For the last few weeks I’ve been listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos almost nonstop. And when I'm not literally playing the six pieces on a CD player or iPod, they're playing in my head - on repeat.
Although before this Bach binge I certainly appreciated the legendary Baroque composer's place in history at the top of the classical class with Mozart and Beethooven, I had never considered myself a particularly rabid fan per se. I’m still a relative novice when it comes to classical recordings, but so far I have gravitated mostly to Shostakovic, with Beethoven, Debussy, Johan Strauss, Richard Strauss, Brahms, and Steve Reich following behind.
And it’s not as if I’d never heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos before. In a way, you wind up hearing at least snippets of them all your life, on movie soundtracks or even sampled in hip-hop (the first Handsome Boy Modeling School album comes to mind). But I think this societal/musical ubiquity is precisely why I had never, until recently, just sat down and listened to the Brandenburg Concertos from start to finish. (That and the fact that I’ve previously listened to mostly rock and jazz.)
And suddenly I understand certain other composers' influences more clearly, and not just the old classical guys. I’ve become a huge fan of the scores for Wes Anderson's last three films, for example, which are composed by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo fame. Only recently did it hit me how much that signature harpsichord-laden Wes Anderson sound is a kind of reworked Brandenburg. Freedom of Choice indeed. (Or, "Crack that baton!")
None of this, by the way, is to imply I know a lot about classical music. I unequivocally don’t. But I think that’s part of the allure: The supply of interesting, compelling music seems limitless.
Anyway, what first amazed me about the Concertos, which were written on commission for the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721 and forgotten for several years afterward (Bach never even got paid), is an extraordinary precision and velocity of notes being played. I describe the sound as (and I'm not sure this makes any sense) mathematical. They say certain classical music can improve IQ, temporarily in adults (about 10-15 minutes) and permanently in children if repeated enough. Listening to the Brandenburg Concertos, I get a very palpable data zigzagging through my synapses.
And yet that mathematic sound, as I call it, is so inherently delicate. In this intimate chamber-music setting, the individual instruments are allowed to shine: violins, cellos, harpsichord.
A week ago our neighbors across the street threw their latest in a series of loud parties highlighted by a live rock band jamming in the living room. The sound was almost impossible to escape, but finally I disappeared into the basement with Valarie’s i-Pod. Drowning out the racket with Bach, of all things, gave me my greatest satisfaction of the evening.