Bach and
The Aliens
Johann Sebastian Bach was writing, in essence, 20th Century Music in the 18th Century. Many of his later musical structures, especially the Musical Offering, are so quirky that they would be quite in place in a work of Stravinsky. For example, Cantata #21 has a weird duet between soprano and viola that uses sequences that Stockhausen would have been comfortable with.

How strange Bach's music must have sounded to the ears of the doughty parishioners, those who came into church merely to pay obeisance to their Lutheran god. It was a church sparsely attended by stuffy old Germans, and it was cold and drafty and hard-benched, and, like most European churches of the time, it smelled dreadfully of dead body --- for the recently dead were buried posthaste, without benefit of preservatives, at the sides and back of the church.

And there was Bach up at the front, with this full orchestra made up of the townspeople, and a wheezy organ, with its just barely off-key notes, and the kid, down below, working on the bellows --- and occasionally falling asleep, so that Papa Bach would have to motion to Herr Schmidt, the tenor, to go down below and roust him. Schmidt and the others had resigned themselves to this weird, complicated music, which they could barely make it through, with these chordal progressions that must have sounded to them like Toru Takemitsu does to me.

I suspect these essentially small town burgers were thinking, "Well, it's in the church, and he's the kapellmeister, so I guess it's OK." And what he was putting over on them was the most peculiar combination of instruments, strange unions of voice and organ and recorders and trumpets and violins --- such a randy choice of sound, that I'm sure gave them serious pause. "Well," they are saying, "I suppose Herr Bach knows what he is doing."

And little did they suspect what he was doing to their heads, what the fugal form was doing to their brains. The conscious mind can concentrate on only one voice or instrument at a time, so, all the while, Bach, the great trickster, was slipping several other musical lines over on them --- a baritone, a bass 'cello, or the lower pipes of the organ were carrying on a completely different sequence of melody and harmony, moving in and out in profound counterpoint with such richness that could lead even the Hun soul to tears.

I wrote to a friend of mine who is a student of the history of music, asking if he could tell me something about the roots of Bach --- where he came from, what his training had been, what background would lead him to the exquisite musings of "Ich Habe Genüg" or "The English Suites" or "The B-minor Mass" (being a Catholic Mass written and performed in a Lutheran Church!) My friend wrote back,

    In reality, Johann Sebastian Bach was an extra-terrestrial being from the planet Ixneria, whose spaceship happened to crash-land here around 1650. He obviously constructed a flawless cover story, inasmuch as all the standard biographies suggest nothing out of the ordinary, except a family background of third-rate musicians, and then a tiresome career-path of churches and aristocratic courts. But the aliens told me the real story when they abducted me, some years ago.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

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