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Writer’s voyage mapped by Bach

March, 2011

When Montreal writer Eric Siblin began exploring the possibilities of a productive working life outside The Gazette, neither he nor any of his friends imagined he would find his path in the narrative counterpoint of the Bach Cello Suites, their resurrection and the men who made this music one of the great creative achievements in the classical repertoire.

One of the paper’s most talented writers, an assiduous researcher with broad journalistic interests, Siblin profiled visionary architect Moishe Safdie, Rosie Douglas, the ex-revolutionary who became the premier of Dominica, and Montreal-trained piano virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin for Saturday Night magazine.

He won an award for his first documentary, Word Slingers, about the arcane world of competitive Scrabble.

Then, one night in Toronto, Siblin attended a concert where the suites were played and he had the germ of an idea that over time developed into the book The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque masterpiece. Published in 2009, it garnered well-deserved raves from the likes of best-selling author Simon Winchester. He described it as “one of the most extraordinary, clever, beautiful and impeccably researched books I have read in years.”

Photo: Marcie Richstone

As the blurb from publisher House of Anansi Press says, it weaves together the story of Bach and the missing manuscript from the 18th century, its revival after Catalan cello master Pablo Casals discovered the manuscript more than a century ago. Then there is Siblin’s own voyage, as he traces the story from Barcelona to Leipzig, and even takes cello lessons for the hands-on experience.

Two years after it was released, 11 publishers have picked up the rights and Siblin is busy travelling, from Milan to Dallas, giving interviews and attending conferences to talk about the book. We sat down recently with the writer to talk about his writing career.

Leaving a “dream job” at The Gazette as rock critic to enter the uncertain world of freelance writing must have been difficult.

I first took a year off and tested the freelancing waters, then reduced my workweek to three days as I built up clients. It seemed to be such a gutsy thing to do, full of insecurity, but if you look at the state of newspapers today, it’s hard for reporters to feel overly secure in their employment. I wanted more time to write whatever I was writing and I was not getting more time in the daily newspaper grind. I did not want to be this machine, cranking something out day after day, which I had been doing for a dozen years for various employers.

How did the idea for this book develop?

I did not wake up one morning and say to myself: “I want to write a book about a piece of music.” Had I done that, I definitely would have chosen another piece of music, not this almost ascetic music for solo cello written by J.S. Bach. I would have chosen something with a more obvious story and instrumentation behind it. It was a spontaneous, organic process whereby in the course of my musical curiosity I found myself at a recital in Toronto. ...

Why did Bach write it? When did he write it precisely? We’re not sure, some time around 1720. It was unprecedented to write music for solo cello in the early 18th century. It wasn’t attempted again by a major composer for another 200 years. Then a 13-year-old Catalan stumbled upon an edition in a second-hand shop in Barcelona, and Pablo Casals made it famous. From a narrative point of view, this is manna from heaven. Story alarm bells started to ring in my head and I was powered by curiosity and it kept me going. I tried to follow my nose wherever it led. I was not doing this full time, but it took a good six or seven years, including research and writing, to finish the book. There was such a learning curve for me, it took a long time for some of these ideas to marinate. What is it about Bach’s music that makes it so captivating and rich?

There is something in Bach’s music that makes it transformable for so many people, eras, instruments and genres. It has been transformed and adapted in so many different directions, more than any other classical composer. You’ve got jazz reworkings, Stokowski’s larger-than-life orchestral transcription, in the 1960s Switched-on Bach with Moog Synhesizer, or Procul Harum referencing Bach’s Sleepers Wake! and Air on the G String in A Whiter Shade of Pale. So much of Bach’s music is instrumentally malleable. The sky’s the limit in terms of instrumental permutations and genre possibilities. It just seems incredibly adaptable, with a core that can survive all sort of reworkings. There is something in his music that invites reinterpretation and reinvention, so it never gets stale.

Are you surprised by the way the book has been received?

Yes, I’m very surprised. My most extravagant ambition was to get a publishing deal in Canada, period. It seemed not an obvious book. It didn’t fall into any obvious category. I was lucky that I piggybacked one of the world’s most epic pieces of music. There is a natural interest in this in many places; it’s not a Canadian story. Very often I speak at events where there is a cellist, so that makes it a little more novel. I was just in Dallas, so I shared an anecdote about Casals going to Texas in 1901 and finding himself in a saloon, gambling with men with big hats and six-shooters on their belts. He was a teetotaler, so one of the men told him: “We gamble and drink, sir.” Casals, all five-foot two of him, soaking wet, started to drink and relations improved.

What are you listening to these days?

Mozart operas, Captain Tobias Hume, the 17th-century English viola de gamba player, and American singer-songwriters Sufjan Stevens and Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, jazz guitarist John Stein.

What’s next for you, book wise?

I’m researching a book. It’s non-fiction, it’s not about music, but it is another multi-era work rooted in antiquity. I won’t go into details because I don’t want some talented writer to steal the idea. It’s a long way from publication at this point.



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