The Godless Age Bach
J.G. Ballard’s short story “The Sound-Sweep” is based on the remarkable concept of “sound dross”—a reception hall which retains echoes of years of sundry gossip and the tinging of crystal glasses, for instance, or a Romanesque church with centuries of choir singing and the pealing of bells caked to the walls. The story’s hero, a “sound-sweep,” has the ability to pick up sounds inaudible to the average person. His work entails distinguishing the beautiful sounds from mere accumulated “static,” and to carefully “clean out” the unnecessary noise. A clear parallel can be drawn between this and Yasuaki Shimizu’s Cello Suites 1.2.3.
Shimizu does not, however, merely “clean.” With his meticulous interpretation of composition and daring selection of recording spaces, he washes Bach free of the deposits of time and religious context, and having done away with history, ventures to interpret it anew.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are regarded as the “Old Testament’ of the cello repertoire; they are among the greatest of great music. The complete set of six suites is believed to have been composed around 1720, compiled from a number of dance pieces. The suites fell into obscurity after Bach’s death until they were “discovered” in the late 1800s by Pablo Casals. They have since been repeatedly interpreted and recorded by the entire line of major cellists, including Fournier, Starker, Tortelier, Bylsma, Maisky, Yo Yo Ma, Tsutsumi and Rostropovich. Renditions have been recorded on recorder, and on jazz guitar (Ornette Coleman and Prime Time’s Tone Dialing). Shimizu’s is the first recorded tenor saxophone interpretation.
Shimizu chose three distinctly different spaces to record in: the lobby of a converted warehouse for Suite 1, an underground stone quarry for Suite 2, and a huge, newly constructed concert hall for Suite 3. The absence of any historical connection to music and an extraordinarily high degree of reverberation were common to all three locations. Use of such distinctive space is unique not only among recorded interpretations of Bach’s Cello Suites, but among recorded renditions of any of Bach’s works; this is an altogether exceptional event.
Although the concepts behind Bach’s compositions defy easy categorization, the defining characteristic of the Cello Suites is what might be called “virtual” polyphonic harmony achieved with a basically monophonic instrument, the cello. To accomplish this, Bach makes use of broken chords, resulting in the audible suggestion of tones not in fact sounded. The Cello Suites offer the seemingly contradictory experience of polyphony in a single-track melody (actually monophony); the missing notes are imagined by the listener. Shimizu transforms the entire performance space into a musical instrument and enhances reality in a “chicken or egg” style; the resonating space fills the gaps in Bach’s broken chords.
One might fear an assault of echoing dissonant sound, but Shimizu and his recording staff are exacting in their calculations. When resonance from one sound should be broken off before the next, rests are long, and when a sound is to harmonize with the next, rests are short. Historically unbound, each individual tone embodies, on one hand, impurities that must be swept out, and on the other, an alluring chaos. Shimizu has spoken of wanting to express “a Bach that is both sublime and profane.” He succeeds perhaps best in his rendition of Suite 2, recorded in the underground stone quarry.
The quarry, some ten meters below ground, is an overwhelmingly cavernous space, reminiscent of an ancient temple. The temperatures above and below ground differed as much as twenty degrees Centigrade. In midsummer, the staff attended recordings dressed for winter. The extreme difference in temperature created condensation, and water droplets that fell incessantly from the ceiling drenched the entire floor. With a pocket body warmer tucked into his jacket, and invigorated by an occasional toke of supplementary oxygen, Shimizu seemed to be feeling fine as he whaled on his saxophone.
If you listen carefully you can hear the sound of water gently falling and gradually become aware that the music is replete with a myriad of subtle sounds. Even Bach—whose labors also touched on both the sacred and the profane (the authorities were once summoned to the church when he escorted a woman to the organ seat)—would surely tip his hat to Shimizu’s backhanded interpretation adopting echo and environmental sound.
When recorded outside of churches or established halls, freed from the conventions of religious and musical history, Bach takes on a rare kind of ease. Special mention should also be made of the ethereal quality of the Prelude juxtaposed with the slow Menuets, followed by the funky pace of the Gigue in Suite 1, and the extended chord in the finale of the Courante in Suite 3. Here is the omnipresent and, at the same time, contemporary Bach. Balanced in the interstice between fine art and pop art, Shimizu’s interpretation is a tribute to both.
Bach of course not only composed for unaccompanied cello, but also wrote pieces for solo flute and violin. To ask “what if” of history may be sheer fancy, but when we look at the commonality (or disparity) in timbre between cello and saxophone, particularly tenor saxophone, it is tempting to imagine what Bach might have composed for tenor saxophone had the instrument existed in his day. This recording does just that.
Shimizu scrutinizes the residue of history to create a Bach whom we have never known. In part, he functions as a sound sweep. His greater contribution, however, is in adding the strains of our age, giving the Cello Suites a timelessness and creating a chaotic weave of vulgarity and sanctity. A Bach for the godless age is born.
— Tetsuya Ozaki (translated by Pamela Miki)