Constraint: a lesson from Bach

I’m blown away by Chopin. Anyone who knows me well knows that nothing else flies when there’s someone playing classical piano around me. (It sometimes takes me ages to walk through St. Pancras Station).

Chopin was a master, but Bach was something else. And there’s so much to learn from him.

Johan Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Bach moved music, not just in his time, but for all time. Even Nina Simone credits Bach as having inspired her.

He wasn’t a celebrity. Bach’s day job was just to write music each week for his church, and teach some students. But he didn’t just churn out the same old stuff each time to collect his paycheque — he created masterpieces.

In a Spotify-world, we lose the context.

Consider that he had no software, no photocopier, no recording equipment — the music lasted only as long as someone played the original sheet. That’s more than special.

By the time he was 10 years old, he was an orphan. Out of his 20 children, only 10 outlived him. He spent many years alone after his wife died.

Bach lived in a world of impermanence, but he thrived. But there’s a reason…

I came across some essays by Prof. Bernard Chazelle, also a huge Bach fan:

So here’s Newton, who invented the calculus. And so, you can ask, why? He did because he wanted to do physics. And so you can ask, well, why did he want to do physics? Now, today, if you ask that question to a physicist, they’ll say, well, because that’s what I do. I like physics. I do physics because I like physics. Physics are important. And that’ll be the end of the story.
But that’s not the way it worked. Newton did physics in order to do astronomy. Why did he did do astronomy? He did astronomy not because he was interested in the stars, because he wanted to date Biblical text and ancient classical text (and he realized the Greeks got their astronomy wrong)

Bach didn’t care if the music survived his death, he didn’t care who played it — he did it for a much deeper reason — to him exploring and discovering the musical themes reflected a universal truth to him about the glory of God and the structure of emotion.

So much so, he didn’t sign his pieces JSB (his initials) but SDG — Soli Deo Gloria, only for the glory of God. He lived on a different planet. It wasn’t about him in the slightest.

If you think about it, the piano is the mother of restrictions — you’re stuck with 7 tones, repeated in different registers, all pretty much making the same sound — the creativity is in embracing those and bringing out beauty from them.

No one understood this more than Bach.

How incredible is it to exercise that freedom under such constraint?

Bach teaches us that we have freedoms that we don’t even consider — and that within constraint we can create entire worlds of beauty.

In life, we can own or get owned. We can live, or let life get in the way. 
Bach was just doing what he was good at, but in the most awesome way.

I’m writing this with Passover in mind, when Jews like me pay attention to what freedom means. It’s often not about pushing boundaries, but appreciating them.

I just finished reading Nobel Prize Winner, Frank Wilczek’s book, Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design who thinks along these lines. Highly recommended.

Different level to Bach — but this is Nobuyuki Tsujii playing Liszt. 
…oh yeah, he’s blind. Think about that.