Criticism

  • ⇢ Paul Elie, Reinventing Bach


    Paul Elie, Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

    From the Publisher:  The story of a revolution in music and technology, told through a century of recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In Reinventing Bach, his remarkable second book, Paul Elie tells the electrifying story of how musicians of genius have made Bach's music new in our time, at once restoring Bach as a universally revered composer and revolutionizing the ways that music figures into our lives. As a musician in eighteenth-century Germany, Bach was on the technological frontier — restoring organs, inventing instruments, and perfecting the tuning system still in use today. Two centuries later, pioneering musicians began to take advantage of breakthroughs in audio recording to make Bach's music the sound of modern transcendence. The sainted organist Albert Schweitzer played to a mobile recording unit set up at London's Church of All Hallows in order to spread Bach's organ works to the world beyond the churches.  Pablo Casals, recording at Abbey Road Studios, made Bach's cello suites existentialism for the living room; Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, with Fantasia, made Bach the sound of children's playtime and Hollywood grandeur alike. Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations opened and closed the LP era and made Bach the byword for postwar cool; and Yo-Yo Ma has brought Bach into the digital present, where computers and smartphones put the sound of Bach all around us. 

    James Suffern, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Reinventing Bach with the author, Paul Elie.  Reinventing Bach is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via email. 


    James Suffern: You explain that Albert Schweitzer believed that it was Richard Wagner, who "prepared the way the way for Bach" (pg. 41) despite being born more than half a century after Bach's death. Was the world simply not ready for the complexity and breadth of everything Bach composed? Are there any relationships between two artists since Bach and Wagner that you see sharing the dynamic wherein the later-born artist illuminates the genius of his predecessor?

    Paul Elie: I think it's hazardous to try to say whether the world was ready for this or that artist.   For one thing, the zeitgeist is just too slippery and too hard to identify, and for another, a whole line of scholarship proposes that, Schweitzer to the contrary, the music of Bach was played and studied and admired more or less continuously ever since Bach was alive.

    In a sense, REINVENTING BACH is written in opposition to broad claims about the zeitgeist. We can't say with authority whether the world was ready for Bach at a certain time. But we can say that here at a certain time were certain musicians who communicated the power of Bach to certain other musicians  and here were certain developments in technology that helped them to communicate the power of Bach to new audiences.   Through recordings we can track musical influence with some precision  instead of treating it just as a matter of individual or collective psychology. 

    What interests me in Schweitzer's insight is the perception of likeness within artists (Bach and Wagner) who are usually seen as profoundly unlike each other  keeping in mind that Aristotle saw the perception of likeness in difference as a fundamental habit of art.

    It seems to me that one of the most important things artists and writers do is open fresh lines of influence back to the past.  Take Michael Chabon, for example: instead of following a straight line of descent from Bellow and Malamud and Philip Roth, the great American Jewish novelists, he pulls and end-run around them and looks to comic books and pulp novels produced in many instances by American Jews  an aspect of Jewish culture that Bellow and the others weren't especially interested in.  Now we can see how the novel and pop culture, Saul Bellow and Will Eisner, are part of the same inheritance.  

    James Suffern: Of Bach's compositional process you say, "Invention would come to characterize his music, both as a habit of art and as a pattern of the art itself. His music develops in ways that dramatize the act of invention" (pg. 75). Is it precisely this quality of intentional invention that draws musicians to Bach throughout various eras? Is he an artist's artist because he shows his hand? Would it be inaccurate to call his compositions postmodern?

    Paul Elie: I'd say artistic attraction can be as hard to pin down as artistic influence is.  Most of the musicians who were drawn to Bach were drawn to him for all sorts of reasons, and for every one who was a Bach specialist (Landowska, Tureck, Gould) there is one (Casals, Barenboim, Fischer-Dieskau) who has done extraordinary things with Bach as part of a broad repertory.  But I think it's safe to say that what I (following the Bach scholar Laurence Dreyfus) call the "pattern of invention" in Bach's music  a pattern that seems at once to elicit a certain type of music-making and to represent that act of music-making  is one that proved especially attractive to musicians at moments when they were taking great leaps forward via new recording technology, and that the qualities of recording technology (for repetition, elongation, playback, and the like) are akin to the techniques Bach employed in his compositions.  If what we mean by post-modern work is work that is distinctly self-reflexive, then yes, I think Bach's music is congenial to postmodern musicians and music-making.     

    James Suffern: As you explain, the innovations of recording technology created a paradigm shift in how music is produced and even conceived. "Tape and the LP," you say, "changed the way music was made, not just the way it was recorded" (pg. 174). Looking backwards, how do you think longer form recording devices would have affected Bach's approach to composing? Are we luckier that he didn't have such conceptions of recording-time and therefore wrote music to suit his own ear and heart?

    Paul Elie: I don't want to seem overscrupulous, but it's very hard to form any good idea of what Bach would have done with the technology we take for granted.  He was a genius, which is to say that he transcends conjecture. 

    That said, the question is tantalizing.   What becomes clear if you spend any time with Bach scholarship, or any time in Leipzig, is how much time and effort Bach had to devote to the simple acts of copying out parts for the musicians and re-writing music he was repurposing for fresh occasions.  A whole line of scholarship focuses on using computer imaging technology to identify the handwriting traits of the different family members and friends and students whom Bach used as copyists: once you know a particular copyist's handwriting, you can use what you know of his or her life story to determine when a particular part was copied  which then enables you to date the whole work more precisely than was possible a generation ago. 

    So a device as simple as a home-office photocopier would have had a profound effect on Bach's working life.  It would have spared him the endless effort of arranging for copyists and so would have opened up free time for him to spend composing.  And it would have enabled him to "back up" his work  so that the two sacred passions and dozens of cantatas now considered lost might not have gone missing in the first place.     

    James Suffern: Glenn Gould's vacuum cleaner epiphany opened his mind to the imaginative life of the inner ear. "Already he anticipated a state of things in which music is not set against silence but is one element in a sonic mix, with sounds brought forth acoustically from wood, felt, and wire mingling with the sounds made by electric appliances and machinery" (pg. 181). How excited or anxious would Gould's predecessors, including Bach himself, feel about music listened to — and even composed for — mingling with noises of the modern world?

    Paul Elie: Gould was responding very specifically to the notion of the concert hall as a quasi-sacred space and the solo recital as a brutal test whose sadistic aspects were disguised by a superficial air of reverence.   When he stopped giving recitals, in effect he exchanged the controlled environment of the concert hall for the very different controlled environment of the recording studio.  In this  his attempt to strike a balance between the musical performance and the outside world that corresponded with his sense of things  he was akin to the whole procession of musicians who figure into REINVENTING BACH.  Pablo Casals, as far as I can tell, waited years and years for the recording technology to be adequate to his interpretations of Bach's cello suites  but then complained that the recordings weren't "live" enough.  Before him, Albert Schweitzer, who played Bach at night on a piano with organ pedals after working long days as a missionary doctor in West Africa, waxed eloquent about the effect created when his playing mingled with the sounds of the surrounding jungle.  Bach himself wrote dozens of works meant to be performed in church  and dozens of works meant to be performed at Zimmermann's, a back-garden coffeehouse in Leipzig favored by students and conventioneers who probably talked during the performances.  

    James Suffern: Your descriptions of various musicians' live concerts and recordings of Bach compositions is elegant and fresh, and often sounds idiosyncratic, too. How do you know monitor yourself when describing music? How do you know how far you can go? You mention Greil Marcus several times — is his writing a model for you?

    Paul Elie: I find that in many music books the reader is invited to take a time-out while the music itself is being described.  It seems to me that if the music is the reason the book is being written in the first place, the passages about the music should be high points, not low points, right?  So my goal in describing the music was to avoid formulaic devices and instead to find as many ways as possible to render the music in words. I sought to trust my own experience of the music, even my experience as a listener on a particular day, without reducing the music to my own experience or introducing the first-person singular pronoun more than seemed right.  I generally avoided flashy anachronism, which for perfectly good reasons is the engine of so much of the strongest criticism just now.   ("Charles Dickens is the Manchester United of novelists"  that kind of thing.) In the graduate courses I taught at Columbia, I would tell students that often the fundamental choice in this kind of writing is whether to fit the style to the material or to play the style off against the material.  Greil Marcus, it seems to me, has done it both ways: fitting style to material in MYSTERY TRAIN, playing style against material more emphatically in LIPSTICK TRACES.  In REINVENTING BACH, I followed MYSTERY TRAIN, mostly  and I'll follow it again in a book I am just beginning to put together now. 

    James Suffern: You structured Reinventing Bach with the biography of Bach's life and work intercut with the stories of the evolution of his greatest emulators — like Schweitzer, Casals, Gould, et al. The structure of the book is a bit like a mix tape, with the best musicians looping back for another track intermittently. How did you come to write the book in this format, and how do you think it affects the story you're telling?

    Paul Elie: A mix tape: I like that, and it hadn't occurred to me.  Yes, certain characters loop around and make fresh appearances  but that's because they loop around in the story itself.   

    I am something like a mystic of chronology.  My experience, with THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN and REINVENTING BACH, is that if you know precisely when things happened you can organize your book so that, rather than getting bogged down in chronology, it takes flight. You stare at the material and its precise place in time and watch for parallels and juxtapositions to emerge.   That's what happened when I read J.M. Coetzee's extraordinary essay (it's called "What Is a Classic??") about his discovery of the music of Bach in South Africa in the summer of 1955.  When I read the essay, I knew that the summer of 1955 is when Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations at 30th Street Studio in Manhattan.  Eureka!  Two young men, at different ends of the old British Empire, came to fresh understandings of the classic and its claim on them  and it happened to them through the music of Bach and at precisely the same time.  A parallel like that has real authority and feels like a gift to the writer.   

    In REINVENTING BACH, I had to marry two, or three, chronologies: the chronology of Bach's life, the chronology of the "reinvention" of his music in the age of recordings, and, toward the end, the chronology of some of my own significant encounters with the music.  This upped the challenge of writing the book, but also upped the interest for the writer  and, I hope, for the reader, too.  It's a three-part invention, in a way.   


    James Suffern lives in New York City, and is an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program.

  • ⇢ Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture


    Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture (New York Review Books). 

    From the Publisher:  Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn's reviews for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as "one of the greatest critics of our time" (Poets & Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with "verve and sparkle," "acumen and passion" — on a range of subjects from Avatar to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, from our inexhaustible fascination with the Titanic to Susan Sontag's Journals. Mendelsohn moves from penetrating considerations of the classics in contemporary life and letters (Greek myth in the Spider-Man musical, Anne Carson's translations of Sappho) to trenchant takes on pop spectacles—none more explosively controversial than his dissection of Mad Men. Also gathered here are essays devoted to the art of fiction, from Jonathan Littell to forgotten novels of Theodor Fontane. In a final section, "Private Lives," prefaced by Mendelsohn's New Yorker essay on fake memoirs, he considers the lives and work of writers as disparate as Leo Lerman, Noël Coward, and Jonathan Franzen.

    Katie Peyton, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture with the author, Daniel Mendelsohn.   Waiting for the Barbarians is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted live at The New School on 1/20/13. 


    Katie Peyton is a New York-based writer and artist.  She is a cofounder of Peanut Underground Art Projects, a laboratory for creative conspiracy and promotion of collaboration between the arts.  Katie lives in New York City, and is an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program.

  • ⇢ Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey


    Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books). 

    "Ruefle is clearly one of the best American poets writing, and her body of work is remarkable for its spiritual force, intelligence, stylistic virtuosity, and adventurousness." — Tony Hoagland

    From the Publisher:  "For every time I read a poem I am willing to die … " Over the course of 15 years, award-winning poet Mary Ruefle delivered a lecture every six months to a group of poetry graduate students. Collected here for the first time, these lectures articulate the wisdom accrued through a life dedicated entirely to poetry. Intellectually virtuosic, instructive and experiential, Madness, Rack, and Honey resists definition, demanding instead an utter — and utterly pleasurable — immersion.

    Carrington Alvarez, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Madness, Rack, and Honey with the author, Mary Ruefle.  Madness, Rack, and Honey is  among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via phone on 2/12/13. 


    Anna Carrington Alvarez is a writer and educator originally from Virginia.  She is an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program.  She lives in Brooklyn.

  • ⇢ Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights


    Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press).  

    From the Publisher:  Our foremost theorist of myth, fairytales, and folktales explores the magical realm of the imagination where carpets fly, objects speak, dreams reveal hidden truths, and genies grant prophetic wishes. Stranger Magic examines the wondrous tales of the Arabian Nights, their profound impact on the West, and the progressive exoticization of magic since the eighteenth century, when the first European translations appeared. The Nights seized European readers' imaginations during the siècle des Lumières, inspiring imitations, spoofs, turqueries, extravaganzas, pantomimes, and mauresque tastes in dress and furniture. Writers from Voltaire to Goethe to Borges, filmmakers from Raoul Walsh on, and countless authors of children's books have adapted its stories. What gives these tales their enduring power to bring pleasure to readers and audiences? Their appeal, Marina Warner suggests, lies in how the stories' magic stimulates the creative activity of the imagination. In Warner's hands, the Nights reveal the underappreciated cultural exchanges between East and West, Islam and Christianity, and cast light on the magical underpinnings of contemporary experience, where mythical principles, as distinct from religious belief, enjoy growing acceptance. 

    Samuel Steiner, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights with the author, Marina Warner. Stranger Magic is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13. 


    Samuel Steiner lives in New York City, and is an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program.

  • ⇢ Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness


    Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press). 

    From the Publisher:  Taking its title from Danger Mouse's pioneering mashup of Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' The White Album, Kevin Young's encyclopedic book combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying—storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, "jazzing." What emerges is a persuasive argument for the many ways that African American culture is American culture, and the centrality of art — and artfulness — to our daily life. Moving from gospel to soul, funk to freestyle, Young sifts through the shadows, the bootleg, the remix, the grey areas of our history, literature, and music.  

    Liz Axelrod, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses The Grey Album:  On the Blackness of Blackness with the author, Kevin Young. The Grey Album is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13. 


    Liz Axelrod is Web Editor and Poetry Reader for LIT, the literary journal of The New School's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She received her bachelor's degree from the Riggio Writing and Democracy Honors Program and was Managing Editor of two award-winning editions of 12th Street, The New School's undergraduate literary journal, and Editor-in-Chief of  www.12thstreetonline.com. Her work has been published in the Cat Oars Fiction Collective, Lyre Lyre, 12th Street, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, and Electric Literature. She is currently an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program.



In conjunction with the National Book Critics Circle, this site is the work of students and faculty of the The School of Writing at The New School.