Guest Post: Curt Barnes on the Bach Cello Suites, African Masks, and Collective Genius

Ngil Society mask from the Fang people, Gabon

Ngil Society mask from the Fang people, Gabon

If you are moved by Mischa Maisky’s or Anner Bylsma’s versions of the Bach cello suites, does it matter that they’re not the way Bach heard them? I like Baroque cellists’ interpretations of the Bach suites, which may be closer to his intentions, but I absolutely wouldn’t be without modern interpretation. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are another example: they are available in Baroque renditions, but my favorites are played with more vibrato and expression, in a post-Romantic style. And the Goldberg Variations? Like many I prefer them played on an instrument Bach never heard, the modern piano, with nuance not available to him, and I would bridle at these versions being called “illegitimate.” Seeking to justify my bias, I came to my own conclusions about it after connecting it to Robert Goldwater’s theory of African masks.

When 20th c. European artists first set eyes on African tribal art, they were amazed. So much that they were striving toward was already there, in the masks and the fetish figures. How could “primitive” hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers in a hostile tropical clime, using only rudimentary tools, have achieved such raw emotional power, or even more unlikely, such elegant abstractions? And more remarkable was that these objects weren’t “art for art’s sake”—a meaningless concept in their societies—but facilitators of ceremony, mere adjuncts of religious services. And yet they seemed more “advanced” than our most avant-garde art.

Goldwater had an answer: termites. Sub-Saharan cultures had no available marble or other permanent materials to fashion; they had to work with wood. And wood breaks down, rots unavoidably, or gets eaten by insects over time, particularly in a tropical environment. So Africans had constantly to re-fashion their masks and objects, carve new versions. They were traditionalists and wanted to keep the original forms, of course, but what happened was that generations of carvers inevitably added their unconscious changes in the direction of more ideal, more powerful, or more efficient form, with the stunning results that so impressed the Europeans. Goldwater called this “collective genius”: not that one or two carvers were preternaturally gifted and made innovations in form (that would have been discouraged anyway), but that multiple generations served collectively to create the effect of genius.

The obscure history of many of Bach’s works for solo instruments, together with the relative lack of musical notation of his time, have allowed successive generations of cellists, violinists, and keyboard artists the license to interpret them with relative freedom. Undoubtedly they have been “romanticized,” but perhaps it’s the nature of Bach’s lack of notation, or the nature of the music itself, to permit and even reward stylistic exploration. So both Bach and the “modern ear” can be royally served. I’ve loved Casals’ renditions of the suites and Landowska’s of the Goldberg, for example, but it seems even in my lifetime that succeeding cellists and violinists and keyboard artists have found new depths and marvels in these works. So not just Bach’s genius but the equivalent of collective genius has been afoot, and we are the beneficiaries.

I’m sure this collective genius applies, though maybe not quite so dramatically, with successive performances of other European music down through the years, and at an accelerated pace, now, with advances in recording and dissemination. Styles change, “golden ages” come and go, and there are inevitably missteps in stylistic pomp or flash or ponderousness along the way. But musicians listen to other musicians, positive contributions accrue, and musical interpretation generally goes deeper with each generation, I think. Anyway, that’s my theory as borrowed from Dr. Goldwater!  I’m open to hear others, however.

Curt Barnes is a visual artist who lives and works in New York City.

Listening List

This month at the Great Composers Appreciation Society, we are listening to selections on the theme of “Less is More.” Our first selection is J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No.3 In C Major BWV 1009. To see the entire list of selections for this listening month, click here.

J.S. Bach : Cello Suite No.3 In C Major BWV 1009 (Anner Bylsma)

On Spotify

On YouTube

Selected Books by Robert Goldwater

Primitivism in Modern Painting. New York University, 1937 (listed in the Goldwater bio here)

Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1964

Art of Oceania, Africa, & the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art June 1969

Masque blanc, population Punu, Gabon

Masque blanc, population Punu, Gabon


Credits: The images in the post may be found here and here, respectively.




27 thoughts on “Guest Post: Curt Barnes on the Bach Cello Suites, African Masks, and Collective Genius

  1. Steve Schwartzman

    You mention that art for art’s sake was a meaningless concept in traditional African cultures. Would I be correct in assuming that after an additional century of European and American influence much of African art does now exist for its own sake?

    1. Curt Barnes

      You’re absolutely correct. There may be a continuation today of some of the traditional rituals and the masks and costumes that are used for them—see David Nice’s comment below—but certainly African artists are a real presence on the international stage. Many, if not most, of them live in places like London and New York, no longer in the lands of their birth. Some use identifiably African imagery, some not. Julie Mehretu from Ethiopia was accorded the MacArthur ‘genius” award in 2005. An extremely partial, and almost arbitrary, list is here:

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Curt, I second Steve in thanking you for the link–and all else here. In looking at the artists on the link, I was reminded of an exhibit of African textile art I saw at the Met. Absolutely glorious. A dazzler of a work by El Anatsui, Between Earth and Heaven, was included in the exhibit:

          It’s worth noting, too, in the spirit of the idea of “collective genius,” this in the Met’s commentary on the work: “This work by an African master of international renown is a highly original creation that constitutes a response to a classic canonical form of expression. It is a powerful instance of the vitality of contemporary expression in Africa and the continuity that exists with the traditional forms that are the focus of the Museum’s collection.”

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              Steve: Ah, yes, a fine example from the Hudson River school, with an interesting back story, too, per the Met’s timeline. You must be involved in some fun conversations this AM to have been passing that one on.

          1. Curt Barnes

            Susan, I saw that same huge piece, but installed in the museum’s contemporary wing. Entirely appropriate that it should be seen in two different contexts–traditional and modern.

  2. David N

    It’s an interesting analogy, albeit – as Curt is of course aware – one that can only be taken so far. Music’s plasticity is unique, and I agree with him wholeheartedly that anything goes – even Bach on a mandolin or an accordion – if the artist has the right sensibility. It’s all about communication, and that’s why we have great performers right across the board (just listening to the Velvet Underground this morning and amazed at the uniqueness of Lou Reed.

    Anyway, Sue knows how pertinent this is with respect to the incredible riches of Jeremy Denk in the Goldberg Variations. Curiously, I found exactly what I want in terms of temperament from the German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt in the Cello Suites (he played two movements at the memorial concert of a mututal friend, Sasha Ivashkin). The simplicity but also the inwardness were so extraordinary that I rushed home, put on several of my recordings and decided that two had to go because they were so far from what I wanted. Not that there’s any one way to play these masterpieces, but one in particular is bound to align with one’s own sensibility more than the others.

    A comical, or perhaps not so comical footnote: when we wandered the villages of the Pays Dogon, like the Cotswolds of Mali with way too many tourists (like us, but mostly French in packs – beautiful landscapes, but I hated the whole experience), we were emphatic that we didn’t want any mask dancing for extra dosh. And I found out that the people of the Dogon country have a ‘fake’ set of masks and costumes for the tourists, whose season was short (and now presumably non-existent) and go back to their proper sacred rituals with the real thing in their own private time.

    1. Curt Barnes

      Alstaedt has a mesmerizing Lutoslawski concerto on YouTube; so I can imagine his Bach. I should find Jeremy Denk’s Goldberg’s some time, too, though it’s hard to imagine any version I’d like better than Andras Schiff’s.
      Thanks for the Dogon anecdote. In looking for images for this post I came across the report of an auction of a Ngil mask in Paris in 2006 for 7.5 million dollars. It was a 19th c. mask, so I guess it wasn’t one of the “fakes.” African peoples have their own way of honoring authenticity, I guess; we in the West certainly have ours.

      1. David N

        The lead image is splendid in all its elongated glory. Great choice.

        The (bargain-priced) Denk CD comes with an illuminating DVD in which our very articulate pianist takes us through some of the finer points (I’ve yet to watch that). Schiff’s not for me, I’m afraid. Nor Gould, except as a fascinating eccentricity. BTW I can’t usually stand harpsichords, but I was converted by a Weimar recital from Spaniard Alfonso Sebastian Alegre (and it wasn’t just his good looks that made me warm to the artistry…)

      2. Susan Scheid Post author

        David and Curt: Many thanks to you both for noting the Altstaedt performances. I’m listening to a recording of him performing the Bach Cello Suite No. 5 and have the Lutoslawski cued up for a listen. I do love my Jeremy Denk recordings of the Goldberg Variations, the Bach Partitas 3, 4 & 6, and the Ives Sonatas 1 & 2 (the liner notes alone are worth the price of admission–and I’ll add that I actually prefer the liner notes to something else to watch, entertaining and informative as Denk is in that form, too).

        David: I like your comment very much that “Music’s plasticity is unique, and I agree with [Curt] wholeheartedly that anything goes – even Bach on a mandolin or an accordion – if the artist has the right sensibility. It’s all about communication, and that’s why we have great performers right across the board.” A little Bach on accordion, anyone?

        1. Curt Barnes

          Now I feel like a tart. Schiff’s Goldberg Variations seduced me away from Murray Perahia’s, and now Jeremy Denk’s have lured me to his. Never mind, no one will sit in judgment, I suppose. Denk’s performance (heard on Spotify) seemed lighter, more delicate and poetic still, though I don’t know whether I should buy a fourth copy of this masterpiece! But I think you and David are right to extol it.

  3. Graham Clark

    I would have said that “collective genius” can be defined as “Forms with which we are insufficiently familiar to distinguish between the individual geniuses and their imitators” and also as “Artifacts from cultures we don’t understand, thus allowing us project our own avant garde ideas onto them and then use them to give those same ideas the authority of supposedly coming from a non-western tradition.”

    Curt Barnes’ remarks on performances of Bach makes me realize there is a third definition: “Art we’ve gotten bored of, to the point that a reasonably good and in some way novel performance is as welcome to us as a familiar great performance, if not more so.”

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Graham: Your perspective on the world is so different from my own it’s hard even to know how to respond. In a genial auntie sort of way, I want to say, cheer up! Things really aren’t as bad as all that.

      1. Graham Clark

        Susan: Thank you very much for your kind words – but I’m quite cheerful! My alienation from my own time keeps me young.

  4. Susan Scheid Post author

    Curt: I just want to say how delighted I continue to be by this post, as well as by the discussion that’s ensued. You’ve sent me on my own, probably fanciful, trail of associations about what happens in the art of music over time, in composition, as well as performance. In some sense, although I would not want to follow this train of thought too narrowly, all musical composition might be seen as a response to what has come before. It may be a rejection, a building upon a foundation, or a taking of a development and expanding on it, and within all of this, both individual and collective genius are at work, beautifully intertwined. I’m reminded of Peter Cole’s book of poems, The Invention of Influence, and these lines in particular:

    Invention isn’t god-like:
    it doesn’t create out of nothing.
    It works through what’s found: it discovers,
    and much like influence, it recovers

    a charge that’s already there,
    potentially, in the air.

    And also of Emerson’s essay on Quotation and Originality ( and these lines in particular:

    ” . . . all things are in flux. It is inevitable that you are indebted to the past. You are fed and formed by it. The old forest is decomposed for the composition of the new forest. The old animals have given their bodies to the earth to furnish through chemistry the forming race, and every individual is only a momentary fixation of what was yesterday another’s, is to-day his and will belong to a third to-morrow. So it is in thought. Our knowledge is the amassed thought and experience of innumerable minds: our language, our science, our religion, our opinions, our fancies we inherited. Our country, customs, laws, our ambitions, and our notions of fit and fair,—all these we never made, we found them ready-made; we but quote them. Goethe frankly said, “What would remain to me if this art of appropriation were derogatory to genius? Every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand things: wise and foolish have brought me, without suspecting it, the offering of their thoughts, faculties and experience. My work is an aggregation of beings taken from the whole of Nature; it bears the name of Goethe.”

  5. Curt Barnes

    Sue: You no doubt know that hardly has one said something than other thoughts occur. Graham Clark reminded me how difficult it was to get past our Eurocentric assumptions about individuality and originality to acknowledge Goldwater’s (and other ethnologists’ and art historians’) studies of cultures in which the support systems for those values simply didn’t exist. In Africa, Oceania and other places, conformity and continuity of tradition were the very glue of society; beliefs in “progress” and “improvement” and the exaltation of the individual have been almost aberrations in most of cultural history.

    Also David Nice’s response (“can only be taken so far”) reminded me that music, unlike the art of mask-making, has a system of notation, and it’s important to remember that all good musicians return to, if not begin with, the written score. But it has to be almost always true that most of them have heard many of the great compositions in their formative years, most many times over. As, I’m sure, had Itzhak Perlman the Bach Sonatas and Partitas before he ever played them. After I heard his recording I finally put away my Heifetz versions; Perlman had equalled Heifetz’s dazzling virtuosity, I thought, his variations in mood and tempo, and had added some subtleties missing in the older violinist’s version. And these seemed “right” and totally appropriate once I heard them. If I played the Heifetz I would miss them not being there. Perlman himself would probably consider himself a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant (Heifetz), and probably on the shoulders of many others as well. I’m sure he would agree with Goethe!

  6. shoreacres

    I’m no academic and I’m no art critic, but I lived and worked among the Kpelle of Liberia for several years, and my home is filled with masks, country money, ritual objects, and bush school tokens which were gifted to me.

    There are several things here which set me thinking. The assertion that there was no “art for art’s sake” in African tribal cultures strikes me as absurd. Of course no one was hanging a Matisse, or even a Mulbah, on the wall of the hut. But silver work, bronze castings, country cloths, carved drinking gourds, musical instruments? They are beautiful in their own right, and meant to be cherished and enjoyed. They may be “only” decorative art, but art they are — and were, and were for centuries.

    As for the contention that ritual objects were no more than “facilitators of ceremony, mere adjuncts of religious services” — well, I just don’t know what to say about that. In the first place, the idea that the arrival in town of the bush devil at the opening or closing of the Poro or Sande bush schools could be equated in any sense with a “religous service” makes me laugh. Beyond that, the fact that my houseboy threatened to quit if I didn’t pack up certain masks, or that I was advised never to wear certain jewelry pieces until back in the US, suggests “mere adjunct” doesn’t quite do it.

    It’s true that there were “tourist masks” and “real masks.” It’s also true that some of the same men who carved ritual objects were deep into the tourist trade, smoking and blackening the wood of Tuesday’s production to make it look old. When it came to the real thing, the Kpelle weren’t stupid. They used good wood — like ironwood — which happens to be termite-resistant. They used poor, soft, cheap, termite-vulnerable wood for the tourists, who’d arrive home wondering what those little piles of dust in their suitcase might be.

    As for collective genius: well, perhaps. But in masks that still are being used in rituals throughout West Africa, individual variations such as the plait of the hair or the shape of the eyes are far less important than the careful replication of cultural meanings Western eyes may miss entirely.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Thank you so much for weighing in from the perspective of your long experience in Africa! It may amuse you (or at least I hope it will) to know that last night, on the heels of thinking about the discussion here, I had a dream in which a number of us (you were definitely there) were sitting around a table scattered with papers trying to make sense of the complexities presented by various perspectives offered on a topic of mutual interest and concern. Unfortunately for me, the dream did not, as some do, give me an “ah-hah” moment on waking up this morning!

      Two of many things that arose for me in reading your comments were first, about what art is. The best I can arrive at for the moment is that, as in so many other things, the boundaries of art are exceedingly porous and likely depend on the beholder, the intentions of the maker, the cultural context, and a whole host of other things as well. Your last comment, also, rang several bells: “in masks that still are being used in rituals throughout West Africa, individual variations such as the plait of the hair or the shape of the eyes are far less important than the careful replication of cultural meanings Western eyes may miss entirely.” I think this is critically important, and allied with Curt’s most recent comment above about how very difficult it is for us, in our culture, to get past our “Eurocentric assumptions,” in understanding other cultures.

      When Curt first noted Goldwater’s theory of “collective genius” in our music discussion group (which is what led me to ask if he would do a guest post on the subject here), I was very much taken with the idea of valuing and recognizing the accrual of creativity in community over successive generations, rather than, as I think we tend to do in our culture, assuming that creative genius arises out of the heads of single individuals without taking into any account the shoulders on which that creativity stands. (This is what put in mind Emerson’s Quotation and Originality essay, too.) We have much to learn from other cultures, as you have so usefully noted here.

  7. Curt Barnes

    Shoreacres reminds me why responsible scholars so rarely write short summations of anything, much less sketch out a cultural practice in order to make a point about something else. In my brevity I said “religious” when “religious, civic or social” might have broadened the picture—not that “religious” was meant to suffice for every usage of ceremonial objects.

    In speaking of “art for art’s sake,” I didn’t mean to suggest that Westerners have an exclusivity on aesthetic sensibility, only that art and function have parted ways so that paintings and sculpture and other media are as much defined by total lack of utility as anything else, and that includes decorative utility. 
Much of my description, qua Goldwater and others, was to point out that traditional African peoples’ aims in creating their masks were quite different from ours in making art, when we create our own sculptural representations of human features. Shoreacres’ last sentence, that “the plait of the hair or the shape of the eyes are far less important than the careful replication of cultural meanings,” is exactly what I was saying, and makes the more remarkable the astonishing power of the masks’ forms for European artists.

    As to the resistance of ironwood to termites: there I fell afoul of the fun of writing “termites” rather than “dry rot,” “wood fungus,” or some series of general terms. Goldwater mentioned several natural forces, those included, that break down wood in his explanation of why archaeologists have found no masks from the 17th or 18th centuries, much less earlier. He (and i) were thinking about long-term evolution of forms, I guess based on evidence that existing peoples have deeper roots than extant objects would suggest.

    1. shoreacres

      I’m late getting back, but I’m glad to have read this, Curt. I think that whenever we begin exploring subjects that are so complex and in many respects so foreign, there’s always a need for a little circling around as we begin to formulate questions, and then seek answers.

      You certainly were working with a longer time frame than I’d assumed. It makes me curious: what would happen if we turned from masks to other ritual objects, particularly those made of metal? The history of some objects in Liberia is easy enough to trace, particularly the silver bracelets made for girls coming out of bush school, or the “country money” forged by village blacksmiths. Other objects are less easily categorized. I have a large bronze piece that is called “money” by some and a (sacrificial?) ritual object by others. I certainly don’t know, but it’s interesting to read the various opinions. (When I first obtained it, I thought it was a really big trivet for an iron cooking pot!)

      Anyway, I’ve enjoyed your second reflection, and all the questions it’s raised for me. Thanks for joining Susan and giving us some interesting things to think about.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        shoreacres: Thanks so much for chiming in again here. I’m hoping at some point you’ll post further on your times in Africa and related thoughts. I’ll look forward to that!

Comments are closed.