"Perhaps a handful of minds throughout history have had as profound an impact as Bach on future composers and thinkers," muses Montreal cellist Matt Haimovitz. "Bach is here to stay. Forever. In a sphere that is as pure as untouched nature."
Haimovitz enlarges that sphere a bit on his latest album, Overtures to Bach, just out on Pentatone. He invited six composers to each write a new piece inspired by the Preludes of Bach's Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-1012. Those composers are Philip Glass, Vijay Iyer, Luna Pearl Woolf, David Sanford, Roberto Sierra and Du Yun. Haimovitz pairs the new works with Bach's originals in a striking gesture of recontextualization.
"With these Overtures to Bach, contemporary composers reach both forward and backward in time, to bring their own cultural and musical experience into a conversation with the master himself," he explains in the liner notes.
Sample one of the pairings, below.
"I was hoping to bring together as broad an array of musical backgrounds as possible, to expand on the vernacular palette that was available to J.S. Bach," Haimovitz explained via email when we asked him how he chose the composers for this project. "Also, I was seeking composers who had an affinity for Bach, or at least have long been inspired by his genius."
It began with a phone call to Philip Glass, whom Haimovitz has been working with on a number of projects over the last few years. "Without hesitation, he agreed to the commission and mentored me on how I might think about inviting the others," Haimovitz continued.
"Some of the composers — Du Yun and David Sanford — have been longtime close friends and collaborators. I knew Du Yun would push my instrumental boundaries and she was so moved by the sense of loss around the Second Suite. I knew David would wrestle in a profound way the epic fugue of the fifth suite."
Haimovitz had heard a lot of buzz about jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. When he messaged Iyer on Facebook, he received a reply within the hour. "We instantly hit it off and I love how he really studied the manuscript of Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, as he composed his overture."
Roberto Sierra was also a new collaborator for Haimovitz. They met at a symphony concert in Pennsylvania. "After playing the Elgar Cello Concerto, I sat in the audience for the premiere of his orchestral work and loved it," recalls Haimovitz. "When I learned he grew up in Puerto Rico, surrounded by Caribbean salsa and the ghost of legendary cellist Pablo Casals (who founded a festival there), I was hooked. And then when I learned that György Ligeti was his principal teacher, that sealed the deal.
"And finally, I turned to Luna Pearl Woolf who was close at hand. Although we are married — or perhaps because of this — she initially turned me down, working intensely under deadline from the Washington National Opera for her first opera [Better Gods, based on Lili'uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii]. After hearing the Sixth Suite of Bach on the five-string cello piccolo, though, she changed her mind and was struck by how closely related were the string crossing drones of the Bach and the Hawaiian chant she was studying for her opera."
A life of their own
Does Haimovitz hope these new works can one day exist independently from the Bach Preludes that inspired them?
"I have been performing all of these new overtures as preludes to the Bach Cello Suites or at least to the Preludes of the Bach Suites. And I am still fascinated at how seamless the segue is between the new works and the Bach. However, I do think they all stand on their own as rich and organic musical forms," he says.
"Years ago, [Mstislav] Rostropovich commissioned variations on the musical spelling of Paul Sacher’s name. He initially performed the new pieces as a whole. Now we play these 'variations' of Dutilleux, Henze, Britten, etc., each on its own. Hopefully, that will be the lasting legacy of Overtures to Bach, six new works to enrich our solo cello repertoire."
In the meantime, the juxtaposition of old and new on Overtures to Bach is enlightening. "I believe we all hear Bach’s music differently in this context," observes Haimovitz. "Each composer has engaged the master, taken inspiration from him. And then, when one hears the Bach we are in a different frame of mind; we have a new perspective on his music. Three hundred years ago, the Cello Suites were an island of musical enquiry. After hearing music of our time, we realize Bach’s music is still every bit as contemporary and current as what is being composed today."