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Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie's serious and inventive book asks: How has Bach in our time become a Godlike being whose center is everywhere?

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Reinventing Bach
By Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
512 pp.

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Reviewed by Alexandra Mullen for Barnes & Noble Review

More than 300 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in the small German town of Eisenach. Unlike his contemporary Handel, he never traveled very far. But from this intense central point, Bach – or at least the sound waves representing him – seems to be filling up the universe. Three of his pieces are on Voyager's golden disc which is now approaching the brink of interstellar space; and at the same time, as Paul Elie, the author of Reinventing Bach, says, "He is in my pocket." How has Bach in our time become a Godlike being whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere?

By juxtaposing the space capsule and the pocket, Elie captures two elements of Bach – the domestic and the transcendent. They were certainly evident in his own life of playing, rehearsing, composing, teaching, and performing music, where there was not much distance or difference between the clavier at home and the organ at church. By juxtaposing the LP and the iPod, Elie reminds us of how technology has democratized and universalized Bach – all of us can "play" him now whether we're picking through a score at the piano or listening to recordings of Edwin Fischer's impassioned wrong notes or Glenn Gould's equally impassioned right ones.

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