More information about my research Dancing Bach on the organ

This is a copy of a text on my website www.willemtanke.com, to describe my research "Making Bach accessible to all", before I changed the research's title in "Dancing Bach on the organ" on 30.9.2017. 

In 2017, after 40 years of professional studies, I watched Werner Herzog's documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about a prehistorical cave in the South of France discovered by Chauvet in 1994. I was impressed and felt the need to renew my approach to Bach interpretation. Instead of the habitual view of Bach as a highlight of Western art music —a notion which only came into existenc  in the 19th century— I took the perspective of a time traveller visiting the following moments in time:

- about 28.000 years BC; a flutist imitating a bird in front of the cave Chauvet  and accompanying some dancers. In The Cave of Forgotten Dreams a flute made out of the bone of a vulture was shown, which made me reflect on elementary functions of music.
the 3rd century BC, in which the oldest pipe organ of the world was invented, probably by Ctesibius of Alexandria: the water organ. This instrument was among other things used to imitate bird song and would spread itself in particular over North-Africa, Southern Europe and Asia. 
 the 9th century, in which gregorian chant became the starting-point for Western classical music and the organ established itself as a church instrument. The modal system of Gregorian chant relates to traditional music from Asia and North-Africa.
- the 14th century; the Italian composer-organist Francesco Landini, representing a tradition of blind organists over the centuries.
- the 17th century; Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian. A candle with her image on my study organ gives me a good feeling.
- the 18th century; J.S. Bach himself, of course. Since 1977 my ideal of playing the organ has been based on a passage in the first biography on Bach, written by Forkel's biography in 1802. Evidently, Bach was able to achieve a huge expression with very small movements of hands and feet only. Contemporaries of Bach also observed that the great man played the organ looking in front of him instead of at the manuals. This is also interesting for pianists and I relate it to the tradition of blind organists. 
- the 20th century; Feike Asma, a legendary Dutch organist. To the historically informed performance practice of the 1970's and '80's with which I was raised he was a persona non grata, representing a romantic tradition considered to be outdated. However, when giving concerts in Quebec and Montreal in 2016, I discovered his true value, feeling his presence and his extraordinary talent to move the public. 
- the 20th century; Olivier Messiaen, one of the greatest composers, who acknowledged the birds as his greatest teachers. I recorded and memorized his organ works and as an improviser and a performing composer make a particular use of how he integrates question, answer and call motives in a sophisticated atonal langauge. These elementary motives are also to be found in music by, for instance, West-African story tellers (griots) and Afro-American musicians like James Brown. See my research Re-contextualizing Messiaen and my organ solo project Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds. I feel very attached to both Olivier Messiaen and his first wife Claire Delbos.
- the 20th and 21st century; Hariprasad Chaurasia, an icon of Indian classical music. Playing the bansuri (a bamboo flute) he crosses the bridge to my imaginary flutist of the Chauvet cave. And in a way of course a pipe organ is just a collection of flutes. In particular I admire his utmost refined articulation and phrasing, allowing him to evoke a highly calibrated atmosphere of intimate expression.
- idem; Marcel Ponseele, the great baroque hobo player. If I could just make the organ pipes sound like his hobo. 

My ambition is to assimilate Hariprasad Chaurasia's and Marcel Ponseele's refinement of articulation and apply it to each of Bach's polyphonic lines independently. This "contrapuntal articulation" is in fact what good string quartets or jazz trios do all the time. And present that with the flow of Feike Asma at his best.  

The research is dedicated to the memory of Claire Delbos. She was Messiaen's first wife, violinist and a gifted composer, although not a visionary genius like her husband. Towards the end of the Second World War, when Messiaen had already met Yvonne Loriod who would become his second wife in 1961, Claire Delbos remained institutionalized after an operation in 1944 until her death in 1959, suffering from a mental illness. In 1952 she composed Parce, Domine 'Pardonnez, Seigneur, à votre peuple', pour le temps de Carême, which because of the well-known biblical text "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" may be considered as a musical work of the highest ethical calibre.

In the research the way to emotional freedom in Bach interpretation goes through three states of mind which are at the basis of human life and can be universally recognised:

1. rage
2. joy
3. suffering. 

I use these basic emotions like a painter uses basic colours: combining them in endless ways to evoke new emotions/colours. 

In the following an introduction and three case studies are related firstly to interpreting my own music, then to my performance of works by Messiaen c.q. Haydn and finally to my Bach interpretation. Compositions by Bach are first played on my study organ at home, with the digitalised sound of historical instruments, and then —in the years to come—  on some of the world's most magnificent baroque organs. 

Introduction - Inner silence as a basis

A. Inner silence in relation to my own music 

In 1996 I composed Stillness, an extremely simple piece in which I do not feel any connection to Western classical music, including that of Arvo Pärt. In January 2017, I had a vision that referred to my ancestors who during many centuries were labourers in the fields or peasants with a small piece of ground in Twente, a region in the east of Holland, bordering Germany: 

Springtime. At the end of a hard day’s work a farm worker is resting a while before going home. He is leaning against a tree, his face in the late afternoon sun and his thoughts nowhere. Suddenly and for a very short time he sees Eternity. Some years later it happens again and after that never more. But the longing for it encourages him during the rest of his life and strengthens him at the hour of death.

A similar piece is My friend the Indian, also compsed in 1996 shortly after my father's death. Like Stillness it can be performed as a solo piece for organ or piano, but also in extended contexts, for example as a part of my project The Enchanted Desert, for organ, flute, percussion and with dance and performance.

B. Inner silence in relation to Messiaen interpretation

C. Inner silence in relation to Bach interpretation

21.8.2017- INTERVENTION: considering the physicality of playing and creating a dancelike feeling

On 15.8.2017 I had a meeting with my former teacher and actual friend Rudi van Straten in the St. Walburga's Church in Zutphen, to renew my acquaintance with the magnificent, restored Henrick Bader organ, famous for it's renaissance and late baroque sounds. This meeting led to a decisive change in my approach to Bach interpretation. We discussed my performance of the following chorale preludes: Vater unser im Himmelreich BWV 683, Jesus meine Zuversicht BWV 728, Von Gott will ich nicht lassen BWV 658, Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639 and Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 649. Rudi van Straten's main point was that in spite of a subtle toucher my performance lacked a dancelike feeling, a natural breathing based on the alternation of strong and light beats. I asked him if he could mention a certain organist or clavecinist that could serve me as an example. Being both an organist and a clavecinist himself, he answered that he did not know any organist playing with this particular quality, but that among clavecinists Gustav Leonhardt was a favorite of his. In particular he referred to Leonhardt's intense playing of middle voices, raising them far above the level of filling material. When I mentioned Jordi Savall playing the viola da gamba he immediately confirmed that this was exactly what he meant and that Savall's playing moved him profoundly. Realizing that the organ is a huge apparatus and that the space of the church seemingly contradicts the intimate, almost physical atmosphere that Savall could evoke, we worked on the matter for some time and occasionally I came a little closer to the goal. We agreed that the way I play my own music, for instance in the performance of Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds in Nijmegen on 4.7.2017, could be a key to "liberating" my Bach interpretation, since there is no lack of dancelike character and natural breating there.  

After our meeting I changed my way of practising at home. The essential difference with before is that I now play every strong beat with an upward movement coming from the lower stomach. This literallly creates a "gut feeling" and moves the epicentre of musical activity from the head and the heart to below the plexus solaris. It is a fundamental change, which made me think in terms of Bach interpretation before and after 15.8.2017, the day our meeting took place. Accordingly I have two playlists regarding Bach on YouTube now, called "My old way of playing Bach" and "My new way of playing Bach". 

Reflecting on the matter I concluded that in particular two factors prevented me from a truly free Bach interpretation from when I entered the conservatory:

- my ideal of playing the organ, based on observations by contemporaries of Bach as mentioned by Forkel in 1802, from which it appears that he achieved a huge expression with very small movements of hands and feet only. I called this ideal "The Art of Doing Nothing" or "The art of playing with relaxed precision". I now think this contributed to a sophisticated way of playing, with a subtle toucher and good control, but without the above mentioned "gut feeling".
- my Messiaen interpretation and the nature of Messiaen's music. Messiaen once stated that he abhorred jazz music and he probably did not even consider pop music at all. Although the saying "at the beginning there was rhythm" very much applies to his music, the way he felt it may have been rather cerebral. I now think that my Messiaen interpretation up to the recent past also lacked a gut feeling; this can be checked in the below videos. Only when I started combining Messiaen's music with my own, like in Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds, I do play from the lower stomach and with a natural breathing. Consequently, liberating my Bach interpretation may also lead to a different interpretation of Messiaen's organ works, something I never considered before starting this research. See also my research Recontextualizing Messiaen.

An interesting observation may be that changing the perspective from historically informed performance practice to the above mentioned bird's eye view on music history makes me actually consider a very "authentic" issue, i.e. the importance of dance in baroque music. The upward movement coming from the lower stomach almost automatically leads to the bass playing a leading role, in particular when played by the feet, and the wrists making dancelike movements too (the latter only due to completely relaxed wrists which are the result of my former way of playing).

After sufficiently practising many types of movements in Bach's work at home, a next step will be to play the music on some of the most beautiful historical instruments on location. 

Case Study 1: Using rage for the performance of toccata's, preludes, fantasies, fugues and other pieces

Rage is the human emotion that comes closest to wild energy in nature, which is both destructive and creative, for instance a volcanic outburst or a thunderstorm. 

A. Rage in relation to my own music

In December 2014 I experienced a rage about the couple Messiaen-Loriod in relation to Claire Delbos which lasted a few days and during which I wanted to throw away my Messiaen scores into the garbage. I came to reason realising that this outburst of rage should serve a nobler purpose in the future.

A special experience related to rage took place while performing/improvising a piano piece which I later called Wild energy, feeling the presence of Cecil Taylor, in which I abandon my usual calm, concentrated way of playing. When discussing mysticism a befriended catholic priest once advised me to be careful when "making the grand journey to the interior", reminding me of Saint Teresa of Avila's words not to make the journey alone, but to have a watchful guide. 

After the event, which happened spontaneously, I did not explore it any further, but returned to my usual calm way of playing. It remains an open question.

N.B. 23.8.2017 due to the above mentioned "INTERVENTION: considering the physicality of playing and creating a dancelike feeling" this has to be further investigated. 

B. Rage in relation to Messiaen interpretation

Messiaen was capable of putting a tremendous amount of wild energy into his music. Unlike Bach, he was explicit about the Divine nature of this energy. 

C. Rage in relation to Bach interpretation

Many sources mention that Bach had a terrible temper and it is not difficult to relate this to the exuberant wildness of many of his pieces. 

Rage can be both destructive and creative. Regarding Bach (and Messiaen) I make the ethical choice to transform rage into grandeur, without loosing anything of its intensity. 

The title of the following choral prelude refers to God as both Creator and Holy Spirit:

In several of Bach's organ toccata's, preludes, fantasies and fugues a tremendous intensity is maintained for a long time. The sheer length of these pieces then contribute to their outrageous character.

Case Study 2: Using naive, childlike joy for the performance of Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch da kom ich her" BWV 769, trio sonatas and other pieces

Naive, childlike joy is a source of indestructible optimism. In the following I express this in my own music, Messiaen's bird songs, Haydn's Pieces for a musical clockand eventually in Bach interpretation.

A. Joy in relation to my own music

1. Several pieces for organ and flute

Absurd as it may seem sincere cheerfulness, without irony, is a taboo in contemporary Western classical music. I ignore this taboo and produce naive, cheerful pieces all the time, also to achieve sublime lightness and elegance in my Bach interpretation.

2. Being inspired by musicians from Ghana and Cameroon

From 1998 till 2000, I was the organist of the African Choir of the Scots International Church, Rotterdam. During this period I learnt about 40 songs from Ghana and Cameroon. I was impressed by the the swing, soulfulness and indestructible optimism with which members of the African Choir expressed their faith through their music. They performed W.H. Doane’s To God be the Glory in a particular cheerful way. To remember this I composed a set of variations on this hymn in what —not without a twinkle in the eye— might be called “African baroque” style. The piece is typical of the 18th century in regard to harmony, voice leading, texture, ornamentation, fingering and registration (in the below example the digitalised sound of the Silbermann organ in Arlesheim, built in 1761, is used). However, it is rhythmicized in a way that I used while accompanying the African Choir during services and rehearsals, often stimulating the choir to dance. I play the piece with relaxed precision, economising movements of hands and fingers based on observations on Bach’s way of playing the organ made by contemporaries of his. This way of playing, essentially rooted in the 18th century and before, looks deceptively simple; it requires a refined technique. The goal is, among other things, to create a feeling of dance that benefits Bach interpretation, realising that in the 18th century “art music’ was still very related to dance. The high brow attitude that accompanies the outdated notion of Bach as the Parnassus of Western art music does not suit this notion of dance, on the contrary it takes away vitality, lightness and elegance. 

Besides traditional hymns I improvised on songs from Ghana and Cameroon: 

B. Joy in Messiaen's bird songs

Bird song in Messiaen's compositions almost always represents joy. Compared to my own music this is not an easy to understand emotion, but a sublimated joy in an atonal context. Also in this sense it is played with lightness, elegance and a certain naivety:

C. Joy in Haydn's Pieces for a Musical Clock

As the sublimated joy of Messiaen's bird songs is not quite the same as the naive, childlike joy which I aim at, I take Haydn's Pieces for a Musical Clock to compensate for thisThese small gems then function as a bridge between the 18th century aspects of Variations on to God be the Glory and pieces by Bach. It is hard to believe what Haydn is capable of doing with 16 different pitches c.q. keys on the keyboard only. This is a lesson in itself for modern composers. 

D. Joy in relation to Bach interpretation

Bach's Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch da kom ich her" are written in C major, like Haydn's Pieces for a Musical Clock.
The challenge is to regard the blank innocence of this C major from the same perspective in both pieces and play the latter, with all its incredibly complex canons, with the pure joy of a child singing a Christmas song.

J.S. Bach Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her" (not yet available)

Applied to the interpretation of trio sonatas:

Case study 3: Using suffering and introspection to deepen the interpretation of some of Bach's profoundest chorale preludes

I suffered from major depressions which changed my life, also as an artist. After my father died in 1996 I had strange dreams in which I felt the archangel Michael's energy coming from the Mojave desert in California. For some time I took the alter ego Astor Mojave and issued the CD Spiritual Homeland (using a Yamaha SY99 synthesizer), which I later withdrew. Between 1996 and '98 I made several pieces about the theme demons and redemption, one of which I performed in the Grote of St. Bavo church in Haarlem: