.
18 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nonfiction event of the season Sept. 23 2012
By James VanOosting - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If Elie's first book, THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN, was a sonorous quartet, REINVENTING BACH is a polyphonous cantata, well-tuned, well-tempered, in its every note. I've never before written an amazon review, but then I've never before read such an astonishing survey. To intertwine a musical biography of Bach with a history of sound technology is a singular achievement and, for my money, the nonfiction event of the season. If you already love Bach, your devotion will be deepened. If you've been unacquainted till now, a lasting friendship will ensue. Substitute 'Elie' for 'Bach' in the last two sentences, and they'll be just as apt.
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Abundance of Vibrant Worlds Sept. 23 2012
By Nancy Williams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A pianist with very little Bach in my repertoire (Chopin takes the lead), I hoped Reinventing Bach would help me find a way into understanding Bach and his music. The book certainly delivered on that hope, as well as so much more: a cascade of vibrant and interconnected worlds. The book traces the stories of five musicians and how Bach revolutionized their music and how they each in turn affected our understanding of Bach, and all the while, a history of recording unfolds in a way that is very natural to the musicians' stories. Interlaced with these five stories is Bach himself, growing up, falling in love, seeking new professional posts, while doggedly composing one of the greatest canons in western classical music. Of the five musicians, I was especially taken with the story of Pablo Casals, a Spaniard from a humble background who grew into a cellist with an international reputation. The moment when the young Casals finds a dusty score of Bach cello suites in a shop was truly electrifying, as was Casal's subsequent study of the suites, which enabled him to plunge into the interior world of his feelings. I felt that the author truly understands the vital connection that musicians have with the scores they study and even the stories of the composers themselves. If this abundant feast was not enough, other musicians, including pianists such as Rosalyn Tureck and Daniel Barenboim, make cameos throughout the narration, creating the effect of a very rich tapestry indeed. Bach's masterpiece of preludes and fugues beckons--I now feel a desire to learn the Well Tempered Clavier--and for this change in sentiment I must thank Paul Elie for writing such a bountiful book.
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