Crossing the desert with Bach

My Spanish teacher in Colombia asked me this week how we can keep going, with right view, with all that is going on in the world…


My first answer a couple of days ago was just what came to mind at the time – and I had some time after that to think of a better answer to this really important question. I told him today that in fact I think it is the most important question we can be asking, and finding our own way to answer.

The thought that came to mind this week was that it’s like we are crossing a desert. This sounded something like the beginning of a poem:

If you want to cross a desert,
the first thing you will need
is water…

So I asked my teacher, Jaime, What is water for you?

Compassion , creativity, and critical thinking, he said.

I told him that for me it is meditation, a connection to teachers, and to beauty and the arts.

This is something different for all of us, but it is fruitful to have the question:

What is water for you? What is it that sustains you, through good times and bad, and even through the most difficult passages?

I was talking with a language exchange partner in Barcelona on Wednesday of this week, and telling him about my favorite movie (Almost Famous) and about all the great music that was happening all at once in the mid-nineteen seventies. I told him that is one of the reasons it’s my favorite movie.

Then he asked me if that was my favorite era for music, and I surprised him by saying,

‘no, mi época favorita fue el siglo dieciséte’

(no, my favorite era was the seventeenth century)

– which made him laugh. I said it was because that is when Bach wrote his music.

He then invited me to give him five reasons to listen to Bach in a future meeting. He didn’t know at the time what he was asking for, of course, but since this is music that means so much to me, and to others, I have accepted the challenge.

So far, I’ve been thinking that for someone who connects with his music, first of all, that

Bach is a close friend for your whole life

It feels like – here is someone who understands joy, and pathos, and who is complex, and simply human, with all its depth and beauty.

When we’re alone, and unsure of ourselves, or others, or this world, this is music we can turn to, and it never disappoints.

And it brings peace to the soul, which is something we surely all need.

I know that people feel this way about other artists too, and writers, and poets, and musicians, and visual artists. They are life-saving in this way.

Then, two,

Bach’s music counters the banal –

the feeling that life is plain, ordinary, dull, or meaningless, and all the insipid things;

As Picasso said,

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life

I remember feeling this way about blues and rock guitar back when I was in high school. I’d run home in the afternoons. I positively needed it. Yes, you could say I was a fanatic about music even then.

There is also something profound about Bach, and, it’s very mysterious, because at the same time, he wrote quite a bit of music that is very accessible. Many of his melodies are familiar to people, without them knowing who they are by.

Third –

Bach is so generous, that it’s amazing. He was prolific, and he wrote for many different instruments of his time, and combinations of instruments and voice.

A post from the Astriaos Chambe Music describes it this way:

Bach was a prolific German composer who in many ways is the father of Western classical music. He was a genius at counterpoint, which means lines of melodies that wind together, creating melody and harmony at the same time…

Often his compositions were grouped as suites in six movements, with a prelude, or what sounds like an improvised introduction, exploring the tonalities of an instrument, and then five dance movements from the time. He composed music in this form (often in sets of six suites) for solo instruments of all kinds – the keyboard, the violin, the ‘cello, or viola da gamba, and flute.


This is uplifting music, it is something spiritual. It is elevating.

Bach composed at times from what feels like a state of exultation. There is praise and celebration, and deep feeling, and this is what his music communicates so well. There is something refreshing, and miraculous about it.

In black baptist churches, with their preaching and choral singing, and gospel music, they say they ‘raise the roof’.

Imagine how this boisterous music must have sounded back then, to his staid, protestant listeners, in the mid sixteen hundreds.

This is often music that is full of energy, and positively overflowing with joy. The harmony was also often very different for those times. Their minds must have been blown.

And, if I were only to list only five reasons to listen to Bach, personally, as a musician, it is the most challenging. It requires the most of someone who wants to play this music well, and, it is the most rewarding.

They say, if you can play this music, you can play anything. Many musicians love Bach for just this reason. He understood many instruments and how they blended or contrasted with others so well.

Whatever you put into this music, as either a listener or as a musician, in terms of time and attention, you get back many times over. Like many of the other classical arts though, such as literature, or the visual arts, it’s not something that can be fully grasped right away. We need to live with it for a while. Once we have a connection though, the more time we spend with Bach’s music, the more we hear. It opens up in this way, and is enriching.

The violinist and teacher Rictor Noren says it like this:

I listen to Bach to bring me back to personhood, as like a tower whose firm foundation stretches through many levels before reaching its apex.

No matter your ability, from a humble keyboard minuet, to the sophistication of The Art of the Fugue, listen to be human.

Invest in Bach and join the generations who have found comfort, solace, genius, and eternity in his music…

I thought at first of giving my friend a playlist, which I may still do, but I really just want to share with him these few thoughts. I’ll probably read it to him in Spanish.

The best I can do is –
to do a dance, and open the door

The rest is up to him, and to Bach, of course.

A note to introduce one playlist:

They say with classical music that every different interpretation creates something new, and I think this is especially true when it comes to Bach’s music. I say this by way of invitation.

Not only do different performers bring a new feeling to the music, but the recordings themselves can also be quite different. I’ve chosen mostly recordings here that are more recent, since their clarity really goes well with Bach and other music from the Baroque. Older recordings should also be sought out and listened to though, since there are some where the musical ideas, and the performances are just wonderful.