Home > Uncategorized > Bach, Jazz, and Rock: Intricate Connections?

Bach, Jazz, and Rock: Intricate Connections?

People who know little or nothing about classical music, and perhaps even some who do have an affinity for the genre, likely have a certain mental image of Johann Sebastian Bach. Along with being one of the best-known names in the canon of “great composers,” there exist a number of unflattering stereotypes about him and his music. Dull. Stuffy. Old. Orderly to the point of anal retentiveness. Maybe even a bit scary, with all the freaky-deaky harpsichord music, as well as the ominous-sounding Toccata and Fugue in D, whether Bach’s original or Leopold Stokowsi’s transcription).

Not surprisingly, the first Google Images result for “Johann Sebastian Bach” yields Elias Haussmann’s portrait of the composer. There’s no need to search, because you’ve probably already seen it. A dimly-lit Bach looks stern and aloof, perhaps suffering from intestinal discomfort, as he grudgingly hands us a sheet with some notation (or possibly a prescription for his ailment).

Other major composers can fall victim to such stuffiness, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Along with taking a few liberties, however, some films have at least portrayed them as having some kind of subversive spark that upends stuffy stereotypes. Along with being an inspiration for Alex DeLarge’s acts of “the old ultraviolence,” (as opposed to being a “civilizing” force), Old Ludwig van was portrayed by Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved (1995) as a rebel with a major attitude problem… unless I’m thinking of Oldman’s role in Sid and Nancy. In Amadeus (1984), Wolfie came across as an irresponsible man-child with a penchant for scatological humour, chasing women, and maniacal laughing, bringing grief to his rival (and supposed murderer) Antonio Salieri. One director planned on doing an irreverent take on Bach as well. Not surprisingly, it was Ken Russell, who directed several bizarre biopics about composers, and wrote stories revolving around the sex lives of Beethoven and Johannes Brahms, as well as Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius.

Going beyond the likely lampoon Russell had in mind, how else could one go about parsing Bach from his stuffy image? What about the Toccata and Fugue? In some ways, it seems at odds with Bach’s stereotypically orderly mien. There’s something a bit wild-haired, perhaps even demonic, about the piece. To bring this point home, just listen to this rendition by Demonlord.

Before shocked Bach purists dismiss this version as some kind of sacrilege, other heavy metal musicians have also cited Bach as an influence. In his 1992 essay Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity (revised in 1997 for a compilation entitled The Subcultures Reader), Robert Walser begins by mentioning the eclectic mix of musicians listed by guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen in the acknowledgements for his album Odyssey (1988). Bach appears first, along with several other classical composers, as well as Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. More broadly, Walser points out that a guitar magazine story from around the same time acknowledged the importance of classical forms to rock guitar. Of course, the blues also feeds into heavy metal, which implies that the genre (or subgenre, depending on one’s mental map of musical styles) is an amalgamation of two very different traditions that can somehow blend together. Walser is not interested in “elevating” heavy metal, however. In fact, he engages in a lengthy critique of rock musicians who “self-consciously” incorporate classical elements into their music. It’s a very murky line, though. Unless a musician actually says so, how can we know for sure that they’re aiming for prestige by combining “classical” and “popular” elements?

Before getting too bogged down in Walser’s points about rock music and sticky notions of “prestige,” I want to return to considering Bach beyond his stuffy reputation. In particular, Walser mentions Baroque style (~1600-1750) as a major influence on heavy metal musicians. To illustrate this point, Walser cites Richard Middleton’s comparison of musical traits shared by both musical styles. This idea has implications for considering specific notions of cross-genre similarity. For instance, could someone mess with a hypothetical cross-genre music recommender system by entering, say, B.B. King and J.S. Bach as preferred search parameters, and somehow get AC/DC? I dunno. The theoretical framework and potential facets have yet to be refined.

What originally drew me to this contemplation of Bach was a section about improvisation from Music and Mind in Everyday Life (Clarke, Dibben, and Pitts 2010, 49-56). It’s very easy to associate improvisation with rock and jazz, but I suspect that classical music’s reputation is such that the notes on the score provide the final word. After all, a number of pieces require the coordination of large numbers of performers, which would make improvisation a logistical nightmare. For this reason, it is easy to forget that many composers from a few hundred years ago also performed (not unlike jazz musicians today), and they were expected to improvise as well. Most intriguing is an account of how Frederick the Great gave a theme to Bach as a foundation for improvisation. The composer disliked what he came up with, however, so he decided to commit a better “improvisation” to paper.  Still, Bach was renowned for his ability to improvise, as noted by a commenter on a Huffington Post story about the appropriateness of clapping at certain points during classical performances (And, yeah, I’ma write about that at some point.) Of course, improvisation in the more commonly understood sense can’t just emerge out of the air. Jazz musicians have studied and practiced conventions within the genre that govern the ways performances could progress.

To illustrate another possible affinity between Baroque and jazz, I’ll return briefly to Walser’s usage of the quote by Middleton.  He also suggests that jazz rhythm sections are similar to Baroque’s “continuo” sections. If that term seems unfamiliar, it means that at least one stringed or keyboard instrument provides a harmonic bass line to support the melody. To give a quick and easy-to-follow example of this concept, here’s Bach’s Fugue for Violin & Basso Continuo in G Minor.

The violin plays the melody, while the harpsichord takes on the continuo role. To help illustrate Middleton’s point further, here’s bassist Milt Hinton giving a brief introduction to the role of the bass in jazz ensembles.

Imagine, as Hinton mentions, how they support the other instruments “above,” while keeping in mind the harpsichord’s similar role in the Bach piece.

Or, to keep things simple, you can just do a search on YouTube for Bach and jazz. The merits of individual videos may vary, but they all have in common the idea that Bach’s music can be interpreted effectively within a jazz idiom. I quite like this one myself.

In his wide-ranging book The Rest Is Noise, which acts as a “history of the twentieth century through its music,” Alex Ross lists other examples of such interactions, going as far back as Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde from 1923 (2007, 103).

So, taking into account Bach’s varying affinities with rock and jazz, what if the problems mentioned at the beginning aren’t with the composer himself? The bluntly titled essay Defending Bach against His Devotees, written by musicologist and critical sociologist Theodor W. Adorno, makes a very clear suggestion. As Adorno opines with his signature heavy-handed irony, Bach aficionados have transformed the composer into a simplified signifier for musical greatness, and can be sticklers for historical “authenticity” of performance. They place him on a pedestal, his music completely transcending the sociocultural contexts of his time, and of all time ever after (unless one perceives his music as embodying such Enlightenment values as orderliness and rationalism). But then, that whole edifice relies on a dizzying series of sociocultural constructs that influence his devotees as well. As Adorno states about Bach:

He suffers the very fate which his fervent protectors are least willing to admit: he is changed into a neutralized cultural monument, in which aesthetic success mingles obscurely with a truth that has lost its intrinsic substance. They have made him into a composer for organ festivals in well-preserved Baroque towns, and ideology (136).

In some ways, this returns to the points made by Walser about classical music’s prestige, as well as my own musings on Bach’s image (at least among his reverse-devotees). If Bach’s devotees (or at least the sticklers among them) want to keep the composer all to themselves, they aren’t keeping his vital spark alive. Instead, the stereotypes mentioned previously continue to exist beyond such circles, perhaps unwittingly through their efforts. Needless to say, the same principle could apply to musicians from other genres, too. For instance, thinking about a book I read many years ago entitled Elvis after Elvis, what makes Mr. Presley the “King of Rock and Roll?” Not unlike Bach, The King seems to have become a signifier of “greatness” in his own musical domain, taking on a life of its own years after he died (at least, that’s what “they” want you to believe).

I think this idea has implications for devotees of all music. When we idolize a musician or identify with a specific genre, what does it mean? At what point does the music become subordinate to the iconography or iconology? Do we all run the risk of becoming like the Bach devotees critiqued by Adorno? (Most of us have bad taste, anyway, according to him.) I can’t answer that, and I’ve likely committed similar acts myself in articulating shorthand for my musical tastes. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have favourites, though. We can’t help that too much. Still, I encourage you to reflect on your own musical preferences, however you conceptualize them, and what exactly it is that draws you towards them.

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