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Incredible Edibles

What Skoda has to do with Chinese monkeys and Salvador Dalí.

Apart from air, there’s hardly anything more integral to our existence than food. Which makes it easy to overlook as utilitarian fuel for ordinary life. But there’s a whole crazy world of extraordinary food-related coolness out there, and we’ve gone and digested it all for you: Here are our top 5 picks for goodies that satisfy both stomach and brain.

EDIBLE.

Rarely would a company have trouble doing business under any other name. But sometimes the need to convey the nature of your product with utter conviction has such a sense of urgency that it has to start as early as possible: at the name.

This seems to be the case for Edible. — an uber-gourmet virtual shop that caters to the most gastronomically adventurous of us. A delicacy heaven for the foodiest of foodies and a Fear-Factoresque hell for the mere mortals, the online store offers unusual edibles from around the world, all falling outside the realm of ordinary, everyday food and all likely to elicit anything from a raised eyebrow to an uncontrollable gag reflex.

Edible. (whose name actually includes the period that follows it, as in “Trust us, this is edible, period.”) includes an array of foods rarely seen in the Western world but regarded for centuries as delicacies in more exotic cultures.

Chocoholic? They’ve got you covered — with chocolate- covered giant ants from Colombia. Party animal? Scorpion vodka is your thing. Snack junkie? Salted and read-to-eat mopani worms from Africa are calling your name. An all-natural, organic-only eco-nut? It doesn’t get better than monkey-picked tea from China.

And if you feel your confidence in the whole thing begin to shake at any given moment, remind yourself they’ve got that all-convincing period.

EUGENE & LOUISE BAKERY

Oh, the ways in which food can seem inedible. Just like you may have reservations about eating stuff that looks gross, you could have just as hard a time eating something that looks so perfect it might as well belong in a museum.

That’s exactly how we feel about the edibles of Eugene and Louise Bakery. Their cute-as-a-button marzipan treats look like the adorable lovechild of LEGO figurines and those trendy anime-inspired vinyl toys.

The sweet enterprise is the brainchild of three Belgian friends: Glenn D’Hondt and Sylvia Meert (a.k.a. Eugene and Louise) and Tinne Mermans. From the too-sweet-to-eat marzipan treats, to the in-your-face,-Charlie chocolate factory, to their fairytale-like journal, the entire thing tickles our inner child and takes us back to those precious Hansel-and-Gretelesque times when food was full of magic and fun.

LES DINERS DE GALA

There’s long been an intersection between food and art — heck, most chefs would be offended if regarded as anything less than artists. But when one of history’s greatest surrealists lays his art on food, it’s something else entirely.

Melting clocks and table-dripping eggs notwithstanding, Salvador Dali actually illustrated the complex relationship between art and food — literally. In between redefining modern art and stirring up political controversy, the mustached Spaniard wrote and illustrated Les Diners de Gala — a spectacular cookbook that features 136 recipes across 12 categories of supreme European deliciousness, stunningly illustrated and bound with color-illustrated cloth boards in a dustjacket embossed with gold foil.

To our utter befuddlement, the book is now out of print. But you can get your art-hungry hands on a copy for a few hundred bucks and serve a piece of art history at your next dinner party.

>>> via GOOD Magazine

POLYFACE FARMS

The real art of food starts at the production level. We’re not talking about your basic eat-organic, buy-local, humane-farming credo. We’re talking about the deeper, incredibly complex agricultural ecosystem that feeds our food supply.

And no one understands, or utilizes, that ecosystem better than Polyface Farms — a revolutionary Virginia-based farm that works with the ecological, economical and emotional aspects of agriculture, truly brightening our relationship to nature. Founder Joel Salatin says the farm is “in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.”

Polyface has six different species of animals growing in an elaborate symbiotic ecosystem of sustainable agriculture, or permaculture. They’re all engaged in a fascinating bio-ecological dance where they keep each other free of parasites and the manure of one species makes for the grub of another. (Oh man up, this is world-changing stuff here, save the “poop” giggles for 30 Rock.)

Here’s one in-action example: a heard of cows spends a full day grazing a grass area clean. Salatin waits 3 days, then takes the “eggmobile” — a dingy cart full of 350 chickens — onto the grazed land. The hens then cluck their way straight to the cow manure and start digging for their favorite food: maggots. These are the larvae of flies, which would’ve hatched on the 4th day, creating a huge fly problem. (Salatin has waited until they’re as juicy and nutritious as possible to give the chickens maximum protein.)

Meanwhile, the hens are not only spreading the cow manure onto the field, but also contributing their own highly nitrogenous kind. The result? The entire cycle has both the cows and the chickens all happy and full, but it’s also fed the grass: thanks to the brilliant fertilization mechanism, it starts growing madly — 4 weeks later, the entire cycle can repeat itself.

And the only man-made equipment involved in the whole process is the fence surrounding the grass area.

To truly appreciate the incredible importance of such permaculture, check out food ecologist Michael Pollan’s brilliant TED talk and read his eye-opening book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Now that’s food for thought.

SKODA FABIA CAKE

Sure, food is a serious thing these days. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with it. And it’s all the more indulgent when it’s scored to one of the most classically elating and playful songs of all time.

Plus, the word “schnitzel” just makes anything exponentially more fun.

Courtesy of Fallon, London. Yum.

BP

Down With The Man | Part 7

How to do peer-to-peer sharing without entering Jesse James territory. Welcome to the Down With The Man issue: Part 7.

LEGAL AND WILLING

Speaking of things shaking the music industry, we couldn’t gloss over the huge and highly polarized issue of piracy. Worst part: it’s a vicious cycle. In a nutshell: a handful of big music retailers (a.k.a. “The Man”) dominate 90% of music sales; they exert pricing pressure on everyone else, asking consumers to shell out too much for music, most of which doesn’t even go to the artist due to brutal licensing deals; in turn, many music fans flip the bird and just download music illegally through P2P file-sharing.

But there’s actually a way to get free music through “file-sharing” that doesn’t make you an outlaw.

You may recall from pickings of yore services like Paperback Swap and SwapaCD — networks of everyday people who exchange books and CD’s they own via the mail. Now there’s a better execution to the same idea: swaptree, officially launched last July, is a similar concept, but has a broader media catalog — books, CD’s, DVD’s, even video games — and a massive member base of hundreds of thousands of users, with an astounding 30% monthly growth rate.

Seems like the newest media-shaker comes from the oldest medium of all: snail-mail, regarded today as barely a step up from pigeon post.

swaptree is free, simple, and here’s how it works: first say what you’ve got (build a “have” list of all the read books and old CD’s you’re willing to bid adieu), then say what you want (build a “want” list of stuff you’ve always been dying to read/hear/play). Then just sit back as the swaptree algorithms find you a trade and get the ball rolling. (We’re currently awaiting The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the brilliant book by one of our heroes, Michael Pollan.)

So how could all this be legal? Flashbacks of copyright class remind us about something known as the “first book doctrine,” a loophole in copyright law that allows you to transfer (for payment or not) a lawful copy of copyrighted work (like a book or CD) once you’ve obtained it. Everyday translation: whenever you buy, find, receive as a gift or get your hands on a book in other ways, it’s yours to do whatever you like with. Including swapping. And now it’s being applied to other media.

Sure, the big media dictators may not be happy. But in this power- to-the-people age, getting the latest from Postal Service through the postal service is an in-your-face constitutional right “the people” are learning to exercise…and lovin’ it.

BP

Re:thought

Sprouting phones, The Junkyards, corporate rarities, Emile Hirsch murders his wife, what film icon is going into Hollywood’s “other” film industry, how your mom scammed you, and why salad is the fundamental folly of capitalism.

GEECO COOL

Geeks and eco-freaks alike rejoice: you can now both be happy as larvae in chicken poop and call each other on the world’s first sustainable cell phones. Because, despite their ubiquity — or perhaps because of it — cell phones are given very little thought between the store and the dumpster. Out of the one billion phones produces annually across the globe, only 10% are recycled — the rest are swapped for a new one every 18 months, ending up in all the world’s landfills.

So Nokia researchers, inspired by a bit of cultural anthropology, technology…and, okay, maybe a bit of pressure from Wall Street, set out to change things. Whatever the motive, we dig the latest concept phone from the world’s largest mobile-phone maker: the Nokia Remade.

It’s a cell phone made entirely of recycled waste: aluminum cans for the shell, plastic bottles for the chassis and car tyres of the key mats. And we think it’s quite the looker, too. Think of it as the Simple of cell phones.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0uG-BaZ7Tk

Then there’s the even more technologically outlandish and ecologically brilliant concept of the Bamboo phone: one of the top entries in the 2008 Core77 Green Gadgets Design Competiton.

Bamboo PhoneIt’s not just made from eco-friendly materials like corn-based bio-plastic and bamboo. It’s also entirely biodegradable and, once you remove the battery and antenna, the case can go in your favorite compost pile. There, it decomposes withing a few weeks. Then — no joke — it actually grows bamboo shoots: the case is filled with seeds.

So could concept phones be the new concept cars? Great in theory, but never really hit market in any sort of world-changing way? We hope not — cause we’ll take the Remade over the iPhone any day. Better yet, Steve Jobs, save that Diet Coke can — it’s back to the lab.

DRIVING MUSIC

And, hey, why stop at technology? Repurposed materials are a brilliant fit for art. Case in point: the Car Music Project.

It started in 1994 with the slow yet noisy demise of a certain old Honda Accord. Except that particular shackwagon was American composed Bill Milbrodt’s faithful old Honda Accord. So he decided a junkyard end was not enough: he envisioned a resurrection of the car, one that turned it into music multiple musicians could play and interpret.

Car Music ProjectSo he got a team of auto experts to take the car apart, then hired metal sculptor Ray Faunce III to hand-craft musical instruments from the parts. The result — a stunning orchestra of brass, wind, percussion and string instruments.

Fast-forward to today. The U.K. division of Ford used the Car Music Project in commercial work for the Ford Focus which, granted, does take away from the project’s street cred but it also introduces a whole new wide audience to this novel way of thinking. The resulting TV spot, if you can abstract yourself from the mediocre vocals, the music video cliches and the awkwardly forced presence of the car, is an impressive testament to Milbrodt’s revolutionary brilliance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbQRJxxRGzk

Although vaguely reminiscent of a fantastic Cannes-recognized spot for, coincidentally, Honda — at least to the extent that it “plays” the car — it’s truly a rarity of unconventional thought. Well played, Milbrodt, well played.

DRIVING ART

More cars and art: we’re pretty cynical about any kind of corporate-backed art endeavors, but we’ve had our eye on the Scion Installation Art Tour since it first made waves 5 years ago. After all, the quirky car — the ultimate four-wheel tribute to the subjectivity of taste and beauty — should fit right into the irreverent, revolutionary corners of the art world.

Which it has — since 2003, the Installation has toured nearly every major cultural epicenter in the US.

Andrew PommierLast year, it embarked upon its 4th annual tour titled “It’s a Beautiful World” — and starting this weekend, it’s making a stop right here in Philly. Between March 7 and March 21, cutting-edge new talent across collage, painting, photography and sculpture will be showcasing mind-bending work at the F.U.E.L. Collection, better known as “the Real World house,” on 3rd and Arch.

The featured artists hail from a ton of backgrounds, mindsets, nationalities, disciplines and perspectives. So it looks like a phenomenal show. And to wrap up the season, all the art will be auctioned off at the Intstallation’s last stop in L.A., with 100% of proceeds going to art-related charities.

So who’s joining us at F.U.E.L. this week?

DEJA VU GIVES YOU VERTIGO

We’re suckers for Hitchcock and don’t think the current debased state of Hollywood culture could ever outdo him. Which is why we dig Vanity Fair’s 2008 Hollywood Portofilio, the centerpiece of their 14th Annual Hollywood Issue: it pays creative tribute to Hitchcock, forsaking the illusion of outdoability and embracing instead a vision of redoability.

Four Vanity Fair photographers worked their magic with 21 top contemporary actors to recreate 11 iconic Hitchcockian scenes.

To our ultimate delight, one of our favorite actors, Scarlett Johansson, was cast in our favorite Hitchcock: Rear Window. Which we also find to be a perfect metaphor for the entire project: the voyeurism that backbones the film’s plot blended with the inherent voyeurism of today’s celebrity culture.

The full lineup of talent: Casey Affleck, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Julie Christie, Marion Cotillard, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Foster, Jodie Foster, Emile Hirsch, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James McAvoy, Omar Metwally, Gwyneth Paltrow, Seth Rogen, Eva Marie Saint, Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts, Tang Wei, and Renée Zellweger.

See all 11 photographs, watch how the magic happened, and rent some original Hitchcock this weekend. Which of his timeless characters would you play?

IDEA BUG IN ACTION

More celebrities and film: guess what Isabella Rossellini is up to these days. Nope, it’s not Hollywood — it’s more Sundace Channel meets Discovery. After last week’s exploration of the biosphere’s creative potential, we’re glad to find Rossellini joining us…although she skews less ornithology and more pornithology.

The iconic model- slash-actor-slash- filmmaker is writing, directing and starring in Green Porno — a Sundance Channel series of short films on the sex life of bugs. Clad in various insect costumes and humping cardboard decoys, she somehow gets the magic of it across in a brilliant way, shot with a mix of childlike simplicity and German Expressionism.

Weird? Perhaps. Avant-garde? No question. Tremendously insightful, enlightening and inspiring? Absolutely.

Here’s to another cultural artifact that blends the science and art worlds in a strikingly refreshing way. And, um, those house flies are getting us all hot and bothered…not in their usual midsummer rotting garbage way.

NAUGHTICAL ADVENTURES

Aqua EroticaIf all the humping bugs got you in a certain mood, then you’re in luck: our product pick of the week is just the thing. It also happens to be a world innovation in, um, bookbinding. Because Aqua Erotica claims to be “the first-ever waterproof book for adults.”

(Wait, there was a waterproof book for kids? One more thing we missed out on in childhood, thanks mom.)

We’re not quite sure what to make of all the boastful claims veiled in amusingly cheesy tropes. But, hey, be your own judge — whatever floats your duckie.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gif

We love Wired. We love eye-opening data. We’re also health freaks. So this week’s Untrivia borrows from the good folks at Wired — this nifty data visualization from January’s issue is just too good to not share. Not because we didn’t already know the healthiest foods are found on periphery of the store and the obesity-propagating stuff of insane energy densities lurks in the middle. But because this visual representation drives a bigger point home:

Nutritional Values (via Wired)

The point: there’s something fundamentally broken in our economic model. How come the healthiest foods are also the most expensive on a cost-per-calorie basis? All the government aid to the poor seems moot: food stamps to barely afford those cheap unhealthy foods, then medicare to slap a Band-Aid on the obesity-driven results.

Why not just cut back on those corn subsidies (hello, corn syrup, you number-one obesity culprit) and pour a bit into, say, organic farming? The recent Farm Bill gave $42 billion in subsidies to commodities (yep, those Reese’s Cups and Pringles would be it) and a mere $1.6 billion to fruit and vegetable.

Seems like the government can learn a thing or two from Michael Pollan.

BP

Music and the Mystery of Aliveness

“We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts.”

Music and the Mystery of Aliveness

“Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern… Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” the poet Ronald Johnson wrote as he contemplated matter, music, and the mind.

A generation after him, a young woman discovered that when the mind is suddenly unmattered, Bach remains.

One midwinter day shortly before the pandemic paralyzed the world, Clemency Burton-Hill — an underground London garage DJ turned BBC host turned creative director of America’s oldest public radio station for classical music, and a lifelong lover of Bach — suffered a catastrophic hemorrhage in her left frontal lobe. She was thirty-nine, her children one and five. She survived, but was left unable to see, move, or speak.

Clemency Burton Hill (Portrait: Matthew Septimus / WNYC)

Multiple surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation began restoring Clemency’s comprehension and sight, but the right side of her body remained paralyzed and her speech voided. Slowly, slowly, the words started forming again out of the primeval matter of the mind. Eventually, we spoke — Clemency still in her hospital bed, skull bandaged and face radiant with life, each word a triumph, as deliberate and precise as a Bach note. I found myself wondering what the world might look like if we spoke to each other that way, our words tender with our mortal fragility, resolute with reverence for the aliveness in us and in each other, this grand shared mystery.

Not long before her hemorrhage, Clemency had made a passionate case for a daily dose of music as “a form of sonic soul maintenance” in her book Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day (public library) — the music counterpart to Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong journal of delights. She wrote:

We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts… We evolved by coming together around the fire every night, singing songs and telling stories — invariably, telling stories through singing songs. That’s what our ancestors did; that’s how they made sense of the world and each other; that’s how they learned how to be.

It is an impulse that is still fundamental to who we are.

Fittingly, the musical calendar of wonder begins with a Bach liturgy for January 1. Bach punctuates Clemency’s sonic year as a maker of music that “contains all of everything” and maker of “the blueprint for everything that was to come,” his influence reverberating through the hallway of time to shape genres as diverse as techno and funk. As the year unfolds, there are his Goldberg Variations with their exquisite mathematical precision, rumored to have been composed as an insomnia cure, their original manuscript bearing an inscription in Bach’s hand: “Prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.”

There is his violin solo in E major that always comes as “a shot of musical caffeine” for Clemency: “In just a hundred seconds or so,” she writes, “this piece has the effect of apparently rearranging the molecules around me, making me see and think more clearly.”

There is his Ave Maria in early June, and his Partita no. 2 in D Minor on my late-summer birthday, and on my father’s autumnal equinox birthday a chorale cantata translating to “As a father has mercy.” (This, too, is Bach’s singular enchantment — how we project ourselves onto him and focus our own existence through his lens.)

Bach’s diurnal presence took on a new form after Clemency’s hemorrhage and became an embodied testament to philosopher Josef Pieper’s soulful case for how Bach can save your soul. At first, with her life so brutally transformed, she found it difficult to even listen to his music, hearing in it the echoes of her former life and former self. But she eventually came to see Bach for what he always had been and always would be — the existential soundtrack to aliveness itself.

Along the protracted trajectory of her recovery, both physical and psychological, Clemency began not only listening to but playing Bach every single day. “To recover the Bach in me,” she says in her stunning BBC piece about the experience — her first word-work since that savage January day, and the most moving audio artwork I have heard in epochs.

With her hard-won words, she invites the voices of people from various walks of life, people who all play Bach daily to move through their own very different and differently challenging lives — from an elderly organist in Germany to a young cellist and community organizer in Kenya’s largest slum: Bach as meditation, Bach as motivation, Bach as calibration of being. (When we spoke that day from the hospital, I shared with Clemency something hardly anyone in my life knew: that I was a secret cellist, still learning the instrument, playing a single Bach cello suite day after day as I waded through a very different personal loss.)

Nina, my cello.

In exploring Bach as a daily ritual, Clemency draws on the legacy of the legendary Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor Pablo Casals (December 29, 1876–October 22, 1973) — Yo-Yo Ma’s hero and formative influence, widely considered the greatest cellist of all time, who at the age of ninety-three reflected so tenderly on how working with love prolongs your life. Casals began his autobiography by sharing the daily practice that had anchored him to his own life since the day he first fell under Bach’s enchantment:

For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house… It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable.

Pablo Casals

In Bach, Casals found an analogue for the miracle of nature. Echoing the poet and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley’s poignant observation that “we forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness… that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle,” Casals reflected on his profound personal connection to nature, of which his love of music was an expression — a way to feel more alive, more awake to the wonder of aliveness:

I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree. I have always especially loved the sea. Whenever possible, I have lived by the sea.

The sea and Bach were always intimately connected for Casals, who fell under Bach’s spell at thirteen. One saltwater-scented afternoon, his father bought him his first full-sized cello — an instrument looked down upon in Bach’s day, too unworthy to compose solos for. Father and son then walked to a musty old music shop in the nearby harbor — Casals never forgot “its faint smell of the sea” — where he acquired his other great portal into the “magic and mystery” of music: a yellowed sheaf of scores, faded with age, bearing the title Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, imprinted with “J.S. Bach.” They became his most cherished music.

A lifetime later, looking back on how these cello suites had grown to be regarded as “academic works, mechanical, without warmth” in the century and a half since Bach’s death in 1750, and how no cellist or violinist had performed any of them in its entirety, Casals exclaimed:

How could anyone think of them as being cold, when a whole radiance of space and poetry pours forth from them! They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music.

Casals and his generation had awakened to the radiance of Bach thanks to his contemporary and hero Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875–September 4, 1965). Although Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize for his ethical-ecological philosophy of “Reverence for Life” — the philosophy that inspired sea-serenader Rachel Carson to dedicate her epoch-making Silent Spring to Schweitzer — music always remained his greatest animating passion.

Albert Schweitzer, early 1900s.

Schweitzer — born almost exactly 200 years after Bach, to a minister and a pastor’s daughter — was five when his father began giving him music lessons on the piano inherited from his organist grandfather. Before his legs were long enough to reach the pedals, the boy began playing the organ himself. By nine, he was substituting for the church organist at service.

And then he discovered Bach.

During the Classical and early Romantic eras that followed Bach’s, his music fell out of favor and slipped into academic obscurity, relegated to a thing of theory, syphoned of transcendence. The young Schweitzer, serving as an organist to the Paris Bach Society that he had co-founded while completing his doctoral dissertation on the spirituality of Kant’s philosophy at the Sorbonne, grew increasingly restless at this erasure of wonder and took it upon himself to remedy it. In those first years of the twentieth century, the only Bach material available to French readers — even those who cherished and played music — were only dry biographies that presented him as a cold mathematician of sound. A musician himself, Schweitzer longed to talk to other musicians and lovers of music about “the real nature of Bach’s music and its interpretation” — to resurrect Bach the artist, the enchanter, the virtuoso of feeling, the prophet of transcendence.

In 1902, Schweitzer spent his autumn vacation writing an essay to get the students at the Paris Conservatory excited about Bach. He quickly found himself with much more to say — so much more that, after using his meager funds to purchase a copy of Bach’s hard to find and extravagantly priced complete works, he spent the next two years turning the essay into a 455-page book that introduced the world to Bach the artist; the book that magnetized a largehearted embrace when Casals met Schweitzer in the 1930s.

In it, Schweitzer rescued Bach from the theorists who had coopted him for their ideologies of “pure music” — composition devoid of poetry, created solely as a mathematical exercise in harmonic perfection — and instead helped people see him as “a poet and painter in sound” who uses the language of music to paint entire landscapes of thought and feeling. He wrote:

The impulse to express poetic and pictorial concepts is the essence of music. It addresses itself to the listener’s creative imagination and seeks to kindle in him the feelings and visions with which the music was composed. But this it can do only if the person who uses the language of sound possesses the mysterious faculty of rendering thoughts with a superior clarity and precision. In this respect Bach is the greatest of the great… A soul that longs for peace out of the world’s unrest and has itself already tasted peace allows others to share its experience in this music.

Schweitzer observed that there are two types of artists: the subjective, who use their personality as the wellspring of their art and live as “a law unto themselves,” and the objective, whose “artistic personality exists independently of the human” and whose art is “not impersonal, but superpersonal,” channeling the universal and the eternal through the vessel of their being. Bach was such an artist:

It is as if he felt only one impulse, to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him.

[…]

Bach is thus a terminal point. Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads up to him…. This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul. Centuries and generations have laboured at this work, before the grandeur of which we halt in veneration. To anyone who has gone through the history of this epoch and knows what the end of it was, it is the history of that culminating spirit, as it was before it objectivated itself in a single personality.

He adds a poetic corollary to this eternal and aggregate nature of art:

We feel it to be a matter of course that some day a Bach shall come in whom all those, other Bachs shall find a posthumous existence.

The book project interrupted the young Schweitzer’s theological writings and accompanied him on the path to medical school, with Bach as his bridge between spirituality and science. Struggling financially, he paid for his medical education with proceeds from the Bach book and income from his Bach concerts.

Albert Schweitzer at his organ. LP cover art by Ben Shahn.

His passionate appreciation of Bach never left him. A decade later, as he headed for Africa to do the work out of which his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” arose — the work that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and Rachel Carson’s devotion — Schweitzer brought with him a pedal piano the Paris Bach Society had given him as the closest thing to an organ one could bring to the tropics so he could continue his daily Bach. In his autobiography, he reflected:

During the many peaceful hours I was able to spend with Bach during my four and a half years in the jungle I had penetrated deeper into the spirit of his works.

Hatcheting her way through the synaptic jungle, Clemency too found herself in more intimate contact with the spirit of Bach’s music, unfolding “the ultimate expression of anything and everything” — aliveness and mortality cleaved into the edge of being, the edge on which we are all perched every instant of every living day, each moment more precarious than we dare think, each more precious than we dare feel. How poignant to reread now this passage from Year of Wonder — a book Clemency wrote out of her belief, then only mental but not yet matter-tested, that “music holds the mystery of being alive”; that something singular happens “when we open up our lives to let such music in”:

Bach’s brain was clearly some kind of supercomputer: he wrote at least three thousand pieces whilst holding down a number of jobs, a couple of wives and twenty children.

[…]

The essence of what makes Bach the greatest eludes words, but it lies, I think, in the way he combines technical precision with socking great emotion. People often describe Bach as ‘mathematical’ because of the complex, intricate patterns in his music. But he is not clinical or scientific: as a human being he knew intense joy but also wild grief, and there’s never been a composer or songwriter more attuned to the vagaries of the human heart.

BP

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