In the vast tapestry of musical history, Johann Sebastian Bach stands as a towering figure, his compositions transcending time and instruments. His partitas for flute, suites for cello, and various other works based on dance forms of his era remain as enduring testaments to his genius. In my latest album, “Dance: Bach by Bornkamp,” released on GENUIN Classics in 2020, I delved into the intricate world of Bach’s solo works, exploring the unique alchemy that occurs when his timeless pieces are performed on the saxophone.
Bach’s music, a marvel in itself, possesses an inherent universality that allows it to seamlessly transition between different instruments. The Swingle Singers, with their groundbreaking interpretation of “The Art of Fugue” in the early 1960s, demonstrated how Bach’s compositions could undergo transformation without sacrificing their original brilliance. It was an awakening to the profound adaptability of Bach’s music, a realization that continues to resonate in contemporary renditions.
The “miracle of Bach and the saxophone” is a phenomenon I first encountered while collaborating with the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet on an arrangement of “The Art of Fugue.” The saxophone’s tonal richness and flexibility, coupled with its ability to navigate various registers swiftly, breathed new life into Bach’s intricate polyphony. This experience sparked a fascination that led me to explore further, attempting to extend this miracle to Bach’s works for solo melody instruments.
However, navigating the realm of solo works presented unique challenges and considerations. Special techniques, such as the use of multiphonics common in modern music, were not directly translatable to Bach’s compositions, particularly those for cello and violin. Yet, the saxophone’s vast tonal palette and agility proved to be valuable assets in exposing the inner polyphony, compensating for any inherent limitations in harmony.
Determining the boundaries of what is possible and acceptable in adaptation became a fascinating dilemma. While some solo works, especially those in minor keys, embraced the saxophone’s interpretative potential, others did not resonate with the instrument’s essence. It became a delicate balance, an exploration of artistic boundaries within the context of Bach’s musical universe.
Stylistic nuances played a pivotal role in shaping my interpretations. The puzzle of developing an authentic interpretation involved myriad choices related to phrasing, timbre, articulation, drive, and emotional content. These decisions, influenced by personal preferences and general musical conventions stemming from historical performance practice, contributed to the creation of a coherent and compelling narrative.
The choice of saxophone type emerged as another crucial element. Each member of the saxophone family possesses unique characteristics, and selecting the appropriate instrument was essential for capturing the essence of Bach’s compositions. The baritone saxophone, with its tonal range mirroring the cello, found its place in the second cello suite, while the soprano and alto saxophones were chosen to convey the mercurial character of the flute partita and the deep melancholy of the second violin partita, respectively.
The selection of key proved to be a nuanced decision, balancing Bach’s original proposals with practical considerations of pitch and range. While some pieces, like the Cello Suite No. 2, remained faithful to Bach’s key, adaptations were made for practicality in others, ensuring a seamless integration with the saxophone’s capabilities.
However, beyond the technical intricacies, my personal connection with Bach’s music became the driving force behind this exploration. The craftsmanship of Bach as a composer, his mastery of harmony, rhythm, melody, and form, had always commanded my admiration. Yet, it was the discovery of how I could intertwine my 21st-century musical ideas with Bach’s creations that truly ignited my fascination. I felt a sense of welcome from the composer himself, an invitation to breathe new life into his timeless works.
In conclusion, “Dance: Bach by Bornkamp” is more than a mere rendition of Bach’s compositions on the saxophone; it is a dialogue between centuries, a testament to the enduring power of musical expression. As a saxophonist, I embarked on a journey to unlock the latent potential within Bach’s solo works, and this album stands as the culmination of that artistic exploration. It is my hope that listeners will join me in this sonic adventure, discovering the beauty of Bach’s music through the lens of the saxophone and appreciating the intricate dance between tradition and innovation.