When I was a schoolboy, my father returned from an academic visit to Poland with a whole box of classical guitar sheet music, and Bach’s Lute Suite in C Minor was in the middle of the pile. In adolescence, ambition does not always meet ability, and I never became a classical guitarist – partly because I overreached myself when I tried to face down the visual blur that Baroque polyphony becomes when you try to represent it on the page. However, I could never quite shake the idea of attempting to play at least one work by Bach in my lifetime, and a clumsy exam performance of the Prelude as early as 1997 goes to show how enduring this desire has proven to be.
The main difference between being a schoolboy with bad sight-reading skills and an adult musician – still with bad sight-reading skills, I’ll concede, but with access to digital media – is that two minutes of listening to a good recording of a work such as this can help you realise, say, what the themes are in a fugue, whereas two months of misunderstanding a dense cluster of dots and brackets can not. A filmed representation is even better.
This suite is often performed on a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, commonly referred to as a ‘classical guitar’. Musicians versed in what we lump together as ‘early music’ perform it on the lute. Bach wrote the piece in C minor, whereas guitar editions commonly transpose it to A minor for purposes of playability.
When re-embarking on this project later in life, I found it essential to include performative issues derived from traditional music, rather than solely trying to absorb the intricacies of Baroque interpretation. Nevertheless, through working with my supervisor Jarl Strømdal, I’m slowly realising that folk-related and art-music issues are to a certain degree the same; the eventual goal of this process becomes a merging of two interpretation schools that may not be that different after all: How does an ornament help the piece move forward, possibly to facilitate a dance step, performed or imagined? What kind of kinetic energy does the piece need to put across from the opening statement? One could argue these and many other themes are relevant to performing the majority of the world’s music, but there is a basic relationship to forward motion in this music that speaks directly to me as a folk music performer. John Eliot Gardiner addresses this very topic when discussing his influences:
Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav and amanuensis to Benjamin Britten, was a regular visitor to my parents’ home and sometimes led their choral weekends and gave singing lessons to me and my sister. She, I suppose more than any other musician I had encountered at that early stage, stressed the importance of dance in Baroque music. This was so clearly visible in her own interpretation and her way of conducting Bach that someone once filmed her just from the waist downwards while conducting the B minor Mass. To this day, thanks to Imo, I feel that the worst interpretative sin (committed with painful regularity even now) is to plod in Bach; denying or resisting the rhythmical elasticity and buoyancy of his music ensures that its spirit shoots out of the door.
He might, I think, just as well have been listening to a pols.
As we will see, especially in the sections concerning the Gigue-Double, my focus gradually shifted from the initial idea – applying a folk-related instrument to attempt a received Baroque aesthetic – towards introducing the Scandinavian rhythmic foundations I’m most familiar with, to see if I can make it ‘dance’, though perhaps not in the period-focused way Gardiner may be referring to in the quotation above.
The process simultaneously seems to dissolve the polarity of what Michael Naimark calls ‘first-word art’ and ‘last-word art’ – meaning the moment of an artistic invention, versus that same invention’s apex of development. ‘With first-word art, rules and terms are not defined while last-word art is where you work within established traditions and known terms. First-word art is difficult to compare or theorise. Haydn was a first-word artist in developing the symphony. Beethoven’s much later Ninth blew people away. [Pioneering Korean American multimedia artist Nam June] Paik said if it has been done before he is not interested. Some artists think novelty and art are mutually required. Others that art does not really start to get going until an area of practice is established (for example, Beethoven)’.
Paradoxically, attempting to find my own voice in this music may have brought me closer to the Baroque tradition(s), if I understand my supervisor Jarl Strømdal’s comments correctly. Throughout the process, we seemed to find the connection points between ‘folk’ and ‘Baroque’ performance when we almost subconsciously leaned back, tapped our feet, and tried out our ideas in a jam-session state of mind. Strømdal’s observations in this regard come from his training in Baroque and early music under Nigel North and others, as well as from his more than twenty years of performing solo, with the Arctic Guitar Trio, and with many others – hence, he’s the Baroque expert, I’m the folk guitarist. Our mutual instinct for when the rhythmic idioms started working for me, despite our opposite backgrounds, leads me to observe that Naimark’s two descriptions, ‘first-word art’ and ‘last-word art’, appear to be based on the assumption that ‘artistic inventions’ always operate and keep functioning on a collective, consensual level, and don’t really allow for the individual spark of inspiration to create diversity and nuance – even when moving inside established traditions. Performing famous Baroque music on a non-Baroque instrument may not result in either the emergence of a new art form altogether (as Naimark seems to understand it) or, certainly, the establishment of a performance practice recognised by all the various groups of expertise in this historically-informed field. It may, however, be a fertile method for engaging the past in a respectful and (perhaps) original way that helps me, and potentially others, find a path into the ‘castle of heaven’ – which is how Gardiner describes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.