Listening to Bach on the subway

I’m getting on the subway to work. I’m raw from lack of sleep the night before, numb from not having had my coffee yet. Thank you, God, for giving us the iPod to insulate us from screeching wheels and mumbling passengers.

I consider shuffle play, but I realize the wrong track could utterly destroy me at this sensitive point in the morning. I cast about for what I want. My clouded mind fixes on a recording of Anthony Newman playing organ preludes and fugues by Bach, something I’ve owned for at least ten years.

The music begins and is exactly what I want, more than what I want. Newman plays Bach precisely and very fast. This annoys some people, but I like how it brings out the apocalyptic prog rock in the preludes and toccatas and the rolling mobility in the fugues. I listen to half the album on the way to work, the other half on the way home.

Bach on the organ is great subway music in a way. You can blast it, go deaf from it. A near-totalizing experience. It overcomes the roar of the subway. Its forking paths capture the mind, imposing their own structure on the slouching commuters in their shabby, winter-worn jackets.

Like a psychedelic drug, the music posits other worlds — the lost intricacies of Lutheran Saxony of the 18th century, the recursive abstract realms of counterpoint and harmony. These worlds have strikingly little to do with my surroundings. The faces of the riders, from dozens of different countries and backgrounds, some tired, some chatty, some wrinkled, some flushed with youth, the faces deserve an accompaniment that’s less otherworldly, less hermetic. I can have the music, or I can have the faces. It’s the opposite of a movie like Garden State, in which every swelling of strings and alternative pop song is calculated not only to complement the moment, to complete it, but to constitute it.

Musical incongruities are commonplace these days. Shuffle play on an iPod can give you as much diversity as your iPod contains. My own iPod is more diverse on some axes and less on others than what you’d hear on freeform WFMU in the course of a week. And our headphones blend with music in the street (the boombox has never truly left us) or music in shops to produce a true jumble. Eventually you open up to the chaos — you listen to a skipping record for five minutes before realizing that the skipping is not part of the composition.

But despite the leveling effect of shuffle play, not all music is equal, nor is all music compatible with other music, just as foods and beverages can’t be paired willy-nilly.

Listening to Bach on the subway is not like listening to Bach overlaid with some other music, like free jazz or Justin Timberlake. It’s more like drinking red wine while eating popcorn. You taste the wine, and you taste the popcorn, and each tastes strange next to the other. But you will remember: This is how wine tastes after a salty bite of popcorn. This is how the inner sweetness of a puffed kernel competes with the acidity of wine.

Musical autobiographies could probably occupy the authors of this site for the next six months. I grew up surrounded by AC/DC listeners in the semi-arid Southwest of the 1980s. Without older siblings, stuck with musically clueless friends, and none too swift about pop music myself, I had no clue about what type of music to get into when I entered adolescence. The first album I bought was Europe’s The Final Countdown, followed by something by Men Without Hats and then Alphaville. Clearly, I was a little lost.

Although I was bad at figuring out the musical landscape, I quickly realized that music was at once all-important and completely secondary in the teenage cosmos. The fault lines between cliques were most apparent in the music they listened to. But I suspected the musical choices of the cliques were actually epiphenomenal (not that I knew that word at the time) to the social divisions themselves. Crassly and too simply, you chose your music based on the friends you had, not the other way around. (Of course, it was more complicated, with music functioning as a signaling device for class, ethnicity, and other differences, and as an exclusion mechanism for undesirables.)

My problem was that I was a social drifter; I had several distinct sets of friends and even wider circles of people I just hung out with from time to time. I wanted a way to keep myself aloof from the symbolic economy of musical preference that allowed me to still participate in the social groups I liked.

My out was jazz. I knew nothing about it, but it sounded kind of cool. Best of all, nobody else knew anything about it, either. I bought a Branford Marsalis album I’d heard on Larry King’s AM-radio talk show. I soon progressed to Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, who remain two of the most invigoratingly alien musicians I’ve ever heard. I actually didn’t put that much effort into jazz fandom. I listened to the Saturday-night broadcasts from Santa Fe with the DJ who told stories about Art Blakey, and I listened to a friend’s dad’s recordings of some legendary performances — again, I think, by Art Blakey, but also Miles and Coltrane. And that was enough to satisfy kids at school that I liked jazz as a mystifying but barely acceptable substitute for whatever it was they were listening to in those fever years before Nirvana broke.

Also in high school I took up the piano again, something I hadn’t played since I was ten years old or so. My teacher was very good at getting me to the point where what I played sounded good to me, and after that it became easy to practice for hours at a time just to hear and feel the music: Chopin, Bartok, Bach.

I was best at playing Chopin, since I was able to fudge things a bit in the name of romanticism. Being a lazy and impatient pianist, I was doomed never even to approach the heart of Bach’s keyboard works, but the little preludes and two-part inventions I could wrap my fingers around fascinated me. This counterpoint thing was magical even in cheap pop songs, but in Bach’s hands it crackled with pure electricity.

In college I was lucky enough to meet some friends with varied and current and cool musical tastes — I caught the grunge thing, a bit of shoegaze, the dawning of Radiohead. It turns out that although the music you listen to is partly a function of your social set and setting, it can’t be reduced to that, and eventually I took my bearings enough to form my own tastes, to the point where the uninformed often mistake me for someone who is up on current music.

Part of this musical development included, by a happy chance, sitting in a plain Mormon chapel for several evenings listening as a professor of mine played his way through Bach’s complete organ works on a handmade replica of a 17th-century French Baroque pipe organ. (I didn’t catch nearly all the performances, which stretched over about a year and a half.) The sound was amazing. the organ was tuned to a system of just intonation, in which the harmonies in some keys are nearly mathematically pure while other keys are painfully off. The sonority of just intonation is impossible to match on today’s equal-temperament keyboard instruments. And in any case, the sound of 17th-century French Baroque organ, the palpable feel of the massive pedal swells against the delicate high reeds, is a rare treat. And then there was the music.

Bach was an organist himself. The organ, as the pre-electronic instrument capable of producing the most varied sounds and textures, was the perfect instrument for the singular expression of his all-encompassing aesthetic vision. Perfectly ordered music was meant to draw the mind upwards toward the truly perfect order of God. It was an attempt at embodying, in non-material substance, the product of centuries of theology, itself an attempt at giving shape to the inconceivably, inexpressibly supreme. Bach is not the only musician to have set this task for himself, but he arguably succeeded more than any other.

All of this is just a partial explanation of how I came to find myself on the subway with my headphones blaring Anthony Newman’s hyperkinetic take on some of the most complex, sublime, beautiful, and frustrating music I’ve ever heard. A long time gone from high school, there’s still a social influence on music choices. Alex Ross said that classical music is one of the few truly oppositional music choices left to us. I hear the percussion escaping the headphones of the guy next to me. Chk-chk-BOOM, chk-chk-BOOM. I can hear it over the pedal point. The guy’s song ends. He takes his iPod out of his pocket and fiddles with it. another song starts, or maybe it’s the exact same song, chk-chk-BOOM, chk-chk-BOOM. I like a lot of songs that go chk-chk-BOOM. Right now, though, the A-minor fugue is starting.

22 responses to “Listening to Bach on the subway”

  1. Lane says:

    “The Final Countdown” by Europe, that great.

    Now this is a list I’d like to see.

    Mine? The Soundtrack to Star Wars.

    Anyone else?

  2. both dave’s final countdown and lane’s star wars are interesting in that they have “classical” elements. dave, i can see how that song appealed to you (it was a guilty pleasure for me, though i never owned it) — that little instrumental riff has something of the toccata and fugue in d minor in it, though transformed for aerobics classes and football stadiums.

    lane — my list would include blondie’s parallel lines LP (which i bought from my uncle for a quarter when it arrived unwanted from his Columbia LP club). but my first real purchases, when i convinced my mom to let me have a subscription to the columbia cassette club, included hall and oates’ rock and soul part I, styx’s kilroy was here, def leppard’s pyromania, and something else i can’t remember. at some point on that membership i bought whitney houston whitney houston. damn, i wish i still had that cassette.

    dave, i loved this post. for me it’s in your top 5. i especially love your ability to talk about the music in formal *and* technological terms — and then to make it so intensely personal.

  3. Rachel says:

    After watching Arrested Development, I can never again hear “The Final Countdown” without cracking up.

    Dave, I love what you say about listening to music differently once you’ve played–or tried to play–it. That’s the way I feel about Brahms clarinet sonatas (although my talents as a clarinetist were limited at best). Music becomes a much more tactile thing.

    First tape bought with own $$: Purple Rain. Not too shabby. But I do remember bringing home some pretty embarrassing 45s, including Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” and “State of Shock,” Michael Jackson’s duet with Mick Jagger. Did anyone else shell out money for 45s? I remember the local discount store carried them for $1.77, which was much more accessible for a kid than the $6.99 or $7.99 for tapes.

  4. Tim Wager says:


    Thanks so much for this analysis and personal essay. I love this kind of writing, combining subjective and objective information in a narrative.

    I’m not very knowledgable when it comes to most classical music, but my most vivid memory of Bach’s organ compositions is from college. The dorm I lived in had a common space that once a year was turned into a maze constructed of cardboard. The designers always did an amazing job of it, managing to make bifurcating tunnels that twisted and turned, climbed over one another, had trap doors and secret passages, etc.

    The soundtrack was always Bach’s organ fugues, cranked way up. The music was just amazingly sinister and creepy in that context. Imagine yourself trapped in a completely dark tunnel with no idea how to get out, the haunting organ sound pressing against your chest, trilling and teasing against your ears, fucking with your mind. I swear every time I hear one of those pieces now I can smell and taste cardboard. Reading the wiki on the fugue right now made me realize that it’s a musical maze, too, filled as it is with repetitions of the subject, false entries, etc.

    My first records bought with my own money? The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and Jimi Hendrix’s Smash Hits.

  5. W2 says:

    Another great post, DB, especially the immediacy of the opening. Boom, we are right there with you.

    I also enjoy how listening to music on the train or in the street makes the world become a music video, though we each become so completely separate from one another with the buds in our ears. Which is clearly the point, but also odd, as are in fact not separate.

    Rachel, I owned that Rockwell 45! Bought at Sound Warehouse with babysitting money. My first purchases? Two cassettes: the soundtrack to the Aileen Quinn Annie and that Human League record, Dare! featuring “Don’t You Want Me?” Which just about says it all about New Mexico and me.

  6. Beth W. says:

    Once, in high school some other kids asked me to participate in a survey about what kind of music students listen too most. I spent a lot of time playing classical piano and listening to classical music. So I answered honestly: classical. Result: stunned stars. Classical wasn’t even an option. So clearly not cool. Oh well.

    In college I made the leap from piano to the pipe organ. Not the cool kind of organ you can play in a rock band (like my brother). No, the kind that is not at all portable. I had a fabulous instructor and learned incredible technique. And I played a lot of Bach. I thought it was going to be new but easy because I played piano. It wasn’t easy and took a lot of hours sitting in empty concert halls. But I really enjoyed it. This was a fun post to read. Thank you for appreciating Bach!

    Here’s a Bach joke:
    Why did Bach have so many kids?
    His organ didn’t have any stops!

  7. AW says:

    Two great posts about music in 2 days. Nice.

    I learned to love organ music in Vienna as a college student. Nothing like a big old cathedral with sound echoing off walls. The fugue starts chasing itself and then starts chasing the echo. A lot of fun.

    Like Beth, I’ve also played a pipe organ. It is an amazing experience to use all four appendages to make such an enormous sound. On big pipe organs, there is also a lag from the time you strike a key until the note plays on one of the pipes. This can really be trip with a complicated piece. I never got good enough to master it, just good enough to totally enjoy filling up space with a really big, really loud sound.

  8. Mark says:

    I bought a 45 of Joan Jett’s I love Rock N Roll, and a purple pin for my jacket. I must’ve been about 8 and didn’t actually put it on my jacket, I just liked the color and the 80’s graffiti font.

    First actual album (cassette) was Huey Lewis and the News, Sports.


  9. mark, this is maybe my favorite thing i’ve ever learned about you.

  10. Lane says:

    the topic of 45’s is funny. The only two I ever brought were “One Step Closer” by The Doobie Brothers.

    and “Night Owls” by the Little River Band.

    I remember bringing them home and my older brother who was the monitor of all things musical in the family, and who did in fact own the best stereo in the house, said “you really shouldn’t buy 45’s”

    He was right.

    2 was enough.

    (He also held that buying “Live” albums was a mistake, as were greatest hits collections.)

    We took music VERY seriously in our house

  11. i don’t know. my record club friends who have zillions of 45s carefully preserved in perfect little boxes with vinyl sleeves. they’re pretty freaking cool. especially when they have choking-on-cufflink-style new wave 45s that have never been released in any other format.

    i had 45s of a couple police singles and dead or alive’s cover of “spirit in the sky.”

  12. Lane says:

    oh hey I’m not defending my brother’s position. I think it’s funny that he was so hard core though, it’s sweet really. To feel such intensity about record buying.

    “You shouldn’t buy greatest hits records because it’s better to support and artist and be willing to listen to an entire album, not just the songs that the radio has made popular.”


    in light of the download talking about buying a record is like talking about the first time you kicked the tires on that “ole model T”

  13. Miller says:

    Dave, I think everyone can relate to the moment of mental delicacy that you depict here, where a song/album can potentially make or break an entire day. Just this morning I was feeling a bit drab before my midterm, so I decided to blast The Thermals’ The Body, The Blood, The Machine as I made the long hike to my classroom. I’m not even completely sold on the album, but I needed something aggressive and lively to pump me up; it actually did the trick. Quite the opposite of your day of gorgeous classical music.

    My first tapes bought with my own money were Fugazi”s Margin Walker EP, Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and Pebbles’ self-titled album at the Salvation Army… “Girlfriend” is an awesome song!

  14. Marleyfan says:

    The only 45 I can remember is “Hot child in the City”, can’t remember the artist…

    “runnin’ wild and lookin’ pretty”

  15. Miller says:

    nick gilder.

  16. Miller says:

    btw, i went through a really strange sweeney todd obssession (the band that nick gilder was in before his one-hit-wonder status), which also happens to be the band where bryan adams started his career, as he took over for nick gilder as frontman after he left the band. i’m sure this is entirely dull, so i blame this rant and my short-lived obssession on my canadian heritage.

    marleyfan, i love “hot child in the city.” so good.

  17. i love getting these little details about the mysterious miller. they’re like little breadcrumbs. i keep wondering if we’ve actually met in real life, and now am doubly curious since i know you hike to classrooms. hmm.

  18. Miller says:

    bryan, i only wish i could have had the pleasure of meeting you or, better yet, being one of your students. i’ll cross my fingers when PhD application time rolls around as i await the reply from nyu (i’m pretty sure that’s where you teach?), though i won’t get my hopes up too much given how competitive it is.

    i’ve contemplated revealing my true identity, but am still a bit shy and comfortable hiding behind my unimaginative pseudonym. (a copy of henry miller’s tropic of cancer is perched by my computer. viola!) i must admit, though, that i had no idea i was that mysterious. fun!

    i will give another small breadcrumb: though never one of your students, i am a former student of one of these brilliant whatsiters.

  19. i think you’ve dropped that one before, now that you’ve mentioned it again …

  20. nicole says:

    …. “I realize the wrong track could utterly destroy me at this sensitive point in the morning.” i love this — how true. I have a ton of classical music on my ipod and have been listening to Mozart’s C- Mass a lot since I heard it at the SF Symphony a few months ago. But sometimes when I put the ipod on shuffle, I’ll go from, say, a kicky tune by Jem to Vivaldi’s Gloria, and it jolts me out of my morning-bus fog. Like, does my ipod *know* what’s going on in my head this morning??/

  21. Mark says:


    I followed up the Joan Jett 45 with Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipe of the Heart’. And today I bought a copy of Spin magazine at the bookstore. That’s enough embarrassing reveals for today.

  22. lisa t. says:

    “Total eclipse of the heart” is my favorite karaoke song.

    I think my first actual record was shaun cassidy’s da do ron ron (about 1978). but my first purchases on vinyl were depeche mode’s ‘speak and spell’ and– get this juxtaposition– the monkees– more like 1983. none are on my ipod today, by the way.