Electronic (De)Composer Damian Catera Rocks Bach

Electroacoustic "decomposer" Damian Catera offers a new take on Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier(Photo: Wan Dor)
Electroacoustic "decomposer" Damian Catera offers a new take on Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier(Photo: Wan Dor)

Just for a moment, imagine some of Bach’s harpsichord music, maybe an upbeat prelude or fugue from his Well-Tempered Clavier. Hear the soft yet steely twang of he harpsichord as it weaves a tapestry of never-ending melodies.

Now, take a listen to electroacoustic composer Damian Catera‘s take on Bach in a promo featuring selections from his new recording, Bach: The Well Tempered Clavier Book I:

Catera, a self-described sound-artist, for the last decade has been writing computer randomization algorithms that take apart sounds and reassemble them into what he calls electroacoustic “decompositions.” Now he has turned his attention to the world of classical music and has reinterpreted Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in a new recording, Bach: The Well Tempered Clavier Book I, released on Catera’s Praxis Classics label.

Catera’s exploration of classical music is something of a departure from the earliest days of his career as a sound-artist. At that time, he gravitated largely towards non-musical and thoroughly random source material, including some gathered in real time from broadcasts on live radios he used in performances and sound installations. He says it was a “happy accident” when, a decade ago, a bit of opera emerged from one of the live radios he played during a performance at the White Box gallery, then in Manhattan’s Chelsea art district. Catera ran the opera snippet through one of his algorithms and was so pleased with the resulting sound that he has continued to use  classical music as source material for his work.

Catera’s exploration of Bach’s music began in 2006, when he was invited to contribute a sound installation to an exhibition on the theme of knots. Bach’s music, and in particular the fugues of his Well-Tempered Clavier, proved a fertile field for his work.

“When I began considering the formal and conceptual dimensions of a knot and how that was represented sonically, I started to think about fugue form and how it represented this economy of material where the (two principal themes in a fugue) were unraveled and woven into a new fabric,” Catera said.

While the wired edginess of Catera’s Well Tempered Clavier Book I may seem a far, even anarchistic cry from the tweedy hues of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the concept of Catera’s recording is in keeping with the tradition of reworkings of Bach’s music that encompasses any number of styles in the art music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Leopold Stokowski’s full-cream orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s organ works are some of the more famous examples of this phenomenon, while the synthesized interpretations of Bach’s music in Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach gave the Baroque a 1960s facelift. More recently, pianist Lara Downes’ 2011 recording, 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, with variations composed by present-day composers on the famous Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, stands as a sort of Readers’ Digest example of modernism’s various responses to Bach’s work. And so prevalent is Bach’s music in the contemporary mindset that a 2010 story in Britain’s Guardian pinpointed it as favorite source material for what the author called today’s “remix culture.”

That Catera wasn’t the first to rethink Bach’s music in light of the here and now doesn’t make his Well Tempered Clavier Book I derivative. The recording is a radical refashioning of Bach’s music, so much so that aside from the harpsichord twinges that occasionally leak through the wall of electric sound in Catera’s work, the actual keyboard pieces of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are unrecognizable as such. According to Catera, who says he wants this recording to commence “a dialogue” with the mainstream classical music audience, that’s precisely the point.

“What I’m saying is that we could look at things and experience things differently,” Catera said.

By looking at things – namely, music – “differently,” Catera means viewing music through the chaos-based lens of random operations that, in the twentieth century, yielded ”chance” music, and freeing it from the control-based paradigms of the hierarchical political power structures of earlier eras; he means viewing music as the terrain for joining seemingly opposing elements into mediums for truly revolutionary – à la Hegel and Marx – messages and employing music, long an expression of hierarchical power structures, specifically to critique those power structures. In this sense, Catera’s Well Tempered Clavier is less a commentary on Bach’s music and more a pointed suggestion to re-envision and reorganize society. Musically speaking, Catera isn’t suggesting we throw out the baby with the bath, but instead that we re-imagine art music as a reflection of the state of a (post-)postmodern world.

“I look at (classical music) not so much as a dead art form, but something that is open to a new mode of interpretation, (to) introducing disparate ideas and disparate approaches to things and bringing them dialectically together as a way to sort of breathe vitality into a form,” Catera said.

Still, though the world of sound is both Catera’s paints and his canvas, he says he aims with his sound-art, including Bach: Well Tempered Clavier Book I, to encourage listeners to explore their experiences of and roles in the world around them.

“I look at culture, and music specifically, as sort of one component of our overall existence. But it’s an important one because it allows people to potentially critically engage their reality,” Catera said. “And I think the role as an artist as sort of a model of critical thought and a model of transformation is what is at play here.”

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