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Bach, Bible and the Best of our Brains.

June 18, 2012


The Cellist, Steven Sharp Nelson, introduces this beautiful elaboration of Bach’s Solo Cello suite with the interesting question of whether Bach might have imagined this piece for eight celli, not just one. With imagination and technology, Nelson has enhanced Bach’s single line masterpiece. The result is lovely.

Of course, if you are a Bach purist, you will be appalled that I could say such a thing.

Quite rightly you will be muttering indignantly that Bach knew what he was doing, and if he had wanted 8 parts, he would have written 8 parts.

Bach lacked neither imagination nor technical facility for multi-part invention, and has left us many intricate and dense multi-voiced works. The stunning ‘Ricercar’, the final movement of ‘The Musical Offering’ is a six part fugue – which will give both the intellect and the affect a thorough workout.

Knowing that Bach could have given us an eight part cello suite might chasten us to dispose of any fanciful additions, and despise Steven’ Sharp Nelson’s rendition as representing a hubris, attempting to “out Bach” Bach.

Leaving music for a moment, and glancing across to another of my passions, the Bible, how much liberty might be taken in ‘re-voicing’ the Bible. There are debates over some of the more florid paraphrases, like Peterson’s ‘Message’ and NT Wright’s ‘New Testament for Everyone’. And while I’m a pretty faithful NRSV pedant myself, I occasionally come under fire for the material ‘additions’ I find helpful to place alongside a reading of the text: objects, movements, vocalisations etc. that incarnate the verbal content of the text, in what might be called a multi-sensory multi-vocality.

Not surprisingly, my sense with Bach is similar to my sense with the Bible. Although they are not quite on equal footing, I hold them both in high esteem, and their magnificence seems to call me to the encounter with the best of my brain. The act of listening; listening well and deeply, actively and attentively and imaginatively is a generous invitation both Bach and the Bible issue. An invitation which never seems to expire.

In offering us a single voice in the cello suites, perhaps Bach is not limiting what we might hear, but in fact expanding it, delimiting it. I am convinced that his fertile and prolific aural imagination heard infinitely more than he gave us in the one line. But in grace, playfulness, liberty and generosity towards the listener, Bach has left all of those possibilities open to our minds to create from his one line. Bach, in the masterful gift of the cello line, invites us to co-create the rest of the lines.

Nelson has simply kindly shared with us what he hears in the space of Bach’s frame. Nelson’s parts find consonance with Bach’s idea. We might say that Nelson has simply voiced ideas that were already inherent in Bach’s creative structure.

When I was a student, I played the Bach Cello Suites, so I love them thoroughly in ways that only hours of pursuing a piece in practice can bring, like a long-courted lover.

But I was not a cellist. I was a saxophonist. Anyone with a sense of music history will understand why there is a dearth of baroque saxophone music and it is standard for saxophonists to play transcribed works like this, in order to meet the genre requirements for exams.

So here is another imaginative variation, or travesty, depending on your sense of what music, composition and interpretation is about.

Are we prepared to allow that the Bible might work in the same way? The Bible offers us a line, a voice, and invites us to engage our imaginations to conjure other voices, questions and antiphonies; voices from below, voices in close harmony and voices that interject or juxtapose against the line given. We listen for the voices that follow in fugal imitation, and we listen for the leitmotivs across the various movements of history. Are we eager to listen for the consonant but diverging vocalities that lie inherent in the creative structure of the text.

Do we think God is as much a genius as Bach – to give us a single vice that is so pregnant with meaning?

Are we prepared to hear the Bible in an unfamiliar tone – as unfamiliar to the ancients, as the saxophone would have been to Bach?

All of this makes certain demands, sometimes extremely pleasant demands, on our thinking and apprehending, but we have a sense that a genius like Bach and the beauty of the Cello suites somehow deserves the best of our brains.

If Bach deserves the best of my brain, certainly so does the Bible.

No doubt there will be less successful renditions, of both Bach and Bible. And some of the best may be very subtle, or spontaneous or sparse.

While Steven Sharp Nelson’s version is lovely, for my mind, nothing surpasses Yoyo Ma’s performances. His is much barer, closer to the ink on the page, but it too is set in a multivocality, as he intentionally contexualises his performance to include the happenstance random sounds of the environment and the city. The voice of the city and the voice of Bach interact.

This striking performance then, prompts me to consider hearing the voices of the city in polyphony with the voice of the Bible.

How might that be arranged?

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