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If classical music is a marginalised artform, than what of its most demanding component, chamber music, austere, difficult, technical, as a small group of players indulge in an intellectual rite so private, we the audience feel like voyeurs. But what then further of chamber music stripped to a single instrument, denied even the interplay of other instruments and players, left with nothing but itself, solitary, anguished?
Bach composed a lot of music for solo instruments (most noticeably the Goldberg Variations, on which director Girard based his 32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD), much of it formal exercises for mastering the particular instrument, but his Cello Suites are something else, so hermetic and unyielding, manipulating the profound lugubriousness of the featured instrument, sounding like a stifled moan from the grave. They are the loneliest sound in the world, as technically perfect and helpless as a Borges short story, verging on the unlistenable: you will not hear them advertising Old Spice.
Yo-Yo Ma in this series tries the impossible, to release that moan, to set the suites free, bring them out of the chamber into the open, into life. In each of these six programmes, he tries to ally a suite with a different art-form, such as gardening or dance, to show that these are not forbidding abstractions, but can connect, be made tangible, ours.
In the programme I saw last night, The Silence of the Carceri, he links the Second Suite of with architecture, arguing the similarities of the art-form in terms of realising blue-prints and utilising space. On one level, it becomes a fascinating discussion of acoustics, about how music exists in space, the conditions in which we recieve it, the possible distortions of 'bad' space, and other questions that verge on the ontological.
In particular, the major architect is Piranesi, the great 18th century engraver, whose pictures of ancient and modern Roman buildings have a very Gothic brooding that seems alien to Bach's pure Protestant art. The thing about Piranesi is, only one of his blueprints were ever built, so, using computer graphics his Carceri, a model prison, is stunningly recreated by computer graphics, as Yo-Yo plays serenely in a vast, decaying, otherworldly prison, seemingly boundless, but actually labyrinthine in its possibilities.
This idea of a vast architectural space that exists only in the realm of ideas is of course similar to music, whose realisation is never concrete, but especially Bach, whose structures are profoundly architectural. 'Experts' are trotted out to explain the sense of entrapment in Bach's suites, similar to the Carceri, and the Kafkaesque journeys they both suggest, but this is literalising what we probably already feel.
AA Gill dismissed this series, decrying its repressive pretentiousness, but this is surely the fun, as we watch Yo-Yo and his sound engineer turning problems over 'reverb' into metaphysical crises, or the repeated, unjustified invocation of abstracts - time, memory etc. But even if you resist the intellectual tightrope-walking, or even the staggering recreations (there is one hilariously sceptical architect who politely rubbishes the whole project), there is always Bach, fiddling while we burn.
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