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On Monday, French guitarist Noël Akchoté will make his transcriptions of chorales from JS Bach’s St John Passion available for download via iTunes. Guitarists Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream also considered Bach one of their own, and have fretted about how best to make the grand contrapuntal designs of the Baroque master fit their instruments.
But Akchoté is a guitarist of a very different order. Immersed in free improvisation, free jazz and experimental rock, his collaborators have included one-time Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith and saxophonist Evan Parker, while in 1996 he recorded an admired album of duos with pioneering free improviser Derek Bailey.
This might leave us to speculate why this fearless sonic explorer might have chosen to swap avant-rock for the baroque. In truth Akchoté is riding the wave within experimental music-making circles for utilising the forms of Renaissance and Baroque music to generate new musical thinking.
Operating out of Stockholm, the 10-piece ensemble Skogen, masterminded by composer Magnus Granberg, has released Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long, a 60-minute soundscape pinned around the structures and rhythms of a song by 15th-century English composer John Dowland and brought to life by a hybrid group of new music players, improvisers and electronic musicians.
In 2013, Oxford-based jazz pianist and free improviser Alexander Hawkins unveiled his One Tree Found, a composition commissioned by BBC Radio 3 tailored towards improvisers that spins out of Bach’s mathematical procedures.
Granberg and Hawkins devour their source material, and their music could never be mistaken for faux-Baroque pastiche. Akchoté, in contrast, offers stylistically faithful transcriptions, the dry and flinty resonance of his electric guitar issuing an invitation for us to savour Bach’s familiar patterns with fresh ears.
The history of French jazz musicians reinterpreting Bach is not necessarily a happy one. Jacques Loussier’s louche Bach-with-a-backbeat now sounds as retro as a 1960s lava-lamp. And perhaps Akchoté is making amends. His St John Passion project follows his similarly meticulous love letters to the B Minor Mass, the Magnificat in D and to various Bach cantatas. Music by Hildegard of Bingen has also been overhauled on his guitar, and last year he released a disc of transcriptions for guitar ensemble of madrigals by late Renaissance Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo.
Clearly he is as devoted to music of the past as he is to carving out its future.
“Charlie Parker did not write his tunes out,” Akchoté says. “The way Parker played them would vary, some lines fixed while others changed. And if you look at Renaissance and Baroque music, there were ‘folias’, pre-composed structures around which musicians could build improvised variations. The division between composers and interpreters comes very late in music history and still I wonder what that distinction actually means for music.”
In the case of Skogen, any meaningful distinction between composition and improvisation evaporates in the listening. The accompanying material to an earlier Skogen album implied that the musicians were handed “pools” of material with suggestions for how it could be treated, but the group’s methods are kept deliberately, and perhaps strategically, vague. We’re not even told which Dowland song their latest album references. It is important, you feel, that the music retains an aura of historical distance. Dowland’s original structures have been stretched, chopped up and looped. Granular textures continually fold back into themselves; sounds lurk in the shadows like Orson Welles. And yet the essence of Dowland — that trademark melancholia — has left its unmistakable imprint.
When I interviewed Harrison Birtwistle in 2012, he explained his own attraction to John Dowland: “There’s a lyrical expression in Dowland that isn’t like anything else in music,” he said, “and it shows itself again in Henry Purcell, then disappears.”
And could part of the reason why improvisers find themselves fixating on early music be that, like their own art, the music of the Renaissance lies outside everyday experience? Vivaldi and Mozart have become part of the corporate wallpaper, but improvisers find themselves instinctively drawn towards music that is not fully present, that is in the process of disappearing.
The enigmatic Gesualdo — famous as much for the peculiarly gruesome murders of his wife and her lover in 1590 as for the inscrutable harmonic chess moves that defied the musical norms of his time — was an Italian prince whose status meant, Akchoté tells me, that he could not fulfil his ambitions to become a dedicated musician: “Therefore he wrote for himself and his compositions are a secret diary . . . that did not have to pass the social censors who would have forced him into more acceptable dressings. Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus applied exactly the same attitude to their material; they refused to make their music acceptable.”
Trail-blazing composers such as Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and Michael Finnissy grew up alongside the emergence of the British Early Music boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and this idea of outsider musical spirits shaking hands across many centuries becomes a recurring trope.
As conductors Christopher Hogwood of the Academy of Ancient Music, Trevor Pinnock and John Eliot Gardiner attempted to take music by Bach, Purcell and Handel back to source — posing basic questions about how the music is notated, which instruments ought to play it and how they ought to be tuned — composers were likewise trying to define what notation could be to them.
Looking back 40 years, Pinnock agrees that early and contemporary musicians have indeed been fellow travellers. “Generally in old music there is very little prescription of what to do,” he explains. “So you need to become obsessed with musical language, style, gesture and inflection to define what a score is. Then you can begin to get to the heart of the music — and I would imagine that composers feel the same way.
“When you play old music on period instruments, you’re forced to listen differently. We were motivated to find new sounds — the time had come to move music forwards.”