Research: Making Bach accessible for all

As an artistic researcher I am free and independent. I do not carry out any institutionalized form of artistic research, but instead directly follow my great examples J.S. Bach, Olivier Messiaen and Miles Davis, who were great artistic researchers avant la lettre and always remained sincere to their artistic conscience. Using plain language and clear music examples, I make the research accessible to a large audience.

All music examples are indicated in red.

The goal of my research is:

- to emotionally liberate my Bach interpretation through my own and Messiaen's c.q. Haydn's music, consequently reach the listener's heart and make Bach accessible for all musicians and music lovers

- to make listeners and musicians better persons realising that when we stand for God it is the way we behaved that counts and not our achievements —im my opinion the essence of Bach's music.

My way to emotional freedom in Bach interpretation goes through three states of mind which are at the basis of human life and can be universally recognised:

1. rage

2. joy

3. suffering. 

I use these basic emotions like a painter uses basic colours: combining them in endless ways to evoke new emotions/colours. 

As much as possible I avoid looking at Bach in the traditional way as a highlight of Western art music.The notion of Western art music only came into existence in the 19th century and is based on regarding Western classical music as superior to other music traditions. Before the 19th century musicians simply didn't think in terms of superior art music and folk or popular music. In this respect the 21st century tendency to mix Western classical music with other music traditions is more in line with the 18th century than the 19th and 20th century. I am convinced that my Bach interpretation should be as open to other music traditions as my own music already is. This implies that, for instance, modal music from Asia and Africa, avant-jazz and avant-pop influence the way I play Bach. 

The research is dedicated to the memory of Claire Delbos. She was Messiaen's first wife, violinist and a gifted composer, although not a visionary genius like her husband. Towards the end of the Second World War, when Messiaen had already met Yvonne Loriod who would become his second wife in 1961, Claire Delbos remained institutionalized after an operation until her death in 1959, suffering from a mental illness. In 1952 she composed Parce, Domine 'Pardonnez, Seigneur, à votre peuple', pour le temps de Carême, which because of the well-known biblical text "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" may be considered as a musical work of the highest ethical calibre.

In the following three case studies rage, joy and suffering are related firstly to interpreting my own music, then to my performance of works by Messiaen c.q. Haydn and finally to my Bach interpretation. Compositions by Bach are first played on my study organ at home, with the digitalised sound of historical instruments, and then —in years to come—  hopefully on some of the world's most magnificent baroque organs. 

Case Study 1: Using rage for the performance of toccata's, preludes, fantasies, fugues and other pieces

Rage is the human emotion that comes closest to wild energy in nature, which is both destructive and creative, for instance a volcanic outburst or a thunderstorm. 

a. Rage in relation to my own music

In December 2014 I experienced a rage about the couple Messiaen-Loriod in relation to Claire Delbos which lasted a few days and during which I wanted to throw away my Messiaen scores into the garbage. I came to reason realising that this outburst of rage should serve a nobler purpose in the future.

Composition for piano: RAGE - In Memoriam Gijs Hendriks

Improvisation: Red Waves - Mike Garson and Willem Tanke on two pianos

Four hand organ improvisation by Mike Garson and Willem Tanke

A special experience related to rage took place while performing/improvising a piano piece which I later called Wild energy, feeling the presence of Cecil Taylor, in which I abandon my usual calm, concentrated way of playing. When discussing mysticism a befriended catholic priest once advised me to be careful when "making the grand journey to the interior", reminding me of Saint Teresa of Avila's words not to make the journey alone, but to have a watchful guide. 

Wild energy feeling the presence of Cecil Taylor

After the event, which happened spontaneously, I did not explore it any further, but returned to my usual calm way of playing. It remains an open question.

b. Rage in relation to Messiaen interpretation

Messiaen was capable of putting a tremendous amount of wild energy into his music. Unlike Bach, he was explicit about the Divine nature of this energy. 

Olivier Messiaen - The Eyes in the Wheels

Olivier Messiaen - The Two Walls of Water

c. Rage in relation to Bach interpretation

Many sources mention that Bach had a terrible temper and it is not difficult to relate this to the exuberant wildness of many of his pieces. 

Rage can be both destructive and creative. Regarding Bach (and Messiaen) I make the ethical choice to transform rage into grandeur, without loosing anything of its intensity. 

The title of the following choral prelude refers to God as both Creator and Holy Spirit:

J.S. Bach - Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist BWV 667

In several of Bach's organ toccata's, preludes, fantasies and fugues a tremendous intensity is maintained for a long time. The sheer length of these pieces then contribute to their outrageous character.

J.S. Bach - Prelude and Fugue in a minor BWV 543

Case Study 2: Using naive, childlike joy for the performance of Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch da kom ich her" BWV 769, trio sonatas and other pieces

Naive, childlike joy is a source of indestructible optimism. In the following I express this in my own music, Messiaen's bird songs, Haydn's Pieces for a musical clockand eventually in Bach interpretation.

A. Joy in relation to my own music

1. Several pieces for organ and flute

Absurd as it may seem sincere cheerfulness, without irony, is a taboo in contemporary Western classical music. I ignore this taboo and produce naive, cheerful pieces all the time, also to achieve sublime lightness and elegance in my Bach interpretation.

For a child (organ Westerkerk Amsterdam)

Listening to the fairies - Martijn Alsters, flute and Willem Tanke, organ

Birds, drums and signals - Martijn Alsters, flute and Willem Tanke, organ (Der Aa-kerk Groningen)

2. Being inspired by musicians from Ghana and Cameroon

From 1998 till 2000, I was the organist of the African Choir of the Scots International Church, Rotterdam. During this period I learnt about 40 songs from Ghana and Cameroon. I was impressed by the the swing, soulfulness and indestructible optimism with which members of the African Choir expressed their faith through their music. They performed W.H. Doane’s To God be the Glory in a particular cheerful way. To remember this I composed a set of variations on this hymn in what —not without a twinkle in the eye— might be called “African baroque” style. The piece is typical of the 18th century in regard to harmony, voice leading, texture, ornamentation, fingering and registration (in the below example the digitalised sound of the Silbermann organ in Arlesheim, built in 1761, is used). However, it is rhythmicized in a way that I used while accompanying the African Choir during services and rehearsals, often stimulating the choir to dance. I play the piece with relaxed precision, economising movements of hands and fingers based on observations on Bach’s way of playing the organ made by contemporaries of his. This way of playing, essentially rooted in the 18th century and before, looks deceptively simple; it requires a refined technique. The goal is, among other things, to create a feeling of dance that benefits Bach interpretation, realising that in the 18th century “art music’ was still very related to dance. The high brow attitude that accompanies the outdated notion of Bach as the Parnassus of Western art music does not suit this notion of dance, on the contrary it takes away vitality, lightness and elegance. 

Variations on To God be the Glory - dedicated to Tom Dumoulin

Besides traditional hymns I improvised on songs from Ghana and Cameroon: 

Improvisation on Yehowah Kpo Kpo

Anyi Bialale

B. Joy in Messiaen's bird songs

Bird song in Messiaen's compositions almost always represents joy. Compared to my own music this is not an easy to understand emotion, but a sublimated joy in an atonal context. Also in this sense it is played with lightness, elegance and a certain naivety:

Olivier Messiaen - Chants d'oiseaux

C. Joy in Haydn's Pieces for a Musical Clock

As the sublimated joy of Messiaen's bird songs is not quite the same as the naive, childlike joy which I aim at, I take Haydn's Pieces for a Musical Clock to compensate for thisThese small gems then function as a bridge between the 18th century aspects of Variations on to God be the Glory and pieces by Bach. It is hard to believe what Haydn is capable of doing with 16 different pitches c.q. keys on the keyboard only. This is a lesson in itself for modern composers. 

Joseph Haydn - Pieces for a musical clock (not yet available)

D. Joy in relation to Bach interpretation

Bach's Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch da kom ich her" are written in C major, like Haydn's Pieces for a Musical Clock.

The challenge is to regard the blank innocence of this C major from the same perspective in both pieces and play the latter, with all its incredibly complex canons, with the pure joy of a child singing a Christmas song.

J.S. Bach Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her" (not yet available)

J.S. Bach - Trio Sonata in G major BWV 530, first movement

Case study 3: Using suffering and introspection to deepen the interpretation of some of Bach's profoundest chorale preludes

I suffered from major depressions which changed my life, also as an artist. After my father died in 1996 I had strange dreams in which I felt the archangel Michael's energy coming from the Mojave desert in California. For some time I took the alter ego Astor Mojave and issued the CD Spiritual Homeland (using a Yamaha SY99 synthesizer), which I later withdrew. Between 1996 and '98 I made several pieces about the theme demons and redemption, one of which I performed in the Grote of St. Bavo church in Haarlem:

In the same period I composed Stillness and My friend the Indian, two extremely simple pieces in which I do not feel any connection to Western classical music, including that of Arvo Pärt. In January 2017, I had a vision that referred to my ancestors who during many centuries were labourers in the fields or peasants with a small piece of ground in Twente, a region in the east of Holland, bordering Germany: 

Springtime. At the end of a hard day’s work a farm worker is resting a while before going home. He is leaning against a tree, his face in the late afternoon sun and his thoughts nowhere. Suddenly and for a very short time he sees Eternity. Some years later it happens again and after that never more. But the longing for it encourages him during the rest of his life and strengthens him at the hour of death.

Performing Stillness and My friend the Indian, solo and with other musicians, contributes to introspection and creating a reservoir of quiet concentration which is essential for the performance of some of Bach's profoundest chorale preludes: