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Paul Elie

Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie Reinventing Bach
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Biographical note:

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.

Excerpt from book:

PART I
Revival
 
 
 
>>1>> This, you say to yourself, is what the past sounded like: rougher, plainer, narrower than the present yet somehow more spacious, a place high-skied and open to life.
The pipes ring out once, twice, a third time. Then with a long, low swallow the organ fills with sound, which spreads toward the ends of the instrument and settles, pooling there. The sound is compounded of air and wood and leather and hammered metal, but how the sound is made is less striking than what it suggests: the past, with all its joists and struts and joinery, its sides fitted and pitched so as to last a lifetime.
The organ is a vessel on a voyage to the past, and that opening figure is a signal sent from ship to shore—a shout-out to the past, asking it to tell its story.
Now the sound spreads emphatically from the low pipes up to the high ones and down again, tracing a jagged line of peaks and spires—an outline of the lost city of the past, a message tapped out from the other side.
>>2>> Albert Schweitzer recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on December 18, 1935, at the church of All Hallows by the Tower in London.
He was the world’s best-known organist, although he lived many miles from an organ; he was far better known than Bach himself had ever been, and the fact weighed on him, for he thought of Bach’s music as a refuge from his fame—as the music of an earlier, purer time.
He climbed the steps to the organ loft, took off his coat, and tried to concentrate. For two nights he had played Bach’s preludes and fugues to the empty church. It was the oldest church in the City of London, already seven hundred years old when it was threatened by the Great Fire of 1666. Now the worn stone of its walls and the smoky glass of its windows seemed to echo his fear that European civilization was ending—“beginning to melt away in our hands,” as he put it. The old City was overrun by motorcars. The organ was recent and mechanized, not the trim eighteenth-century type he favored. The windows rattled when he sounded the low pipes. He and his two apprentices took turns climbing a ladder to dampen the loose glass with towels.
Making a recording was complicated, too. The technicians spoke English, a language he had not mastered. He had to stop playing in odd places or repeat whole fugues three and four times. The recording process would never fully capture the sound of the organ in its surroundings—the essence of organ music, in his view—and he would never be a natural recording artist.
Yet as he settled behind the organ he felt at home. After two nights, he was familiar with the two keyboards and the hand-worn wooden stops. He sat upright, exhausted but invigorated, in vest and shirtsleeves, feet on the pedals, arms spread as if to echo the two wings of his white mustache, eyes on the pipes tapering up and out of sight.
Thirty years earlier he had renounced a life in music for one in medicine, training to run a clinic for poor people at the village of Lambaréné in the French Congo—to be a “jungle doctor in Africa,” as the press put it. He had wanted to do “something small in the spirit of Jesus”—to make his life an argument for a way of being that was grounded in what he now called reverence for life. But his act of renunciation had turned into something else: a double life in which

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 ‘

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