Blue Cheese and Bach: Gateway Experiences

Fri, Jun 1, 2012

The Ecstatic Blog

There is a wonderful cheese shop near where I live called Saxelby Cheese. The owner, Anne Saxelby, curates a fantastic selection of ‘local’ and regional cheeses; and because these cheeses are so unique and unknown, she spends a lot of time with customers, educating them on these artisanal wonders.

I was eying blue cheese one day and lamented to Anne that I was the only one in the family who likes blue. She replied, ‘That one you’re looking at might be a bit intense for the newcomer, but I think I have the perfect gateway blue cheese for you.” I had heard the word ‘gateway’ used that way — playing off the idea of a portal into a world of new wonders. The idea of a cheese portal caught me off guard, but I went with it. Sure enough, the cheese Anne chose opened the minds of my wife and boys to the wonders of blue. The blue cheese gateway had been opened.

Because virtually everything I experience in life eventually makes it through the prism of music, I soon began to think about the concept of gateway music. When people hear I work in the realm of classical music and opera, the most usual response is “I love classical music whenever I hear it.  I just don’t know where to begin to choose music for myself.”

There is no question in my mind now that every great composer has some gateway compositions, and I hope to explore those in coming posts. But if asked to start at the beginning, to recommend the gateway composer, I would recommend Bach. The choice of Bach won’t be a surprise to even the novice listener; but we’re starting at the beginning for the sake of starting at the beginning, and in many ways, Bach’s music is the DNA of Western music.

The point here is not to get in to technicalities. Did I need to describe to my boys what made the ‘blue veins’ in blue cheese? No. In fact, if I did, it would have most certainly yielded the opposite of the desired result. Perhaps it’s the same with classical music. For example, just open up a conversation about music with an explanation of ‘counterpoint,’ and watch the interest in your topic evaporate… No, the point of the gateway experience is to be easy. You shouldn’t even have to push open the gate, you should be able to naturally walk right through.

Let’s try this with Bach. He is a natural gateway composer because there are just so many potential gateways; these following suggestions are just a couple of thousands of his works, which you can find on your own and share with others.

Rosalyn Tureck was a pianist particularly associated with Bach; her approach to his music was very natural. Here she is playing the famous ‘Aria” to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I think the fact that she could play it so simply, so beautifully at such an advanced age — literally at the end of her life — speaks to the power of the music:

A few other obvious gateways to Bach are his suites for solo cello. Cellist Matt Haimovitz has dedicated much of his musical life to Bach. Even though Matt is the consummate explorer of new music, he often begins his concerts with a Bach suite both as an opening prayer and homage to the western music tradition. This live recording is rather unique in that the cello is amplified in a hall with reverberant acoustics that at times gives the cello an organ-like quality.

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- who has written 12 posts on Ecstatic Living Room.

Born in 1962, grew up on Shelter Island, NY. Graduated from Syracuse University in 1984. Was a member of New York alt band Drunken Boat, then began consulting for classical music promotion. Co-founded music promotion company 21C Media Group in 2000.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Max Says:

    I agree that Bach is a great gateway – or at least some Bach (I wouldn’t recommend starting with The Art of Fugue!)- I think it really depends on the listeners taste before they turn to classical. At the time i first got into classical music, I was deeply immersed in early free jazz- Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, etc.- and the pieces that grab me right away were the six Bartok string quartets. Now I am sure no one would that of Bartok as a gateway. My wife, who is not a great classical music fan but has very open ears, is always drawn to Debussy for his beauty and openness. Regardless, the goldbergs and the Bach suites are great choices for a new listener.

    Keep up the good work, guys!