Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bach by the sea.

[caption id="attachment_125" align="aligncenter" width="370" caption="Where'd that come from?!"]Where'd that come from?[/caption]

This particular CD followed me around for years. As much as I tried to get rid of it, for some reason, it always ended up in one of the other CD cases, or in with the computer software. I never really had a clue about where it came from. I didn't buy it. Maybe it was a forgotten Christmas present, I don't know.

The CD is pretty typical of a lot of similar recordings aimed towards the New Agey crowd out there that likes this kind of stuff for meditation. It's pretty much just a bunch of Bach interspersed with the sound of dolphins squeaking, waves whooshing, seagulls squawking and other assorted noises of the sea.

I had always been pretty cynical about why these kinds of Cd's get made. Get some stock nature sounds and some Bach/Mozart/Vivaldi recordings from the company's backlog and pair them up together. What do you get? Easy money.

Lately though, the optimist in me wants to imagine a high level executive from one of these recording labels, an executive with a vision. A unique insight about the depth of Bach's music, the constant movement of his musical lines, the unique coloring of his harmonies. Days spent in the recording studio, he painstakingly pairs sounds to each harmony. A bell-like Eb flat major chord will get the sounds of buoys, a particularly poignant diminished chord over a dominant pedal note might get a seagull's squawk. The sound of the waves is coordinated with the opening and closing of subjects and counter-subjects.

There is something fitting about comparing Bach's music to something as vast and deep as the sea. His music can be of such genius that it's easy to feel dwarfed by its greatness, much like the feeling one gets when faced with the ocean stretching into the horizon as far as the eye can see.

This summer we spent a week at the beach. One of the things I enjoyed most was laying on the sand with my mp3 player playing on shuffle. One of those times, it played Glenn Gould's  complete 1981 Goldberg Variations.

[caption id="attachment_126" align="alignright" width="219" caption="I am not good enough of a  writer to do justice to this music."]I am not a good enough writer to do justice to this music.[/caption]

Bach's Goldberg variations are beyond description; they are one of humanity's greatest treasures. Glenn Gould's version of these is intensely personal and played with a love for the music that reaches out and captures the listener from the very first note. Listening to those while staring at the horizon, with the sound of the waves in the background (and the occasional mango and coconut vendor) is one of the finest musical experiences I have had in a long time.

Maybe there is something to those Bach by the sea Cd's.

If you have not heard Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations before, you need to do that now. It is an interpretation that transcends musical tastes. Even if your thing is death metal, electric dance funk fusion or euro new age techno (and if it is, I wonder what you are doing reading this in the first place), I'm sure that, if you give it a chance, this music can touch you.

Here are variations one through seven to get you started. The whole thing is up on YouTube in various different versions.


  1. Maybe someone will think about making Scelsi by the sea? :D

  2. When I listen to Bach, first thing that comes in mind is a fat seagull eating a dead crab.
    Great post, I will have to show it to my students...