Author Paul Elie on the persistent urge toward ‘Reinventing Bach’

Paul Elie's 'Reinventing Bach' is out now. ()
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“I almost could feel the kind of book I would like to read about Bach,” Paul Elie said.

We were sitting at a café in the West Village, the glass wall before us providing a view of passersby. Earlier in our conversation, Elie had spoken about the fondness he’d had for Johann Sebastian Bach’s music since encountering long marathons of his compositions on the Columbia University jazz station WKCR.

“I quickly got a rough education in Bach, but more than that, I had a sense of the depth and the superabundance of Bach’s music,” he told me. “I could not let go.”

It was that glimpse of Bach that first inspired him to write about the composer, and that inspiration has yielded Reinventing Bach, Elie's dense, information-rich investigation of a disparate group of musicians and conductors interpreting Bach’s music across nearly a century of advances in recording methods and technologies. And while Elie was quick to mention “a number of really impressive books about different aspects of Bach,” something, for him, was missing.

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“This kind of book,” he said later, “didn’t exist.”

It does now. Here one finds the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, appalled by Franco’s government and vigorously practicing well into his 90s; Yo-Yo Ma’s progression from a child prodigy to a confident elder statesman; and Leopold Stokowski teaming with Walt Disney to usher Fantasia’s blend of classical music and animation into the world.

Putting together Reinventing Bach was a lengthy process.

“I have notes on a manual typewriter going back to 1998,” Elie said. “Which was before my first book was written. My wife and I—we weren’t married yet—went to go hear Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood. And already I knew I wasn’t just going to a concert; I was taking notes on things.”

The book that resulted centers around several renowned musicians and conductors, among them Stokowski, Casals, Glenn Gould, and Albert Schweitzer, all known for their interpretations of Bach.

“When I saw that their careers lined up in a rough way with the leaps forward in technology, that suggested a structure,” Elie said. “When I read Lawrence Dreyfus’s book about Bach and the patterns of invention, and the notion that Bach was himself an inventor of a kind, it all started locking together. Bach was an inventor of a kind; these people were reinventing Bach; they were doing something by using the inventions of audio pioneers.”

But not all of the musicians covered in the book are necessarily towering figures.

“A lot of the fun is in figuring out where all of the other cast members fit in. How to do justice to someone like Rosalyn Tureck in two pages? How to have just the right couple of sentences about Matt Haimovitz, who played Bach at CBGB, and then later at Occupy Wall Street?”

Elie mentioned one striking interpretation of Bach that he was unable to fit into Reinventing Bach:

“[T]he recording of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli playing Bach is amazing,” Elie said. “You just realize what master musicians they were. It’s one of the best Bachs you’ve ever heard.”

Later in our conversation, he returned to praise it.

“It swings effortlessly. It doesn’t sound like they’re saying, “Let’s swing to Bach!” They’re not bootlegging in a swing rhythm; it’s indigenous to the music,” he said.

Elie’s working methods also include a willingness to delve into the minutiae of his record collection.

“I realized that Pablo Casals had begun recording the Cello Suites the same day that Robert Johnson began his blues recording just looking at the two-point type of C.D. notes," he said. "You read that and you reach for your other C.D. and you say, ‘Oh my God. The same day.’”

And with record collections in mind, I asked Elie where he does most of his music-buying these days. His answer: Academy Records and J&R Music World. He recalled, at the latter, an employee who told him about Ward Marston.

“[Marston] remasters a lot of the old records for Naxos. I hear it told that he’s a blind man who lives in Philadelphia with 60,000 recordings, and he remasters the stuff. Suddenly there’s this guy in J&R telling me about Ward Marston, and you realize what a repository of knowledge the right staff are.”

Asked whether he found similarities between the subjects of this book and his earlier one, 2003's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage—a chronicle of four mid-century American Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Conner, and Walker Percy—Elie was quick to answer.

“The two books work out, in different ways, a narrative pattern of how new things are made in art. To me, it gets closer to how things actually happen than the idea of pure invention on one hand, or the idea of ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ on the other hand.”

Elie cited his time as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux for bestowing upon him certain instincts as a writer.

“[Y]ou realize that the really dramatic time for a writer is when a book’s being written, not so much when it’s published. Typically, literary biography is centered on the publication of books. But ... it was written a year or two earlier. So you get behind that part of the story to figure out what’s going on when someone is making the work. So: what’s happening to Glenn Gould in 1955, when he’s making the Goldberg Variations record, not just when it comes out and he’s suddenly on tour in 1956. I’m not sure I would have known that if I hadn’t worked in publishing.”

Ultimately Elie lived with and thought about Bach so much that he formed a kind of organic connection to his subject. The book reflects that, situating Bach’s music firmly in everyday life while pointing out how it transcends it. Elie recalled a specific story about this musical connection from a decade ago.

“At the time, I was living in Chelsea, and F.S.G. was in Union Square. I would walk to work listening to music; about half the time, it would be Reich or Glass or Riley, and the other half would be Bach cantatas. It was essentially one cantata to walk from Chelsea to Union Square; about 20 minutes. And you could feel the motoring just right. A Beethoven concerto or something would have been a different walk.”