I'm sitting in my hotel room in Leipzig, listening to J.S. Bach's “St. John Passion”, specifically the interpretation directed in 1985 by Helmuth Rilling with various vocal and instrumental bodies based in the South German city of Stuttgart. Through the window I can see, less than 5 minutes' walk away, the tower of the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), where Bach premiered the work on Good Friday 1724 and also directed three of the four further performances of it he gave. While walking through the town today I noticed posters advertising another performance being given in the church for Easter. Part of me wishes we could be back here then so I could attend it...
The Nikolaikirche, Leipzig
Although in recent years the Nikolaikirche has become celebrated as the site of a peaceful demonstration which in time led to the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989, it's been around and carving a place in German history since 1165, a big Romanesque hulk with (a later addition) one of those elaborate German towers which, to English eyes more accustomed to square towers or soaring perpendicular lines, look curiously exotic, even oriental. The Bach connection remains its biggest claim to fame: although Bach's position as cantor of the Thomaskirche is perhaps better known, and certainly more commonly exploited as a focus for tourism in present day Leipzig, the 18th century city council also employed him as Director of Music for the city's main churches and the Nikolaikirche saw the premieres of many of the cantatas which form the heart of his composing output. At this point I could easily slip into a prolonged appreciation of Bach's music and why I've loved it ever since I first heard it as a small child... but instead I'll try to keep this blog on track and attempt to relate my enjoyment of Bach to the requirements of performing Pink Floyd's music!
The Statue Of Bach Next To The Thomaskirche
The other day Emily Lynn, one of our lovely backing singers, emailed to me a link to an online essay about how to practice as a musician – click HERE to find it, though you don't have to read it all to be able to follow the rest of this blog! There's much in it that I agree with and about as much that I disagree with – but I'm particularly struck by a few points about how one might practice not just by playing but by thinking through situations and problems in any given piece of music. I'm very much in favour of that and not just with reference to specific pieces and problems: I've long felt that as a working musician I can gain a lot from listening to and trying to understand all kinds of music. Many people assume that, as a saxophonist, I must be a big fan of jazz, since these days that's the musical genre most commonly associated with the instrument. Yes, I do appreciate and enjoy a lot of jazz – but that's only part of the picture, and it certainly isn't a part that is separate from the rest of the picture.
Let me try and lay out a meaningful example. Bach is regarded as pretty much the all-time master of counterpoint, a compositional technique in which harmony is established not by the building up of vertical blocks of notes – a technique especially common in rock since it's naturally suited to guitars – but by the intersections between a number of horizontal melodic lines. The first section of the “St. John Passion” contains a brilliant demonstration of this: 1/ a pulsing, repetitive bass figure propels 2/ a fussy, double time rhythmic phrase which dominates the string instrument parts, while above all that woodwind instruments play 3/ long, slow lines which, far from calming the bustle of the rest, push the music towards an hysterical edge by constantly colliding in brief dissonances. Since it's virtually impossible to write precisely about music without resorting to excessively technical language, here's a picture of the first page of Bach's manuscript score with the devices mentioned above indicated, and HERE's the performance of the piece I've been listening to today.
Bach, I think, was attempting to wring an emotional reaction from his audience of 18th century merchants and burghers by creating an almost unbearable sense of tension by musical means as an introduction to his epic evocation of the death of Christ. I know that, even without an religious feeling on my part, this piece has been known to reduce me to tears.
Counterpoint, however, is not solely a classical technique. Lately I've been introducing Dave Fowler to the big, rowdy, muscular jazz of Charles Mingus – and while Mingus largely followed the compositional methods of most of his generation of jazzmen, opening a piece with a melodic statement, continuing with a string of solos by band members over the pattern of chords underlying that melodic statement then closing the piece with a reiteration of the opening, he also frequently substituted for the opening melody a set of contrapuntal lines which built to a climax before going into the string of solos – generally, it seems to me, with the aim of generating a massive amount of emotional, frenetic energy. HERE's “Moanin'”, from the 1960 LP “Blues & Roots”: you could do worse than search out the rest of the album too, it's a monster (in a good way).
Listening to, and trying to understand, Bach's use of counterpoint (and that of many other composers!) deepens my appreciation of Mingus' deployment of the technique in many of his compositions, even though their uses may have been aimed towards very different ends. And this has all proved helpful to me in thinking about the shape and phrasing of the saxophone solo on “Money”, where a twisting, jagged sax line counterpoints the characteristic melodic bass figure and brief flurries on keyboard with, I think, the aim of making the listener feel a kind of revulsion to match the satirical ideas embodied in the song's lyrics.
In short, it isn't just about Pink Floyd – it's about how Pink Floyd's music is part of a far larger picture, other elements of which may, if I consider them, help me to a greater understanding of the music. That, I think, is at least as much an important part of practicing as making sure my fingers know where to go to get the right notes out of the horn!
And now for something completely different – a man with a big German sausage in his hand. When in Leipzig at lunchtime, buying a charcoal-grilled Thuringer Bratwurst, mit mittelscharfer senf und brotchen, from a street stand is the way to go. This one has the Thomaskirche in the background.