Stick to the staff

Stick to the staff

Bannerman of the baroque Henry Litwhiler revisits Bach with Miller Theatre’s “Bach, Revisited” series.

The title of the series is troublesome. “Bach, Revisited” implies that we had, at some point, left behind one of the greatest composers to ever put ink to paper. It implies, further, that the world had at some point deemed Bach’s works exhausted, that it falls to modern composers to refocus our attention on the old master’s works.

This viewpoint is self-indulgent in the extreme, but is probably a curse endemic to those who seek to compose atop Bach’s shoulders (though they end up in in his shadow, all the same). American composer and Yalie Michael Gordon is no exception. His prose is pompous, his intentions no less so, but there is beauty and originality in works that could have been so easily derivative.

The night began with two works by Bach himself, his Concerto for Harpsichord in G minor, BWV 1050 (via YouTube), and his Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060 (via YouTube). Notable harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout gave a tremendous and expressive performance, joined by Ensemble Signal under equally notable conductor Brad Lubman.

Ensemble Signal was underwhelming on these pieces, for reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint. It may have been an issue with the acoustics of the theatre or of my position in the audience, but the sound balance bordered at times on laughable. Bezuidenhout was often left desperately hammering away to keep the pieces on track, at once testifying to his skill and casting Signal in a dim light.

All was forgiven, however, when intermission came and went and Ensemble Signal moved into its wheelhouse. The pieces performed, Dry and Hyper, are as well-named as they were well-composed and well-performed. I have to admit that a pang of concern went through my mind as I saw a harpsichord replaced by an electric guitar at a concert in the spirit of Bach, but Gordon’s illustrious reputation sustained my hope.

I was not disappointed. In hindsight, it isn’t easy to see the spiritual succession between Bach and Gordon (though, unsurprisingly, Peter Griffiths disagrees: “Energized lines playing over one another in a mirror maze: this could be referring to Bachian counterpoint or equally to the music of Michael Gordon”), but nor could it be conclusively argued that none exists. There are certain structural threads to be seen running through all four works of the evening, and so even if the association is a stretch, it isn’t quite incoherent.

Aesthetically, Dry and Hyper are engaging and entrancing listens and well worth an evening’s attention in the context of Bach. Unfortunately, Gordon’s description of the latter strays so shamefully from the borders of modesty and reason that it may be the most memorable feature of the evening; such excess as this should not be allowed to hide behind a piece of art, no matter the merits of the artist. It has been reproduced below that we may never forget the sullied corners of the man behind the music:

In Hyper, I attempt to create the musical equivalent of an impossible object, an optical illusion in which an impossible geometry is represented. Impossible objects fall up, open in and out, and twist irrationally in space. One impossible object is the Penrose Stairs—stairs that climb upward but somehow loop in a circle, so that no matter how far one climbs they always return to the same place. Similarly, music can travel through keys and end up where it began. These types of illusions, which are common in the art of M. C. Escher, are taken to absurdist ends in literary works like Alice in Wonderland: ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’ In Hyper I create quixotic geometries without concern for the laws of physics.

The artist himself via Miller Theatre