Who Is Dead and Who Is Not Dead

RECEIVED Fri., July 9, 2010

Dear Editor,
    In "Letters at 3AM: Dead and Alive on the Fourth of July" [July 2] Michael Ventura pits well-known cultural figures and institutions against one another. Within pairings of his choosing he draws sharp distinctions between his selections and tags each with a "dead" or "not dead" label. It's clear enough that by "dead" he means "culturally irrelevant." What's less clear, and what I keep wondering is: dead to whom?
    "Johann Sebastian Bach is dead," Ventura tells us, "Duke Ellington is not. The order Bach imposed upon sound is stunning, but it ain't the way the world works. Ellington's miscegenation of harmony, melody, and rhythm is the world we experience."
    The order Duke Ellington imposed on sound is also pretty stunning, as is Bach's miscegenation of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Contrary to what may be the general present-day impression, the referencing and interbreeding of disparate musical sources did not begin with Ellington or with Bach. This referential quality may seem more apparent in Ellington than in Bach only because the 20th century master's references, which include Bach, are more completely our own. It's also worth noting that, though popular during his lifetime, Bach's music fell out of favor during the 19th century and was only revived during the later half of the 20th century.
    To hear only the structural mastery in Bach, formidable as it is, is to miss entirely the complex emotional and psychological content of his music. The fugue may no longer be fashionable, and it may never be again, but pathos and ecstasy are timeless.
    Check out the "Gavotte" from Bach's Suite No. 6 for Solo Cello, in the unsurpassed recording by Pierre Fournier. Here is rhythmically, harmonically unorthodox music with folk roots foreign to Bach's Germany (the gavotte originated as a French folk dance) that also in places seems to look ahead to bluegrass. This spunky, defiantly liberated music is but one example of Bach's extraordinary depth and range.
    In all due respect to Aristotle, art is more than an imitation. Though it almost invariably mimics "how the world works" – how can it not? – it cannot be bound to that. The most profound art is more than a reflection of the everyday reality Ventura prizes; it is an act of the human imagination. It is a vision which strives toward the greatest heights to which the human spirit is capable of soaring.
Michael Obershan
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle