Judging a Bach By Its Cover

When I was 11 or 12 years old, the only cool kid in the neighborhood that was charitable enough to occasionally hang out with me brought an album over to my house. He kept it hidden from my view and put it on the turntable (yes, we still had turntables then). I was already a mild fan of heavy metal but this was something different, something far more mysterious. The lyrics were esoteric and vaguely threatening; the line “to kill the unborn in the womb” bothered me for weeks after that first hearing. The final song on the album, a gothic reworking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, seemed to open up a strange new world to me. This was no longer music as I had known it. It was immersion into an all-encompassing experience, an overload of the darker side of one’s imagination, a tour through the subterranean depths where music, poetry, and narrative coalesced into a maddening, intoxicating concoction. The only thing it lacked was a visual component.

And then my friend pulled the album cover out of his backpack. It was Iron Maiden’s Powerslave. As impressed as I had been with the music, I was even more overwhelmed by the cover featuring the ubiquitous Iron Maiden mascot-cum-nightmare, Eddie the Head, as realized by designer Derek Riggs. This particular cover features a golden pyramid in the days of ancient Egypt with Eddie as the central, humongous Tutankhamun figure. Ancient Egyptian worshippers mount steps flanked by sphinxes with water fountains pouring from their chests. The steps lead to the entrance of the pyramid, situated conspicuously in Eddie’s crotch. To the left, a group of birds flying in a circle break the otherwise stultifying symmetry. The temple itself is covered with hieroglyphs, rendered in the most meticulous detail. Far above, the top of the pyramid crackles with electric energy as though lightening had just struck and was now coursing through the structure. Eddie’s eyes are also aflame and despite the overarching symmetry of the design, the entire image is an incandescent, frozen moment of pure, unmitigated movement and power.

We listened to the entire album again while I obsessively stared at the drawing. The combination of the visual and the aural had an effect on my sensorium that remained unrivaled until my discovery some years later of Richard Wagner’s music dramas (an ideal point of entry into so-called classical music for any heavy metal aficionado). I soon collected Iron Maiden’s entire back catalog and proudly displayed the album covers on my walls despite the frantic protestations of my mother who insisted that it was not a good idea to have a rendering of The Number of the Beast hanging above one’s bed. I loved the music and I adored the art. With each new release I eagerly awaited the songs but I also was impatient to see the latest manifestation of Eddie the Head. Music and image were inextricably intertwined within my experience.

But this was heavy metal, a subset of popular music (although I always marveled at the fact that it was considered popular when only five of us in the school seemed to like it). We have come to expect image to play a major role within popular music: posters on the wall, provocative Rolling Stone magazine covers, American Idol contestants who sing so poorly that the paint peels from the walls and yet they continue on because, well… they look good.

Not so classical music, right? Classical music is supposed to be purified of such visual distraction. For decades, album covers for classical releases reflected the seriousness and austerity with which the audience approached the music. We would get a photograph of the stern visage of the conductor absorbed in concentration, the pianist sitting at the piano while lost in thought, the occasional reproduction of a famous artwork that reminded the buyer that this music is the aural equivalent of a Rembrandt or Rubens.

This is not to say that these album covers need come across as unimaginative or as lacking a real contribution to the experience of listening to the music. A fine example is the series of Bach Cantata recordings led by Ton Koopman and released by Antoine Marchand. Each volume features a rendering of some lavish example of church architecture. Sometimes it is an interior (such as the apse of a cathedral) and sometimes it features an exterior. In both cases, the architectural elements overwhelm the viewer with their monumental grandeur. People, when present, are dwarfed by the immensity of the building.

The choice of church architecture is, of course, obvious. Bach’s cantatas are vocal works written to be performed during a Lutheran service. However, the choice to mitigate the human presence requires some minor exegesis. It seems to force the viewer into a confrontation with the greatness of God; and in that effort, the depictions of architecture are remarkable for their ability to demonstrate the simultaneous awe-inspiring and placid presence of the Lutheran view of the deity. Meanwhile, the covers gently remind the listener that Bach’s music itself is highly architectonic in construction. Without breaking from the austere tradition of classical music album covers, this series manages to raise the interpretive stakes, providing a wonderful complement to these gorgeously rendered recordings.

In the last couple of decades, however, a new trend in cover design for classical releases has emerged. It has not overtaken the industry yet but it is becoming gradually more conspicuous. In a cultural landscape that increasingly relies upon the visual for social, consumer, and sexual cues, record companies producing classical releases now attempt to sell their product through the reinforcement of these cues in a more mainstream way than had previously been their wont. If people are no longer as interested in classical music as a cerebral escape from the banalities of the everyday, if we no longer accept classical music (or anything else, for that matter) as the triumph of essence over image, if (as we seem to believe) image goes “all the way down” and there simply is nothing essential beneath image, then certain producers of classical recordings are willing to embrace this cultural condition by selling Bach not as an alternative to popular image culture but as a part of it.

My example here simply has to be the series of Bach recordings by violinist Lara St. John. St. John looks like a pop idol. She has a wonderfully lithe figure and enchantingly long dirty blonde hair that she generally allows to fall provocatively before her face. On her album covers she often stares wantonly (I don’t think it an improper word) at the viewer. On her Bach: The Concerto Album, her head is thrown back accentuating her long and beautifully sculpted neck, her eyes reduced to come-hither slits (but still directed toward the camera), her mouth slightly agape, and the strap of her little black dress has fallen off of her left shoulder, daring the viewer’s eyes to plummet down toward her slightly evident cleavage, brutally cut off from view by the garish green border: a virtuoso as Siren. Here the object of desire, it seems to me, is hardly obscure and it is not likely to be Bach.

The cover of her album Bach: Solo Works for Violin was every classical CD store’s favorite poster for years. The cover features St. John in a darkened room, while strips of light break through drawn Venetian blinds. The violinist beckons the viewer, one eye obscured by her slightly disheveled hair. The photograph shows her from the waist up. She is nude and covers her breasts with her violin. The term “well-tempered” (which appears on a translucent band that swaths across her midriff to indicate the production company, Well-Tempered Productions) has never seemed so suggestive before. One gets the impression that St. John is in a bedroom somewhere waiting for you to arrive or, better yet, to return. This music is not cerebral, the cover promises, it is seduction and here is the seductress, classical music’s answer to Fiona Apple. And for God’s sake, don’t think of heavy-set Bach in that ridiculous wig! Other album covers follow suit. Her album Gypsy again features the hair and the glance. Here she wears an unzipped leather jacket and… you guessed it, nothing underneath, so that the viewer knows she is nude beneath the jacket although we are deprived of the actual sight of her breasts. Of course, if you really desire to see a classical violinist naked there is always Linda Brava, the so-called “Brahms Bombshell” who appeared in Playboy magazine.

I realize that there will be those who insist that the cover is beside the point and even if the image is of questionable taste (a debatable point, to be sure), St. John’s precise performances redeem the visual impact. But I think you would have to be imbibing a pretty heavy dosage of denial laced with prudery not to realize that we are being sold more than a musical performance here. We are asked to admire more than the voluptuousness of her arpeggios.

And the appeal to the pop world is beginning to infiltrate that one last sanctified barrier: the music itself. Her album Re: Bach employs some familiar Bach melodies in arrangements that approximate world music, rock, or country. The attempt is to move beyond the visual and court a new set of listeners by having Bach “virtually collaborate” with other musical styles. The goal is laudable but the results mildly laughable. For some reason, I cannot stop thinking of that Saturday-morning commercial years ago where they tried to sell Beethoven by setting the Fifth Symphony to rap music. There is nothing in principle wrong with such attempts but I am afraid that a beat-boxing Beethoven and a dance-mix Bach are almost always going to equal kitsch. I am still waiting for the country performance where a small bluegrass-like band executes (take the verb any way you wish) a famous Bach melody; they can call its “Air on that thar’ G-string”, and one can only imagine what the image on the cover of that album would be.

(Oddly enough though, classical music and rock seem to go together rather well at times: witness Procol Harum’s Bach-inspired “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. On the other hand, the admixture is certainly not a guaranteed success: witness the version, complete with added lyrics, of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. If you can get through the final line — “There’s no end to my life, no beginning to my death; death is life” — without pulling a muscle from derisive laughter, you are a better person than I am.)

However, this is hardly an appeal for purity with regard to classical music. If Bach with a southern twang interests listeners and maybe entices them to venture out on occasion to the concert hall, so be it. (One hardly need protest something the ephemerality of which is nearly commensurate with its production.) If half-naked women draw people toward solo violin music, I am all for it. The classical music industry is in no position to maintain an elitist stance of indifference toward the tastes of the majority. But by the same token, I am intrigued by the subtle but nonetheless important ways that our engagement with the music changes when it is packaged to appeal to a pop sensibility. It is clear what we might gain but what might we lose? The visual is not inconsequential. I, along with my collection of Iron Maiden covers, can attest to that.