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Classical Music

Digital Bach for the 21st Century

Stephen Gislason wrote: "I consider the complete works of JS Bach to be a wonderful collection of musical concepts, melodies and moving harmonic structures. If you approach his music, as I do, with appropriate reverence, but also with his innovative, improvisatory spirit, then you can select jewels from the collection and represent them in new settings. My Bach projects started with pieces that I already knew and I approached each piece; with a somewhat scholarly concern, reviewing the history of composition and remaining compliant with the printed scores I was using. As I progressed through the Bach catalogue, my approach changed. I discovered relatively short jewels buried in long and sometimes tedious works that were designed for church services that required repetition beyond musical interest. I also realized that big changes in tempo, voicing and articulation could transform; the pieces into really new compositions suitable for a 21st century audience.

An early hero of mine was the Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, who recorded Bach's Goldberg Variations with widely acknowledged virtuosity. The coordination of left and right hand and arm movements is important to keyboard skills. Even with sustained practice, the two hands want to do similar things or perform linked movements. I spent years, for example, trying to achieve right and left hand separation as I played the piano. I was inspired Gould, who achieved remarkable independence of his left and right hands. In fact, he seemed to achieve complete independence for each finger of each hand. If you listen closely, you can hear him play individual notes with individual attention. Gould played Bach and Bach’s preludes and fugues that were based on four voices that sang through the fingers of both hands. An alto voice, for example, would start in the left hand, pass to the right and back to the left. Less skilled pianists use a coordinated hand strategy and the continuity of a single voice is audibly interrupted as it passes from hand to hand.

Gould was a musical genius with a prodigious memory. He learned musical scores away from the piano; playing the piece on the piano followed memorizing and rehearsing it in his mind. After a brief, brilliant performance career, Gould refused to perform in public but delighted in recording in the CBC studios where he had become a resident celebrity. He also setup up a home studio with tape recording; and editing facilities. He died tragically of a stoke before the music production and recording technology I am using was developed. I like to think that Glen would be delighted by the opportunities I now enjoy and would approve of bringing Bach into the 21st century.

I recalled that Bach’s pieces that became contemporary hits in the 1960s: for example, performed by the Swingle Singers' (Air on the G string, Wachet Auf chorale prelude) and Wendy Carlos' 1968 album, Switched-On Bach, created with a Moog synthesizer. I; enjoyed the Carlos arrangements and was inspired to learn about synthesizers. The distinct timbres of the Moog; voices made the counterpoint stand out clearly.

I pursued re-composition and re-voicing; of Bach pieces using; the extensive voice banks that I can access. The pieces are developed as multitrack midi compositions (by editing and arranging the printed scores) that play the instruments in the; Proteus 2500 ( the orchestra) with yours truly doing the final mix (conductor) and then completing the recording with all the finesse and polish I can muster ( the sound engineer).

Digital Bach for the 21st Century are recordings derived from the complete works of JS Bach, edited, transcribed and arranged for synthesizer by Stephen Gislason and recorded as the Digital Bach Series. The project began in 2006. Revisions and Remixes are creating a new series for  2017. Two examples...

Fugue BWV 532

Prelude BWV 532