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Digital Bach Series for the 21st Century
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the great masters of music, hardly needs an introduction. I first learned to play his simpler pieces on the piano when I was five years old. Bach's wives had a total of 20 children. He wrote music to teach his own children. Three of his sons became well known composers. Bach was a virtuoso and improviser on the organ and the harpsichord; he wrote preludes, concertos and chamber music for keyboards that allowed him to improvise the solo parts. He is best know for his fugues which wove melodic themes through four voices- soprano, alto, tenor, baritone. His contrapuntal ingenuity continues to be admired by contemporary musicians and composers.
Bach was influenced by Handel and Vivaldi. Händel was born in 1685, the same year as JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Bach eventually complimented Handel and his music saying that Handel was "the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach."
The great composers of Europe were full time professionals, employed by wealthy aristocrats or church leaders who tended to be wealthy aristocrats. They were often immersed in music from their early childhood. They followed forms that were fashionable and influenced each other. JS Bach, the great master, was influenced by Handel and Vivaldi. Mozart expressed musical ideas from Bach, Handel, Haydn and many other composers at work in Europe. Beethoven studied with Haydn and was inspired by Mozart. Händel was born in 1685, the same year as JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Mozart admired Bach's genius. Beethoven said that JS Bach was "the master of us all".
Instruments evolved during the Baroque. Equal tempered tuning solved the problem of intervals and chords in different keys sounding wrong. The violin family emerged from older string instruments. Three keyboard instruments, the clavichord, organ, and harpsichord were popular. The violin sound became the dominant timbre in late Baroque ensemble music. The wind instruments were the bassoon, flute, and oboe. Brass instruments such as horns, trumpets, and trombones were used in large ensembles. The timpani was the only drum used sparingly.
My Relationship with Bach
As an adolescent, I attempted to play many of pieces in the Well-Tempered Clavier. My hero at the time was Glenn Gould who recorded the entire series and the 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.
Some of Bach’s pieces became contemporary hits: for example, 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 specially enjoyed the Carlos arrangements and was inspired to learn about synthesizers. The distinct timbres of the Moog synthesizer voices made the four voices in preludes and fugues stand out clearly.
In his notes Stephen describes the process of developing the Bach recordings: The pieces are developed as multitrack midi compositions (by editing and arranging the printed scores) and playing the instruments in the Proteus 2500 (the orchestra) and then editing the MIDI scores to achieve more polished articulation and expression. After an incubation period of weeks, sometimes months, Stephen becomes the studio engineer turning the midi compositions into audio recordings and then create the final mix, acting first as conductor on the mixing board, and and then mastering the recording.
Stephen Gislason 1969
Hear Three Bach Examples
B Minor Mass 6
BWV 140-2 Wachet Auf
Digital Bach for the 21st CenturyThe Digital Bach Series 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. Persona Digital Studio. The project began in 2006.
Stephen wrote:" I discovered that JS Bach's counterpoint, probably the most
elegant expression of well considered complexity, if presented with clear
definition of interacting voices, becomes a delightful form of brain exercise.
My Counterpoint for Genius series is a collection of four albums that has
evolved over several years though experimentation with a number of excerpts
from longer Bach pieces, some from the religious Cantatas, mixed with different
voicing, different tempos and transpositions. The goal is to produce delight and
enhance general intelligence in the listener."
The Art of the Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV1080)
is a collection of Johann Sebastian Bach' last compositions. Stephen wrote: "I wanted to achieve a version of the Art of the Fugue that is different from previous versions. I have spent over 2 years developing my arrangements and could issue several albums with quite divergent interpretations, I believe I have reached an deep understanding with Bach and Gould, that these pieces have a quality that cannot be contained in any individual's opinion of them. "
JS Bach’s works were indexed by Schmeider in 1950 as Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue, BMV). BWV 1–224 are cantatas, BWV 225–249 the large-scale choral works, BWV 250–524 chorales and sacred songs, BWV 525–748 organ works, BWV 772–994 other keyboard works, BWV 995–1000 lute music, BWV 1001–40 chamber music, BWV 1041–71 orchestral music, and BWV 1072–1126 canons and fugues.