Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the 6th suite, playing it as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002 (which he was curating).

As I now adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the 6th suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp.

The 6th suite, of course [sic—Ed.], was written for a five-string cello, but—in the current spirit of austerity—I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan music), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take a false exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.


For wiser words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis.

Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban 散板 in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim, or the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term free-tempo isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a underlying pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist track 7, from Plucking the Winds, CD track 14; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.

Don’t miss Aretha’s extraordinary alap to Amazing Grace!

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