John Zorn
John Cage
J-S Bach


Of the Critics

[1] In 'Zugänge. Gerd Zacher's Festival Die Kunst einer Fuge', Richard Hauser compares the project with Glenn Gould's recording of The Art of Fugue. Both are innovative and controversial and for that reason they are met with opposition. 'With depreciation, if not with ostentatious disapproval, Gerd Zacher's Die Kunst einer Fuge, Johann Sebastian Bachs 'Contrapunctus I' in ten interpretations, is received. Gone is the devout shiver for what the maestro wrote last' (Hauser, p.116, my translation). There is ignorance. Five of the ten interpretations are released on an album (LPR) by a label that otherwise only produces entertainment music. Utterly inappropriately, the record is sold as 'psychedelic'. (According to Zacher, his project falls between two categories at a major record company. What exactly is this, baroque music (Bach) or avant-garde (the influence of current composers)?) There is protest. Hauser reports threats of withholding (financial) support and a ban to perform at certain venues.
Is it this bad? Zacher denies it. Other pieces that he has played met with greater resistance. He also receives quite a few positive reviews. But there is certainly opposition, still in the years after the first performance in 1968. A quote from the January 18, 1971 Heidelberger Tageblatt: 'Thanks to the 'Institute for Church Music' (Kirchenmusikalischen Institut) and the Church of the Holy Spirit (Heiliggeistkirche) something curious was offered; something curious that one should know in order to immunize oneself for future modernisms of this kind'. Zacher claims to expose the structure of 'Contrapunctus I'; instead, he confronts the listeners with his own personal taste in an objectionable manner, according to the journalist (my translation).
What is the problem? It looks like Zacher's project exceeds a convention within the music world, a convention that involves the interpretation of another's work. People in the music world believe that Zacher's performances of Bach's 'Contrapunctus I' go way too far. Desecration. Blasphemy. Ethically unacceptable. Hauser arrives at a similar observation: 'Zacher's interpretation comes up against a border of what is called the official music business' (Hauser, p.117, my translation). (In Art and the Aesthetic (p.105), American philosopher George Dickie writes: 'We are not prevented from interacting with works of art by psychological forces within us, rather we are barred from interaction with many or most works by conventions governing particular situations'.)

[2] Zacher reacts against a dominant discourse of musicians, musicologists (the academic culture), and the press (media). (In a concert program, Juan Allende-Blin writes about the opposition Zacher faced when he was appointed cantor and organist in Hamburg in 1957. During the services, Zacher plays a lot of 20th century music and works by Jewish composers. However, the musical institutional environment (specifically 'Die Deutsche Orgelbewegung', 'The German Organ Movement') is still preoccupied with a racist and reactionary state of mind, stemming from the Second World War. A few proponents of this movement campaigned against Zacher because he engages himself in a kind of music that is still entartet ('degenerate') to them. In addition, a dean described Zacher's choice of repertoire as a revolt against God, rather than a song of praise, a 'musica diabolica' rather than a 'musica sacra'.) Zacher haunts the dominant discourse, a discourse that is always haunted by what it excludes, fights, or tries to suppress. In that sense, Zacher may be regarded as a specter. And ghosts are often met with fear and (therefore) with hostility. Attempts will be made to conjure (away) the ghost who risks coming back. But how to denounce or exorcise this specter (a specter with many spirits: those of Adorno, Neruda, Schnebel, Brahms, etc.)? How to chase it away? Preferably not by some counter-magic, but by means of critical analysis. According to his critics, Zacher does not understand Bach as well as other interpreters understand him. Representatives of the latter (who are equally persecuted by the shadow of that great specter who keeps coming back) are busy teaching him a lesson here. Zacher is an unworthy heir with no understanding of the essentials of Bach's (last) will and testament. He has not read Die Kunst der Fuge very well. That would be the most effective denunciation, one that would be based on an analysis of 'Contrapunctus I', leading to statements about a correct interpretation, to a standard that could be used to establish that 'wrong' interpretations might be excluded. (One may wonder whether this dominant discourse, this discourse of domination, is governed by an actuality of the correct interpretation (presence), or by an ideality (absence), the pursuit of an interpretation 'in the spirit of Bach'.) But these people seem to want to hide from the potential - capacity and possibility - of what may be called the spirit of music: heterogeneity, the possibility of multiple interpretations. The conjuration appears to be fragile. It is based on a fundamental arbitrariness. Or on power.
There is also something paradoxical in this pursuit. It is precisely in the attempt to chase away this specter, in the denunciation of Zacher, that he gets attention, that he is presented. A convocation of the specter that one wants to conjure away. 'One chases someone away, kicks him out of the door, excludes him, or drives him away. But it is in order to chase after him, seduce him, reach him and thus keep him close at hand' (Specters, p.140).

[3] For the most part, the conventional interpretation praxis of music seems to take its lead from a certain respect for the (intention of the) composer or the score. One can only honor Bach by imitating him as accurately as possible. In Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas, a Festschrift, a homage or commemorative work, Derrida throws a different light on this assumption. In his contribution, entitled 'At This Very Moment In This Work Here I Am', he responds to the ethical appeal of Levinas' texts. According to Levinas, the ethical work must be given in radical generosity. The work must be sent out from the same to the other without ever returning to the same. In order for this to happen, the other must receive the work ungratefully because the movement of gratitude returns to the same (philanthropy). Thus, according to Derrida's reading, the work of Levinas works by generously departing from the proper name and signature of Emmanuel Levinas towards the other. Levinas' work is possessed by a dehiscence, where the work bursts open and goes to the other without returning.
So when Derrida wants to honor Levinas, he must adjust his text in such a way that it does not return to the same (Levinas), but instead goes to the other. He has to be ungrateful. (But this is not an ingratitude that still belongs to the circle of acknowledgment and reciprocity.) How? By writing a faulty text. (Faulty. But not in the conventional sense. No deliberate mistakes. 'Faulty' by writing otherwise. Against the grain.) Yet, it should be clear that the ingratitude and faultiness are not directed against Levinas; there is no external critique. They are the necessary conditions for being loyal to Levinas' work. In order to maintain the ethical moment, Derrida must commit an act of ungratefulness against Levinas' work. He must show how the work does not work (cf. At This Very Moment, p.13-18. cf. Critchley, p.108-18).
Something similar is happening in Zacher's project. In other words, I am suggesting an analogy here between the tandems, Derrida-Levinas and Zacher-Bach. This is articulated in the two moments of reading that are at work in Die Kunst einer Fuge. The first moment is a repetition of Bach's text, an interpretation that tries to say the same as Bach: 'Quatuor'. In fact, this is ultimately returning the text to its author. But it also (already) shows how Bach's text generously goes to the other; it shows that already a certain unboundness and heterogeneity is taking place here ('although still at home, he is already on his way'). The most obvious example is probably that several musical parameters have not been prescribed in the score. The fundamental openness of the text can be heard in each interpretation. (Is it through the act of repetition of the same that one gains access to the other?) The second moment (in fact, they are nine different moments) is the ingratitude that is required to maintain the alterity of the first moment; it says something different. It shows how Bach's work does not work. The transition from the first to the second reading is obvious. It is marked by a shift in dedication. In the double sense of the word. As devotion and as a token of esteem. Zacher calls the others, asking them to help or inspire him.
Polylogue. Multiphony. Other languages come in to disturb the first one. They haunt it. They dislodge the language of mere translation (cf. Levinson in Of Interpretation) . An interrogation of the link between musical difference - the other as other musical language or composing procedure - and interpretative difference. In these nine other interpretations nothing is rendered to Bach. An other music? The contribution of the other composers constitutes a surfeit of un-heard alterity, the other to all the different conventional interpretations. The other is inscribed within the empire of the same. Through these composers, Zacher reads Bach's text beyond the dominant interpretation. He commits faults, he lets some errors slip by, he fails to read as he should. The second moment is a faulty violence that leaves some flaws in the work. This is not accidental  but essential to the ethical event of the text. The violence is not directed against Bach, but a possibility always already at work in Bach's composition. ('Bach acquired the habit of always keeping his composition open to all kinds of interchange. This lends both flexibility and resilience to his music'.) It is not violence in the strict sense of the word. (For example, nothing is added to or subtracted from the text. The question can be posed if we can speak of 'violence' at all here. Maybe it is only violent from a conventional or non-deconstructive perspective.) It is not a passage beyond Bach's language; it interrupts within the 'original' language; it interrupts from within that language.
Zacher's critics seem to have an ethical concern rather than aesthetical (an ethical problem that is countered with aesthetical arguments). Die Kunst einer Fuge is not stating the contrary of Bach's work, rather, in honoring it, it evokes the other; the risk of contamination must be regularly accepted. It is the possibility of the fault - which is not a fault in the ordinary sense - that is fascinating. Die Kunst einer Fuge is about responsibility, the ability to respond to the call of the other. To pay attention to the other, to the non-articulated and the non-thematized in the dominant discourse. The ethics of deconstruction. In music. Through music. An other music?