Bowie vs. Bach

Robert Shaw: “It is the nature of music, unlike painting and most of literature, that its final creation is not its original creation. Music needs to be sounded, needs to be sung. It needs to be heard. In this sense the composer literally must leave his work to be finished by others.”

I recently heard someone report another person’s claim that David Bowie had been the greatest genius in the history of music, and someone else replied: “Really, what about Bach? Come on!” I can see the reason for that reaction. However, when I sit at the piano and play and sing through David Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?,” I know what it’s supposed to sound like, because he and his production team went to an awful lot of trouble to record it to sound a certain way. That included parodying the show-tune style of Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and featuring keyboardist Rick Wakeman of the progressive rock band Yes on piano. Actually, the melodies, rhythms, chords, and words of the song remain excellent, even though I don’t have an electric guitar, Mellotron, bass, drums, backing vocal, and string section available to accompany me–not to mention Wakeman’s considerable keyboard skills. Choirs do something similar when they rehearse selected choral movements with piano for several months before they ever hear the (piano-less) orchestra and the (choir-less) solo vocal sections. The main difference between Bowie and Bach is that the former gave us “final/original”  recorded versions of his music, whereas the latter did not and could not.

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