Bringing back Bach

Classical guitarist Michael Poll talks about the inspiration behind his brand new recording of Bach’s lute music arranged for seven-string guitar.

Walking up the steps to Abbey Road Studios in London last month was a huge moment for me: it marked the next stage in a project that has dominated my professional life over the last 18 months.

It began in 2015 when I noticed that the extra notes on a seven-string guitar allowed Bach’s lute music to be played in its original register, as the composer himself would have heard it. After a great deal of scholarly research, I launched a Kickstarter campaign called ‘the Bach Project’ to see whether there was any support for a recording of new arrangements of the music (you can watch the Kickstarter trailer here: It proved to be a huge success: we raised USD18,278 (€15,500) from backers around the world in just four weeks, and subsequently assembled a top team to record the arrangements at London’s Abbey Road Studios.

The inspiration for the project came from a variety of sources, but particularly the relationship between technology and music – the way that one affects the other, and has done since the days of Bach himself. It is sometimes suggested that great music transcends the limitations of an individual instrument; in my opinion, this could not be further from the truth. Rather, great music is an intimate partnership between composer and instrument that makes great composition transcendent.

Michael Poll
Michael Poll

Bach’s music is no exception to this rule: take his Chaconne from the D Minor Violin Partita. Early in the work Bach runs out of space to expand downwards, having reached the the bottom note of the violin. He artfully changes register, leaping up a seventh, and this leap becomes a compositional motif: an essential part of his rhetorical structure. So it is not just the composition that drives the instrument, it is likewise the instrument driving the composition; the technology leading the artist, and then in turn the artist mastering the technology and using it in the service of creating a masterwork. It’s this kind of ingenious integration of compositional art and musical science that makes a masterpiece.

The impact of technology on music is not limited to the craft itself: in the 18th century, technology catalysed a revolution in how music could be experienced, launching the modern ‘concert’ as we know it. Scholars are quick to draw the connection between the rise in democratic thinking in the enlightenment and a concert-going public. But what is less frequently discussed is the technological shift in the way in which instruments were created, from quiet flat-backed viols and plucked keyboard strings, to the arched and powerful violin, viola, and cello and the nascent fortepiano. These things made public music-making possible. So was it the ideals that drove the art form or the art form that drove the ideals?

This interplay between technology and music continues to change and develop, and has of course driven tectonic shifts in the way we consume music, from record, to 8-track, to tape, CD, and now cloud-based. As we shift back to legal methods of consuming music with the rise of streaming, we must explore ways to make high quality art financially viable. Without innovation in our space, the professional artist could become a relic of the 20th century – or at the very least a job option for only a shrinking number of international mega-stars.

For me, the Bach Project was my own first step towards answering this question. With the project I wanted to accomplish two key things: firstly, to explore Bach’s music in a way that is modern and honours my own artistic vision, while accomplishing something plausible from an historical perspective. Secondly, I wanted to record the music in a way that was usable for an audience outside of the concert hall, appealing to a segment of the population not already consuming classical music regularly.

This latter part means exploring new frontiers in technology including the emerging capacity to place sound in three-dimensional space (using headphones or Dolby Atmos which make this sort of thing possible). It is my hope that by providing a musical experience that is not replicable in a streaming environment, but that is significant and meaningful for a new audience, I might be able to expand the place for this kind of art in the world. Classical music holds universal appeal and has withstood the test of time. There is no reason for it to remain an experience only for specialists.

Michael Poll’s debut album is due for release in December 2017. He will take the music on an international tour in 2018.