The music of Johann Sebastian Bach has long held a fascination beyond the classical world. It is difficult to imagine the very different worlds of Procol Harum and Kraftwerk existing without his influence, while Donna Summer and Jethro Tull also dabbled. Now the name of Air’s Nicolas Godin can now be added to the pop songwriters who have fallen under his spell.
To call Godin a pop songwriter in this case is a little far-fetched, mind, for Contrepoint – his first solo album out of the confines of the French duo – has a license to roam musically, the only condition being that he does so while taking the music of Bach as his starting point. And not just Bach, either, but Bach as performed by Glenn Gould – an important distinction, as disciples of the composer will know. Gould was one of the most celebrated and reclusive performers of his day, rarely heard outside of the studio, his magical recordings of the Goldberg Variations among many masterworks.
So how does Godin pay homage? He lets his musical imagination run riot, assisted in this task by vocals from Connan Mockasin, Marcelo Camelo and a Macedonian choir. “I want people to listen to Contrepoint without noticing that it’s Bach,” he says in the press release; he certainly achieves this, on occasion throwing a bewildering density of music at the listener, clearly revelling in his challenge.
Godin revisits 1970s progressive rock in the unpredictable movements of the suite Bach off, but in Club Nine he creates a clever and slightly downbeat fusion of Bach’s keyboard figuration and Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. Orca also delves into a number of Bach appropriations, taking more risks and pushing the psychedelic aspect of Air a degree further.
Godin does not often reference the mothership – merely taking a back seat for now – but the rippling pianos of Clara are pure Air and are beautifully written, even before Camelo’s smoky vocal contribution. He instead appears to be operating on instinct and improvisation, inspired by Bach’s steadily moving harmonies and the freedom they offer elsewhere.
Structurally, the album does sprawl a little, and can lose focus in its further reaching jams, which have a tendency to go off at tangents. However it is good to see Godin taking risks, seeing what he can achieve with a relatively blank canvas.
It is good, then, to see this pretty radical departure from the familiar Air blueprint of dreamy, slightly psychedelic music that they have done so well but which may have restricted their means of expression. Contrepoint delights in its escape, and while it might be unhinged and unstructured at times, it is never anything less than intriguing.