Christopher Jones adapts Bach’s Goldberg Variations for mandolin

It is every artist’s dream to think that their creations will remain in the public’s mind years after they pass from this earth. There has to be a reason why theatergoers flock to see Shakespeare’s plays 400 years after his death, or listen to the music of JS Bach nearly three hundred years after it was written.

Bach has held the attention of musicians all over the world, and in almost every genre, for its precision and mathematical rationality. For centuries string players have grown up learning his pieces, and keyboardists as well, and the value of mastering his music has percolated down into the bluegrass world as well. Chris Thile wowed the mandolin world with his 2013 recording, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1, winning plaudits from classical reviewers as well. Many banjo and guitar players have tackled the Bach repertoire as well, notably Jens Kruger and John Bullard who have recorded Bach pieces on the five string.

This spring we have a new project from Christopher Jones (C.E. Jones), who has adapted some of Bach’s most popular music, known collectively as The Goldberg Variations, for mandolin, banjo, and guitar. This suite of 31 short pieces was completed in 1741, just a few years before his death, and composed for the harpsichord, a predecessor of our modern piano. Since the instrument used a mechanism to pluck rather than strike the strings, the technique for guitar, mandolin, or banjo is quite well suited to approach these melodies.

Christopher began his musical life in classical music, born into a family of performers. He initially took up the cello, where one can not fail to study Bach’s Cello Suites. Music education for Jones continued through college, earning him a Bachelor’s Degree in Cello Performance, and both a masters and a doctorate in Music Composition from West Virginia University.

Living in the Mountaineer State, he soon became entranced by the traditional music of the Appalachian region, and took up a personal study of the mandolin, banjo, and guitar. But it all came together when he was selected to direct an Appalachian Music Ensemble at West Virginia Wesleyan College where students have the opportunity to learn to play bluegrass and old time music.

It was there, he tells us, that the idea for combining the traditional bluegrass instruments with his classical music background began to emerge.

“I’m a big fan of reinterpreting old music. There’s always a new way to look at something even if it’s been seen in so many ways before, especially right now when musicians are doing so much examination of their own influences, and how the intersection of so many varied styles are all about revealing and exploring different facets of similar truths. I made a conscious decision a while ago, maybe 6 or 7 years, to try and merge these different styles and see how the depth of each could be informed and enriched by drawing connections between them.”

Jones’ recording of The Goldberg Variations is due to release tomorrow, May 7, both digitally and on CD, and he has agreed to share the track for Variation 1 (BMV 988) with our readers. This is such a well-known piece that even those who do not know classical or Baroque music may still recognize it.

“This first variation is a playful and bubbly ride that breaks the calm and stately atmosphere left by the end of the Aria. The guitar and mandolin trade little fragments of ideas back and forth like banter between two old friends who haven’t seen each other in years, but pick up right where they left off.”

Have a listen.

The Goldberg Variations from C.E. Jones will be available on May 7. Pre-orders for both digital download and audio CD can be placed on bandcamp.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.