Monday, December 12, 2011

The Role Of Headphones In Bach’s World

But if Bach were alive now, I’m absolutely sure that he’d be working at music in the same way that we do in the business today. Above all, he was a worker and a craftsman, and he didn’t enjoy much reverence in his time. He was really hard-working; he trudged hundreds of miles to try to meet Handel, because he’d heard so much about this famous man who was the toast of London and a friend of the king. (Poor old Bach never did meet him; he missed him by a day.) He lived comfortably, but never in luxury, which was hardly surprising since he fathered twenty children by his two wives. There was no choice but to work hard, running a choir, playing the organ, and constantly writing music for his patron, the duke of wherever it happened to be at the time.

The duke would say: “I need a cantata for Sunday week because it’s the wife’s aunt’s birthday.”

Bach would say: “It’s going to take me a while to write it, your dukedom.”

But that never helped, because the reply would inevitably be: “Sorry about that, Johann, but I do need it for that day, and you do want to eat next week, don’t you?”

So Bach would go home and think: Oh, hell! What am I going to write now? Ah, I know. There was a good little tune in that string quartet I wrote three months back. I can take that out and give it to the sopranos. He would literally do this, pinching his own material, rearranging it, and then saying to himself: That’ll do. He’ll never know I wrote it before.

And when he presented the duke with his cantata, sure enough, that worthy wouldn’t recognize it, and would be delighted. “Great. You’ve done it again, Johann. Terrific.”

Bach would just keep churning it out, writing away like a film writer of today who has a deadline to meet—and God knows, Bach had plenty of those. So whether or not he’d have a regular number-one spot in the hit parade today, I’m quite certain that he’d be in there pitching.

“Did you know,” Britney says, “that Bach has twenty children, with two different wives?”

Beethoven strikes chords a little harder and pointedly ignores her.

Britney says, again, “I read on some blog that Bach has twenty children with two different wives.”

Beethoven strikes a chord progression with his left hand, and plays a melody with his right. He looks intently from one hand to the other.

“I know you can talk and play at the same time,” Britney says. “So I read on that blog that Bach is writing movie music now. You know, there’s a lot of money in composing music for films.”

Beethoven stops playing. He stares at the keyboard in front of him. He takes a deep breath and lets it out, slowly. Reaching out with his right hand, he leans slightly toward Britney.

Britney leans forward.

Beethoven’s right hand reaches under the bench he’s sitting on, and comes back out holding a pair of headphones. He plugs the headphones into a jack on the left side of the keyboard, puts on the headphones and, still not looking at Britney, returns to striking chords and playing melodies.

Britney frowns, but then laughs and leans back to watch Beethoven play even though she can’t hear him.

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Headphones (The Good And The Bad)

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