In his first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Elie wrote a group portrait of writers—Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy—whose writings and lives could be connected by the motif of pilgrimage. In his new book, Reinventing Bach, he turns his attention to the ways that invention and Bach connect a group of musicians, from Albert Schweitzer to Pablo Casals to Glenn Gould.
How did you come to write this book?
I fell very hard for Bach when I first heard the Goldberg Variations in college, and in graduate school I attended a Bach festival. Bach’s music hit me with a force of feeling that stayed with me. I made my first notes for this book in 1998, and I wrote early sections of it when I was writing my first book. I’ve spent 1,001 nights listening to recordings of Bach, and I realized that each of those recordings came with a story attached to it; the stories overlapped and formed a bigger story.
Why Bach? Why these particular musicians who’ve recorded Bach?
Bach is always doing more than enough; his music is superabundant. He works at extremes, from short 45-second pieces to a piece like the St. Matthew’s Passion. Bach provides a pattern of invention in his music that makes it possible to be fairly adventurous in recording it and yet Bach will still be Bach. Part of the great satisfaction of writing about these musicians and their reinvention of Bach is that I got to be in the company of Bach as well as in the company of great recordings of Bach. Listening to Bach is so consuming and evokes such passion and wonder that it’s like a feeling of love.
What do you mean when you write that you have sought something religious in the recordings of Bach’s music?
When I hear the music of Bach, that suggests to me what transcendence is. For example, I’m listening to the sounds that Albert Schweitzer made on a church organ in Germany in the early 20th century based on the music that Bach was making on an organ in a church in Germany a few hundred years ago, and we’re all joined. That binding back is what religion is for me; Bach’s music together with these recordings provides a vital connection with the past that is not really past; his music transcends its own time. Bach, of course, was a very religious person, so there is more to his music than meets the ear. Bach’s music opens our understanding of the way that religion and music can work together.
What messages would you like readers to take from your book?
Writing the book made it very obvious to me that technology has given us extraordinary access to the recent past. Instead of the dire warnings we’ve come to hear about technology stepping on the past, technology—from Schweitzer’s wax cylinder recordings to the digital recordings now available for the iPod—has invited various musicians to take a highly traditional work and to reinvent it for their own listeners.