JS Bach’s birthdate changed when he was 15 years old. We either observe it on March 21 (on the Gregorian calendar, which we observe today) or March 31 (on the Julian calendar, which Protestant Germany observed up until 1700). Since we’re on the Gregorian calendar, we’re going to observe his birthday on March 21, a popular option as it also coincides with the Spring equinox, a very pleasant time of year.
I spoke with several musicians about their approach to Bach. I asked them why his music is rarely programmed in piano recitals, the issue of harpsichord vs. piano, and approaching his music as a modern or Barque string player. All had fascinating perspectives to offer on this great master.
Today, we’re speaking with violinist/violist Kathleen Kajioka, who has an impressive set of titles: Programme Host and Co-Music Director at The New Classical FM; a professor of Historical Performance Practice at the Glenn Gould School ; and member of Ensemble Masques.
Q: Our listeners know you as host of “A Little Night Music” and “Sunday Night with the TSO” … but there are all kinds of other things you do. Public speaker, teacher of Historical Performance at the Glenn Gould School. Please tell us what the teaching job entails.
A: I introduce the principles behind 17th & 18th century performance practice to college-age string players. They are, by this time, strong instrumentalists about to start their careers. They’ll have played Bach and Handel et al, but may not have a sense of how music was approached at the time these composers were writing. Musical fashions and sensibilities have changed drastically over the centuries – as drastically as modes of dress. But unlike the dress code, trying on Baroque-era ideas can be liberating rather than restrictive.
Q: For our listeners who aren’t aware, tell us the difference between modern instruments and Baroque instruments; which version you play, and why.
A: When it comes to violins and violas, the instruments are themselves the same. Those Strads being played by modern-day soloists were made in the 17th in 18th centuries – it’s the very same wooden box. However, all the removable parts are different: the bridge, the tailpiece, the sound post and bass bar inside, the length and angle of the neck, and the strings, which are made of animal gut and are not wound with metal. Modern vs. Baroque set-up isn’t Darwinian evolution where what came later is superior to earlier versions; they are about different priorities. Modern set-up, with its metal-wound strings and high tension on the instrument, is designed for power, projection and consistency, and is great for something like Tchaikovsky concerto. Baroque set-up gives more range of colour and texture. There is an earthiness to the sound which may be quieter, but is rich on a different scale. For me, the colour palette is worth the sacrifice of volume – after all, this music wasn’t meant to fill a place like Roy Thomson Hall.
The most radically different element is the bow, which in the baroque era is shorter, and curves the opposite way. Where the modern bow is designed to have a full, even sound throughout the stick, the baroque bow is more like a calligraphy brush that gets very fine toward the tip. This lends itself to the more spoken nature of the old performance practice where, rather than pursuing a long, full line, the aim is to carve out highly detailed shapes, as varied in tone, colour, and articulation as a well delivered speech.
While, as a violist, I first fell in love with the pursuit of the rich, big modern sound, I now prefer the older approach. I love the agility of the Baroque bow, the strong texture and warmth of the gut strings, and the creative possibilities and detail involved in turning notes on a page into a gripping piece of musical oratory. (Maybe it’s the public speaker in me!)
Q: More on public speaking shortly. Let’s talk about vibrato (the quick vibration on a note that string players and singers do, adding richness to a note). Okay on a baroque stringed instrument? Not okay?
A: There are differing opinions on this topic within the Early Music community. To a degree it is a matter of taste. However, the use of constant vibrato which modern players are now taught was not standard until well into the 20th century. My personal stance on vibrato is that you have to listen to the nature of the human voice, which is where this effect comes from. Vibrato is something that gets heavier and stronger the louder one sings. In vocal music of the time, singers did not have to fill enormous halls and sing over 100-piece orchestras, and rarely had to employ the kind of sound that generates heavy vibrato. Also, if you listen to vocal music from the 16th c. it is clear how important pure, resonant harmony is. Baroque music comes out of this tradition, and adds to it the emotional intensity of dissonance resolving to consonance. This all-important effect is obscured when the pitch is disrupted by vibrato. That said, it can be a beautiful spice for a soloist to add at a particularly expressive moment, just as vibrato spins naturally out of the voice when it opens up. But for me, the fundamental expression has to come from the shapes you make with the bow.
Q: Let’s get to JS Bach. You’ve gone on the record (in a VERY public way) he had a “twisted hacker mind”. That he was a beer-swigging rebel of composition. Please explain.
A: In some ways — and maybe this is weird — I think of Bach as being kind of anti-social. That is to say, I don’t think he cared whether or not anyone else “got” all the stuff he was up to. And what he got up to was pushing every possible limit, though not in the overt way that Beethoven would later do. Beethoven’s rebellion was very public and was meant to shock. Bach’s rebellion is subtle and is meant to fly under the radar. It is so tricky that even musicians very often don’t recognize it is happening — which somehow I think that would delight him! There are tight architectural rules in 18th c. music: what the bar line means, how rhythm and counterpoint work, what harmonies to use, what comprises a “good” melody, etc. On the surface, Bach honours those rules, but just under the hood he’s messing with each and every one of them, turning them upside down and backwards. That’s why he’s a hacker. It actually makes me laugh sometimes. You can see my talk for some examples, which illustrate that while there is an intense intellectual game going on, it simultaneously serves profound emotion. That’s the most stunning part of his genius.
Q: I know asking “what is your favourite Bach piece?” is not fair. So how about I narrow it down to “what piece by Bach really speaks to you these days?”
A: I’m currently fooling around with the 2nd Partita for solo violin which, as a young violist I never learned to play, but did grow up listening to. Coming at it now, with all my experience in 17th &18th century music, I’m having a lot of fun unravelling the puzzles and discovering possibilities that I haven’t heard in performance before.
Here is Kathleen, doing some terrific public speaking about Bach at Idea City. She is introduced by Moses Znaimer.
Tomorrow: harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger.
Previous: pianist James Anagnoson: http://bit.ly/2IuuxkX