Update: Please stay tuned for a new, expanded Bach 36 Project, coming in 2017.
The Bach 36 Project–a series of video recordings of all 36 movements from the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J. S. Bach, recorded one per day over 36 consecutive days–took place between June 13 and July 18, 2011.
The idea for the Bach 36 Project first came to me after I’d achieved a few major milestones in my life: getting married; turning 30; landing my first tenure-track teaching job at the University of Idaho. I’d started playing Bach’s solo cello suites more than twenty years previously (I think the first movement I learned was the Gigue from Suite No. 1 in G major) and had lived with them almost as long as I’d lived with the cello. I’d always wanted to record them, but felt that this sublime, elevated music was somehow beyond the capacities of a youngish human being, and that I should wait until I was much, much older, and presumably a bit wiser before I dared to approach it. There were other factors: my lack of a really good cello, not to mention the funds to hire a recording engineer, and so on. But for whatever reason, having reached this significant point in my life–only a few years younger, after all, than Bach himself when he wrote the Suites–I wanted to take a snapshot of how I played Bach at this precise moment in time. It didn’t have to be perfect. It didn’t have to be in a concert hall (in fact, I did the entire thing in my office at the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton School of Music). It could be done on my faithful old not-very-good cello. It didn’t have to be recorded in studio conditions, and there would probably be background noises from passing cars and the loud chorus of birds that gathers outside my window in the mornings. It just had to get done, to prove a point to myself. What point? That I could, I suppose.
The main rules of this project were that I had to make a video recording of one movement of Bach’s Six Suites every day for 36 consecutive days, post it on my YouTube channel, and blog about it. The only reason for skipping a day would be illness or a family emergency. None of the recordings could be edited. I was allowed only three takes, and if I wasn’t satisfied with any of them, I’d just have to pick the best one.
A secondary rule I made for myself was that I had to play from Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy of the Suites. I’ve been privileged to study with many wonderful teachers, all of whom had strong ideas about Bach interpretation and a favourite edition: Enrico Mainardi, Diran Alexanian, Pierre Fournier, and so on. While I love and respect my teachers and learned tremendous amounts from them, I wanted to strip the layers of editorial tradition away from my playing of the Bach suites and to relearn them from the source closest to Bach–his second wife, Anna Magdalena. Where discrepancies existed between Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript and the three other eighteenth-century sources (the Johann Peter Kellner manuscript and the manuscripts of two anonymous copyists from later in the century), I went with what Frau Bach wrote in most cases. Wherever possible, I resolved to do her bowings as marked (bowings which I believe were not added capriciously or arbitrarily), except when to do so would be slavishly pedantic, or unduly awkward, or disruptive to the phrasing. Where the markings were ambiguous or hard to understand, I referred to the scholarly Breitkopf edition by Kirsten Beisswenger.
To prepare for this project, I did a “practice run” in April and May 2011, where for 36 days I made audio recordings of all 36 movements of the suites, starting at the end (the D major Gigue) and working backwards through the movements to the beginning (the G major Prelude). Using what I learned from the practice project, I developed a practice schedule for the Bach 36 Project that I hoped would help me pace myself and cover all the movements from the later suites well in advance of having to record them. On the day I recorded the Prelude from Suite No. 1, for example, I also prepared the Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande, since I was going to be recording them over the next three days, and at the same time, I worked on the Gigue from Suite No. 6. The next day, I recorded the Allemande, and worked on the Courante, Sarabande, and Menuets from Suite No. 1, and the Gavottes from Suite No. 6, and so on. That way I was able to work backwards as well as forwards.
The 36 Days
SUITE NO. 1 IN G MAJOR, BWV 1007
SUITE NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1008
SUITE NO. 3 IN C MAJOR, BWV 1009
SUITE NO. 4 IN E FLAT MAJOR, BWV 1010
SUITE NO. 5 IN C MINOR, BWV 1011
SUITE NO. 6 IN D MAJOR, BWV 1012
Note: the videos linked to in the posts are no longer on my public YouTube channel.