Wednesday morning I knew exactly what I was going to write about tonight. I woke up to find the whole day directed toward the object of my desire, a concert by the ensembles A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth taking place in the evening. Last week I interviewed the composers and a violinist involved in it for this publication. This week I attended a discussion by the composer Ted Hearne, whose music and presence was an integral part of the program. I hadn’t been this excited about any one single thing for several months, at least. I was going to attend the concert, go home and pour my heart out about Caroline Shaw, Ted Hearne and the incomparable virtuosity of these two ensembles.
But I can’t write about it now. I just can’t find the words. It was simply too good, and happened too recently. It seems cliché, but it’s true. I’m still internalizing the experience, and before I try to tell you anything about it, I have to live with it for a bit. But here we are, and this is my last column of the year. So I’ll make this promise — in a few months time, when we all return to Ann Arbor, I’ll have figured out something to say. But in the meantime, let’s talk about Bach.
During my final two years of high school, I studied music as a boarding student, at a school that was technically part of a university. Most of us students lived on campus, and — lacking a car or other means of transportation — that’s basically where we spent all of our time. Usually our days were filled with the work of honing our art, but as the end of the academic year drew in upon us in the springtime, often we would find a few hours to sit and simply enjoy the newly pleasant weather. At the heart of campus there was a little collection of grass, trees and picnic tables where I and some friends would sit and read.
Across the grass there was sometimes a woman who, on particularly sunny and pleasant days, would practice the violin in the open air. It isn’t an extremely common thing, I’ve found, for a musician to practice their instrument in a place where they can be easily overheard by others, especially other musicians. Generally the fear of judgment might dissuade one from such an act, but this violinist seemed to have no such reservations. And she was, after all, very good, and the weather was very attractive. But as I would sit reading, I would listen half-attentively to her music, which, almost invariably, was the solo music of J.S. Bach.
Bach is a name that is nearly universally recognizable. Even those who aren’t musicians or listeners of classical generally know something about him (even if it’s only his Toccata in D Minor). And this is with good reason: He is, after all, generally regarded as the greatest composer in all of history, a reputation which I find to be well deserved. Everything he touched came out perfect. There is just no bad piece by Bach, as far as I can tell. But if I were to pick just one little corner of his music to use to introduce him to others, it would have to be his music for solo string instruments.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the first movement of the first cello suite (if you think you’re not, go listen to it and realize you’re wrong), but that famous piece is merely the beginning of a huge body of work that is breathtaking. Over the course of his life, Bach composed three sonatas and three partitas for solo violin and six suites for solo cello, somewhere around five hours of music. All of it is worth listening to, but there are definitely moments that stand out. The Chaconne from the Partita in D Minor comes to mind, as does the Fugue from the Sonata in C Major.
One of the most appealing things about Bach’s solo string music is the air of simplicity it conveys. While it is (like all of Bach’s music) extremely complex and nuanced, somehow he is able to convey the impression of plainness — plainness not in the sense of something boring or ordinary, but in the sense of a sort of forthrightness, a lack of pretension. The sound of someone playing alone, almost to themselves, transmits a feeling that the music is somehow speaking directly to you, that you are hearing something which no one else is hearing. More than that, it simply sounds truthful, somehow. The stunning violinist Hilary Hahn once remarked that she hasn’t gone a day since she was eight years old without playing Bach, because he is “the touchstone that keeps my playing honest.” This honesty is something that you can hear in the music.
And maybe it is just the associations I have with this music, but to me it sounds like something else I inexplicably tie to honesty: a sunny day. When I hear it I think of spring weather, and when I find myself in spring weather, I want to hear it. Now that it seems spring has finally come to Ann Arbor for good this year, I took a few hours out of my week to just sit outside and listen to Bach, something which I also did last year and a practice I highly recommend. It’s a meditation of sorts, a space that you can create outside of the stress and the worry of the end of term and of finals, a place where you can exist as merely yourself, alone with the music.
So, if you can find a moment for it, this is my suggestion, especially if you are feeling the pressure of the close of semestre. Go outside and take a walk, silently. Meander through the Arb or down to the Huron. Avoid thinking about all the things that trouble you. Find a pleasant patch of grass, lie down and put on a recording of Bach. Exist in that moment for as long as you can. When you’re done, I promise, for whatever reason things will be better.