At a time when music throughout Europe was poised to switch to homophony, Bach stuck doggedly to the creation of polyphonic works. Homophony focuses on the main melody. Polyphony, by contrast, is characterized by the absence of any such hierarchical relationship, and different melodies take the central role according to the flow of the music. In polyphony, then, by definition, the interplay and interrelationship of the music is regarded as more important than any single melody. Polyphony is not like classical drama or ballet—in which the major and supporting roles are fixed—but more like post-Beckett drama or modern ballet, in which lead and supporting roles are fluid and interchangeable.
In the notes accompanying Shimizu’s earlier recording of Cello Suites 1.2.3 I pointed out how Bach employs an ingenious strategy to achieve polyphonic harmony with a basically monophonic instrument: Turning the very “deficiencies” of the monophonic cello to his advantage, Bach uses broken chords to suggest or evoke notes that are never actually sounded, and in doing so creates in the mind of the listener a “virtual” polyphonic harmony. Printed notes on a music score may seem to exist as independent entities, but in fact they are deeply and richly interrelated. Bach demonstrated this point in its most minimal form, by using neither the piano nor orchestra, but a simple stringed instrument.
Shimizu has risen to the challenge of Bach’s strategy with an equally brilliant strategy of his own. On the one hand Shimizu adopts an orthodox approach by simply playing with consummate virtuosity. On the other hand he shows ingenuity in selecting spaces characterized by a high degree of echo, thus turning the very space itself into a musical instrument. Shimizu’s strategy has gone on to yield results which Bach never imagined, because what initially seems to be homophonic, turns out, the longer we listen, to be polyphonic music which captures our attention and takes us on a journey from below to above ground, and thence up to the skies!
Like Cello Suites 1.2.3, Cello Suites 4.5.6 were recorded at three distinct locations: the Kakokan underground cavern in the Kamaishi mine in Japan’s Tohoku region for Suite 4; Villa Contarini for Suite 5 and Palazzo Papafava for Suite 6, both in Northern Italy. All three places are rich in history and remarkable for their acoustics, characterized by extremely long-drawn-out reverberations.
Shimizu himself tracked down these stunning locations, only venturing to make the recordings after the most exhaustive preparations. As Shimizu explains, in his quest for “sound distortion and complex echo wave patterns” and “just the right degree of atmospheric noise,” he visited over ten places both in and outside Japan, including a disused railway tunnel, the inside of a hydroelectric power station, and the echo chamber of a research institute. As these recordings show, his labors were to pay off handsomely.
The Kamaishi mine opened in 1829 and only ceased its mining operations in 1993. Wearing a hard hat, a little handcar takes you 500 meters into the mountainside through a narrow tunnel, before you are greeted by the cool, damp air of the Kakokanjo Acoustic Laboratory – a space of 300 square meters with a 7 meter-high roof. Here the temperature stays between 10 and 12 degrees centigrade all year round, while groundwater keeps the level of humidity at over 90 percent.
Villa Contarini was built in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries by the Contarinis, a Venetian aristocratic family. Situated 30 minutes’ drive from Padua, the Villa’s magnificent winged facade and vast lake in the grounds give the viewer an overwhelming impression of the power of the Italian nobility during those times. The recording was made in the auditorio, a room with excellent acoustics, and which features an opening in the ceiling connecting the auditorio to the chitarra (guitar) chamber on the 3rd floor. Here, musicians used to perform, and the music would float down for all the guests to hear below.
Palazzo Papafava was built by the Paduan aristocrat Gianbattista Trento between 1760 and 1763. Located in the center of Padua, this splendid mansion, partly neo-classical in style, is still lived in by the descendants of Trento. The space chosen for recording was a 250 meter-square drawing room with a rounded cupola ceiling 12 meters high. Here, just as in the Villa Contarini, sounds reverberated and intermingled in playful fashion.
If you listen carefully to the recordings, you will be able to hear more than just the sound of the saxophone. In Suite 4 you can discern the sound of minute drops of water dripping from the roof of the Kamaishi mine, while in the Villa and in the Palazzo of Suites 5 and 6, the sounds of everyday life—cars, airplanes and voices—are mixed deep within the polyphonic tones. Shimizu and the recording staff naturally made sure that any extreme forms of noise were excluded if they conflicted with, rather than enhanced, the music. Nonetheless, unlike studio recordings made in a space hermetically sealed off from the outside world, the music here—far from rejecting noises and sounds that have resonance for us and with which we empathize—chooses instead to welcome and incorporate them. This is the music of “planned chance,” as when John Cage flung an eraser into a piano. It is full-bodied and three-dimensional in the most literal sense.
Most moving of all is the way in which the music progresses from subterranean depths to above ground, from there soaring skywards. The underground cavern in the mine was dark, cold, dew-drenched, humid, a chaotic, amorphous space that shut in and subjugated the sound. In the Palazzo, set amid the bustle of everyday city life, the music was able to spread out along the horizontal axis. The Villa meanwhile was architectural symmetry itself—a delightful place, full of light, heat and a warm dry breeze where Shimizu’s music soared. In this way, like Dante in The Divine Comedy, the notes that spill out of Shimizu’s saxophone travel through earth, purgatory, hell, finally reaching up to heaven. And at each location—even below ground—a subtle bond with incidental noise comes about, a bond that is rich, profound, one might even say erotic. In the sense that Bach’s polyphonic music is consecrated to God, it is externally focused and open. Paradoxically, its technical structure is internally focused and closed to an astonishing degree. Shimizu’s interpretations of the Cello Suites, while respecting the musical structures created by Bach, also succeed in forging a new connection to link the internal and the external. The idea of traveling freely through the internal and the external, from below to above ground, or from above ground to the skies, might ideally be represented as a “spiral.” This is why I chose to call this interpretation of the Cello Suites “spiral music.”
— Tetsuya Ozaki (translated by Giles Murray)