Sunday, 17 September 2017

What Would Bach Have Done?

Belle Chen
Belle Chen
In this guest posting Belle Chen, the Australian-Taiwanese pianist, sound artist, and producer, looks at the interface between classical music and electronics, and wonders what Bach would have done if presented with the possibilities of electronic music.

In 1920s, something incredible happened that expedited the diversification of music genres. The recording industry went into what is retrospectively known as the electrical age, and a flourish of musicians and composers had begun recording music and sounds, and experimenting with electronic instruments – giving birth to the beginning of electronic music.

The impact of this technology is first heard amongst the western art musicians, and when the Allies gained access to magnetic tape, a German invention that had been kept secret during the war, a whole group of classically trained composers began to use recorded music as compositional material. From musique concrete, avant-garde, to minimalism, composers such as Herbert Eimert, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Karlheinz Stockhausen came to experiment with the new tape technology. Today, the process is known as sampling.

The result that came from experimentations with tape was profound – and with the concurrent development of electronic instruments and synthesizers, electronic music would explode into dub, ambient, hip hop, and its kaleidoscopic fusions and sub-genres that range from techno, house, jungle, nu jazz, to downtempo.

I wouldn’t pretend that I am an expert on electronic music; the curiosity to look into the history of electronic music were sparked mainly by two events – a need for a deeper understanding of techno and EDM required for the Amsterdam episode of my podcast series, and coming across Jeremy Deller’s intriguing The History of the World installation that marked the intertwined genres and cultures connected to acid house and brass bands between 1997-2004 at Tate Britain.

But there is something very comforting in knowing that early pioneers of electronic music went to conservatoires and would have studied the works of Beethoven, Liszt, and Bach. In my mind, it feels like the blood lineage of classical music is alive and boiling through more mainstream musical genres. Of course, the music sounds absolutely different – Aphex Twin sounds nothing like J.S. Bach, and the approach to composition has also changed. But the emotions are still there, the sensitivities to timbres and textures, the tension and release, and the curiosity to experiment are there.
I do often wonder what the classical masters would have done if they are alive today – if they had the array of present-day technology and instrumentation available to play with. If Bach had access to beats for his French court dances, if Ravel could sample actual bird calls from field recordings for his music, if Chopin had access to the vinyl when he had to provide dance music in salons, and if in Rachmaninoff’s great piano and symphonic works, he was not only able to create bell tones but had the technology to further manipulate these tones through delays, filters, and distortion… what would they have done?

Of course, one may argue that history cannot be re-written, and therefore it is pointless in wondering what Bach or Chopin might have done. So here I’d like to divert our attention to what present day musicians, composers, and producers are currently doing.

Very recently I read a number of flaming reviews on Decca’s Re:works – an initiative that saw various electronic producers remixing Decca’s classical catalogue. Of course, taste is very subjective and is often taught. After all, a significant part of music training is, in fact, being taught what sounds “good” specific to a type of style. So over-looking whether the critics thought Re:works was “good” or “bad,” I was more intrigued by the cringe that the initiative induced amongst the classical music community.

I can understand where the cringe comes from. I myself came from institutional training, where the markings of composers are studied and debated over and over for hours on end under a magnifying glass. Efforts were made to ensure the right types of ornaments – with specific number of notes and in specific order – were played to the right markings to ensure the interpretation is stylistically correct. The works of composers are held with utmost respect, and as musicians we are taught to search for the most credible edition of a composer’s work to play from amongst the different publishers.

When a composer wrote quintuplet quavers in the right hand against triplets in the left, we played exactly that – and evenly too. This is not a criticism in any way – after all, there is a reason why classical music is still being celebrated, and as a musician, one must learn all the rules and tradition in order to break them.

Thus in a way it makes sense that the classical music community cringed at the thought of Satie or Schubert reinterpreted: in fragments, in different tempo, with different sonic scape, with a beat.

But on the flip side, from the view of electronic producers – they were merely sampling for a remix. Like how Radiohead sampled Miles Davis in Kinetic, like how the The Winstons’ Amen, Brother was sampled across the Drum & Bass genre. And their practice of sampling came from the pioneering 20th century composers - like how Steve Reich first sampled field recordings through cutting and joining tape.

So while those more in favour of tradition may frown upon the manipulation of old masters’ works and dismiss them as a marketing ploy dressed under the notion of “reaching out to the younger audience” (which, by the way, in my humble opinion, I think younger audience is not deterred by classical music itself, but rather the environment in which it is presented), there is without a doubt a certain level of artistic credit to Decca’s – the initiative to place the works of classical masters and seeing how the electronic producers hear them is in itself very interesting. After all, as evident throughout history, it is the curiosity and hunger to experiment that leads to development of new musical genres and styles.

We don’t need to worry about corroding the foundation of classical music either - classical music in its purity will always be reserved. We now have recordings of Horowitz, Heifetz, Karajan and many master interpreters to study interpretations from; and we even have videos of master-classes and talks from living masters such as Alfred Brendel, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Martha Argerich. At this point in time, the classical music tradition is now preserved both audially and visually, rather through only print and oral tradition as it has been before technology was available.

So Decca teaming its back catalogue with electronic producers – why not? Electronica composer Olafur Arnalds placing selected movements Chopin in midst of composed synthesizer motifs in his album – why not?

It is an extremely exciting time for classically trained musicians. Never before have we been able to access such variety of instrumentation, techniques, diversity of musicians to collaborate with, and information on other musical styles and genres. We have all these tools in our hands – as well as an in-depth understanding of the western art music that we had acquired through our vigorous training.

So what would Bach have done if he was alive today? I think he would have certainly experimented with everything that is accessible to him, and I’m sure would have absolutely loved it.
By Belle Chen


Belle Chen is an Australian-Taiwanese pianist, sound artist, and producer. Born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and raised in Brisbane, Australia, Chen was a national finalist of Australian National Piano Award in 2010. In 2011, she relocated to London to study at Royal Academy of Music, and it was during this time that Chen began experimenting with integrating sound art with classical music. In 2015, Chen was voted as the winner of Classical Rising Star Award at London Music Awards. She has appeared on BBC Radio 3, BBC China, Monocle 24, ABC FM, Finland Classic Radio, Macroview TV Taiwan, amongst others.

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