Bach, reinterpreted

Wednesday night, School of Music composers will add a contemporary twist to the music of Bach in collaboration with the Yale Baroque Ensemble.

“Reflections on Bach,” organized by YBE Director Robert Mealy and ensemble cellist Jacques Wood, will feature a mix of traditional works by Bach along with reinterpretations of the originals by six emerging composers from the school. The six composers were given the resource of the YBE, a postgraduate fellowship quartet, and the freedom to interpret the Bach works however they chose.

“[The concert] is a merging of two worlds, allowing us to see old music in a new way,” Wood said. “It is all music — new, old or in the middle.”

The result has been an amalgam of new works, from the “loosely inspired” to “direct reactions,” Wood said. He explained that the project’s goal is to interest composers in baroque instruments and old performance practices. Yet composers all added a modern element to their use of the Baroque style — William Gardiner MUS ’13, for instance, is using a historic harpsichord, but amplifying it using modern technology.

While Bach’s influence permeates through the entire Western musical canon, “Reflections on Bach” highlights a more direct lineage because the newly commissioned works evoke Bach without necessarily referring to the usual Classical and Romantic intermediaries, said David Fung, a pianist and harpsichordist with the ensemble.

“What we have is a blank canvas in the 21st century,” Fung said. “How can we rediscover Bach?”

Gardiner said in an email that he wanted to reinterpret one of the most traditional themes of Bach, the repeating descending scale.

“Something that is very special about Bach’s music is the evocation of the “sublime” — of something very profound, much larger than ourselves,” Gardiner said. “I noticed that in many of [Bach’s] pieces, particularly at the opening, there is an unchanging, infinite musical idea or process, with a recursive logic of its own.”

In Bach, the theme eventually gives way to the rest of the music, but Gardiner used his piece to explore the consequences of a descending scale that never resolves. The work, titled “Camel’s Nose,” reflects the Arabian proverb that small things lead to even greater results, just as the theme of the descending scale gradually takes over Gardiner’s entire piece. The title also highlights the fascination with the exotic during the Baroque period, exhibited by the ‘chinoiserie’ decoration echoing Chinese influences on harpsichords at the time.

Some of the composers in tonight’s concert superimposed a modern style onto Bach’s themes. Composer Benjamin Wallace MUS ’14 began his work with the Andante from Bach’s Second Violin Sonata. But after a friend told him to “let loose,” Wallace said he found himself writing disco music with a harpsichord that loosely reflects the Allegro of the same Bach sonata.

“After that first realization that I was doing something completely ridiculous that treads very precariously on the boundaries of taste, the rest of the movement followed quickly and was incredibly fun to write,” Wallace said in an email. “The few players I’ve talked to have said they’re enjoying the piece, so I’m very excited to hear what they do with it.”

“Reflections on Bach” will take place at 8 p.m. this evening in the Morse Recital Hall.

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