Basics about “Back to Bach” — Eudaimonia performance on Friday, May 12

Music fans come in all shapes and sizes and also come with a wide range of experience and knowledge. Fans of popular music may never have made a connection between Bach and the Beatles, but if you connect the musical dots (or notes!), you’ll see how much of an influence the masterful genius of Bach has been used by Paul McCartney on his beloved song “Blackbird.” You’d probably not be surprised to hear that conductor and composer John Williams used his classical expertise when he composed film scores for movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” What about jazz music? You can add Dave Brubeck as yet another legendary contemporary musician who implemented baroque music into his own experimental jazz songs.

Eudaimonia, the Purposeful Period Band, out of Boston is lucky enough to have Julia McKenzie as its co-director (along with Vivian Montgomery) and she created a special concert program that is entertaining as well as educational. McKenzie tells us about how she created this evening of music and her thoughts about how the influence of baroque music lives and plays on.

“Back to Bach: Baroque Music Swinging Into Modern Times” presented and played by Eudaimonia will take place at the First Church Parish in Cambridge, MA on Friday, May 12 at 8:00 pm. More information and ticket links can be found on the band’s website.

Julia McKenzie was gracious enough to provide some fascinating tidbits about some of the special pieces being played at the concert.

I understand that you have been deeply involved with the premise, production, and execution of Eudaimonia’s “Back to Bach” program.  Can you pinpoint the moment when you came up with the concept?

I’m always interested in how music has been passed down over the centuries, and this program focuses on how Baroque music has been used in the fusion genres of the mid-20th century by “baroque-jazz” or third-stream musicians, and “baroque-pop or baroque-rock” groups of the 1960s and ’70s. Since several of us in Eudaimonia play both period and modern instruments, and like to cross over into non-classical genres, the idea came to me to juxtapose the older music with the newer. I love hearing how subtly and cleverly baroque musical devices have been re-worked into contemporary music.  

For those of us who are not schooled in music theory, the baroque influences on contemporary music may not necessarily jump out at us as we casually listen to various pieces.  To your ear, however, might I assume that baroque-isms are hard to miss?

It’s been great fun thinking about how to describe the musical devices adopted by later musicians to an audience who might be interested in learning what specific techniques have been used, or why something sounds familiar, or why they like it! For instance, a common device used in the baroque period that was taken up by jazz and rock musicians is a repeating bassline and/or repeating chord structure that gives the listener a sense of familiarity and comfort while listening, from the expectation set up by the repetition. Another musical device used is borrowing a short melodic or rhythmic motive from a previous piece and quoting it in a new setting, again in repetition so that the ear is entertained when the motive is recognized each time it appears. It’s so much fun to hear a riff or bass pattern or harmonic progression that sounds familiar somehow, and to learn that it was first used 300 years ago! 

This “Back to Bach” programs is broken down into several different categories. Let me ask you about a couple that struck my fancy.  Bluesy Baroque.  How do you describe that sound by juxtaposing Henry Purcell and Paul Desmond’s treatment of “Music For A While”?

The way Paul Desmond composed new music over the dramatic and suspenseful rising bassline Purcell wrote —composed as incidental music in 1692 to represent raising King Laius from the dead in the Dryden play “Oedipus”—is beautifully done, first with a new melody for a solo cello, then bluesy alto-sax riffs imitating Purcell’s motives. It’s great fun to hear our own Diane Heffner on alto sax beautifully expressing Desmond’s elegant style. This juxtaposition of pieces shows how much Desmond loved Purcell’s music, enough to adapt it so tastefully and reverentially. 

You’ve highlighted French Baroque in the part of the program that has to do with film scores in the 20th century. John Williams implemented his interpretation of baroque into the soundtrack for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Why do you suppose that baroque music fit into the tone of that film?

In this case, William’s music has been paired with the music of Rebel’s “Le Chaos” from Les Élémens of 1737 to reflect how the same musical devices serve to create a feeling of suspense, and to represent the vastness, mystery, terror, and wonder of space. The specific devices of dissonant cluster chords, tremolo in the strings, high-pitched winds, and the building up of dynamics to finally reach a wonderful sense of resolution and understanding—in the case of Rebel, the coalescing of the elements earth, wind, fire, air, and water, and in Williams/Spielberg’s case, successful communication with aliens! The similarities of these works were too hard to resist pairing them. It’s a good example of how music (in the Western world) has taken on a certain vocabulary and meaning that is universal…and in this case multiversal! 

How do you see baroque music influencing jazz? 

Jazz is improvisation, and the musicians of past eras always improvised on scores. Whether it’s a melodic phrase, a rhythmic pattern, or a harmonic progression, humans in any culture are inclined to create a groove by applying repetition, varying, altering, adapting sounds for musical delight and communication through this art form. While the earliest “jazz” musicians in this country imitated rhythms from their native countries and sang melodies to create music that became known as “ragtime” and “blues,” which then evolved into what we now call “jazz,” musicians throughout the 20th century began adding musical devices learned from their own aural cultures and musical training, which included European “classical” music. Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck are great examples of musicians who adopted the musical culture of Black musicians and blended their own classical backgrounds to contribute to the third-stream genre of their time—and in my opinion, did so with respect, taste, and reverence to the past musicians they loved and learned from.

I love the notion of baroque pop. Can you try to explain how this works in “Blackbird” by Lennon and McCartney and Paul Simon’s “American Tune”–both of which you arranged.

Paul McCartney has said that his bassline for “Blackbird” (the name, by the way—which he borrowed from Nina Simone’s song “Blackbird” written 5 years before— represents Black women during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s) was inspired by a Bach gavotte! Again, drawing on his aural culture and beginner guitar lessons which included a few classical pieces, the way that Paul Simon did when coming up with a melody and chord structure for “American Tune” after Bach’s (really Hans Leo Hassler’s melody from 1601 that Bach borrowed!) Likewise, Gary Brooker of Procol Harem—whose bassline for “Whiter Shade of Pale” borrows a bassline from Bach— says it best: “I wasn’t consciously combining rock with classical, it’s just that Bach’s music was in me.”