Bach: The Universal Keyboardist

Harpsichordist and music technologist Robin Bigwood decides whether Bach would be a fan of the synthesizer

Bach: The Universal Keyboardist
Steven Devine

As classical albums go, Wendy Carlos’s 1968 Switched-on Bach divided opinion like few others. It presented works of JS Bach played on the then brand-new Moog synthesizer, introduced thousands of new listeners to the wonders of Bach, and offended perhaps just as many classical purists.

Spool forward 50 years, the Bach-on-synths concept is alive and flourishing. Switched-on Bach has gained almost legendary status. My new ensemble Art of Moog is made up of a bunch of early music bods, normally to be found playing harpsichord and baroque flute in the ‘day job’, but here utilising Moogs and other analogue and digital synths.

There’s a certain novelty value to electronic Bach - it’s entertainingly incongruous, and the sounds are surprising and delightful almost by default. What’s more, the rules seem to be different when you’re playing synths. Your audience is probably that bit more open-minded, so suddenly gigs can be free-form and programmes more eclectic. It wouldn’t be out of the question to channel a elements of 1970s prog-rock psychedelia, use dramatic stage lighting, or (gasp!) wear jeans.

But what would Bach think about it?

To answer that, I like to reflect on the wider culture of keyboard playing in the Baroque. The best performers and composers at that time rarely played one kind of instrument exclusively. You were never just a harpsichordist, for example. You’d have also played (and mastered) organ, clavichord, lautenwerk, and eventually piano. That’s not all – you’d have an engineering insight into your instruments, understand their mechanisms, string and pipe metallurgy, and would be getting your hands dirty with tuning and maintenance. Instrument design was continually in a development phase, and as wind instruments acquired keywork that allowed them to play louder and more in tune, keyboard instruments gained wider pitch compasses, additional varied and colourful stops, and eventually overt dynamic-expressive capabilities.

As an organist Bach was regarded as not only the greatest player of his generation, but also one of its most experienced design practitioners. He advised organ-makers on specifications, stop combinations and voicing character, often acting on behalf of churches that were putting up huge sums to install new instruments. (Read The Organs of JS Bach: A Handbook by Wolff & Zepf if you want to find out more about this fascinating subject). Player/composer keyboardists like Bach actively embraced the new, enjoying life at the cutting edge of instrumental performance and design.

I think it’s utterly inconceivable that Bach wouldn’t have been all over a Moog (or any other really good synth) were it possible to spirit one back into the 18th century. It would have been yet another sound palette for him to exploit, not so fundamentally different in complexity from the bold timbres of a Silbermann organ but extending into wild sound-worlds quite inaccessible to acoustic instruments. The limitless potential for colour, contrast and clarity is perfect for this music.

A few staunch classical purists still baulk at what we’re doing in Art of Moog, but from our perspective, as performers, we’re merely reviving an 18th century tradition and mindset - that of the ‘universal’ keyboardist and musician, revelling in the innovations of their own time. Bach would have approved of that, without doubt.

Art of Moog is made up of Robin Bigwood, Steven Devine and Martin Perkins (synths), and Annabel Knight (wind synth). The group’s debut is at Kings Place in London on 14 April 2018, as part of the annual Bach Weekend. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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