During my time teaching guitar at the Ottawa Folklore Centre I met lots and lots of great musicians, many of which spent some time teaching down there in the basement with me. One of these was a guy named Chris Bartos, a curious individual with an extreme knack for effortlessly switching between his three loves – bluegrass, jazz, and heavy metal – on any number of instruments, including (but not limited to) violin, piano, ‘cello, pedal steel, banjo, or his main squeeze: guitar.
I went over to Chris’ place one day with $25 in one hand and my guitar in the other, ready to spend an hour soaking up as much of his secret, hard-won info as I could. At the time he was renting a room in the student district of Ottawa that held nothing more than a music stand, a couple of chairs, and a mattress in the corner. I was suitably impressed, aware as I was that the quality of a one’s musical abilities was pretty much always in inverse ratio to the quality of one’s housing.
I sat down ready to have my brain and fingers pummelled into submission in some sort of intensely theoretical guitar lesson but instead Chris merely reached into his guitar case and pulled out a book. He handed me a worn copy of Bach’s violin partitas and said “This is pretty much all I’m doing.”
He went on to convince me that Bach was a musical genius and that lines absorbed from his perfect work could fit smoothly into any genre of music, regardless of the instrument in hand. He also suggested that the violin partitas were a great place for a guitar player to start, given that the violin and the guitar have nearly the same sonic range.
“Allrighty then,” I shrugged. I gave Chris the $25 and took his book to Staples where I photocopied the whole thing (Bach didn’t need the royalties) before racing home to get started.
And that’s how I came to fall in love with Johnny Sebby Bach. I am currently convinced that his music proves the existence of either God or aliens, for he can only have been one or the other. All of his music is absolutely perfect; every single note fits seamlessly into his own puzzle-like game of logic whilst somehow achieving simultaneous sonic immaculation. And not just on the first listen. I can tell you from plenty of personal experience that even after playing one of his pieces thousands upon thousands of times over the course of decades I still get gobsmacked by how the lines take on new personality with just the subtlest variation of phrasing. I mean, sometimes I can’t do anything but just stop playing and laugh, with my head shaking in wonder.
It’s astounding, and those moments of joy that I experience when I tweak some new meaning out of one of his phrases can’t be replicated in any other way. It’s a feeling that is unique and one I would never know if I didn’t play music.
But in the hands of The Master the music can be too good to hear. Honestly, I’ve only listened to Glenn Gould play Bach a very few handful of times – my musical soul truly can’t bear the separation of the voices when the music is performed that well. I really can’t imagine how Gould played that stuff. Aside from the technical and emotion prowess, I just can’t see how he could bear being that close to music so perfect. It would be like staring into the face of God. Or an alien. (Or both?)
And to think, Bach did all of this and had twenty children besides.
Anyway, this is all preamble so you would have an idea how fortunate I was to have witnessed Canada’s more recent Bach god(dess) Angela Hewitt performing an all-Bach program on solo piano at the Dominion-Chalmers Church on March 11th, 2020. Extra-fortunate I suppose, given that a) I won the tickets, marking the first (and thus far, only) thing I ever won after buying one of those children’s hospital $100 home lottery tickets for about fourteen years straight, and b) the concert just happened to fall on a date when I was going to be in Ottawa working the Blues In The Schools program.
(And c) I didn’t get covid-19 at the show. At least I don’t think I did. So yeah, pretty lucky.)
Angela Hewitt was on her eleventh out of twelve tours which together would see her play the entirety of Bach’s keyboard works, an astounding feat no matter how you looked at it. As such, this concert featured plenty of obscure stuff, including a string of extremely short motifs that Bach wrote for his students and/or children (Eighteen Little Preludes) as well as more ambitious works like the French Overture in B minor and the Italian Concerto in F Major, two pieces which took up the whole of the second set. And she played it all by memory – not a sheet of music in sight.
Of course the music was divine (as Bach’s music is by definition) and while Hewitt’s playing was off-the-hook good, she was mercifully not as adept at separating the lines as Glenn Gould was, otherwise I might have had to leave. Go ahead, give him a listen (I can’t, doing so makes me giggle like a cashew in a nuthouse); that’s one brain doing all that. Well, two I guess.
Thanks Chris. Possibly the best $25 I ever spent.
(Come to think of it, in that same lesson Chris drew me up a color-tone chart that was basically just a grid of harmonies, but I became so absorbed in the whole Bach thing that I never ever worked on it, not once. Curiously, both the grid and the concept behind it were so simple I think I still remember how to draw it up and what to do with it, and maybe that is how I will be spending the rest of the day. Or year.)