The Whirring Hands of Keith Emerson

High among the many achievements that marked the long career of Keith Emerson, who took his own life on March 10th at the age of seventy-one, was the keyboardist’s confrontation with J. S. Bach’s music. Emerson’s approach to the baroque masterpieces he ripped parts from was one of interpretation by assault: dismantling as creation; quotation as deformation; chaos as a form of control. In these Promethean deeds, Emerson dragged Bach to places he had never been before, not in order to hide the perpetrator’s nefarious acts but to share them with a global audience. Violin partitas and Brandenburg concertos, suites and inventions, oratorios and cantatas—all were fuel for the crackling torch of Emerson’s creativity. His were larcenies that lit up sold-out stadiums and the world’s musical imagination.

Under Emerson’s whirring hands there was never any question that Bach’s music was energized as it rarely had been in the two-and-a-half centuries since its composition, even if the violence inflicted often brought the passages he had in his grip to the brink of death before letting them gasp again for air.

Bach himself was renowned for his physical economy at the keyboards of his own day (organ, harpsichord, clavichord): “[he] played with so easy and small a motion of the fingers that it was hardly perceptible,” wrote his first biographer Johann Forkel in 1802. “Still less did the other parts of his body take any share in his play.”

In shattering, sweat-drenched contrast to the poised and bewigged Bach, Emerson’s acrobatic antics, so crucial to his performing persona and its musical results, seemed always on the edge of disaster, all the more so for the bedeviling precision of his fingers. To watch and listen to Emerson was simultaneously thrilling and enervating—the pulse quickened even as the sheer effort on display exhausted one in advance.

His digits flashed with incredible speed and accuracy at Moog or Kurzweil synthesizer, Hohner clavinet, Hammond organ, or old-fashioned Steinway ready to burst into flames. But unlike Bach’s motionless body, Emerson’s humped, slapped, and vaulted his instruments as if they were pommel horses, blocking sleds, or punching bags. These exercises were conducted before monster crowds, thrilled and dumbstruck.

Throughout his sprawling oeuvre, both in recordings and high-octane live performances, Emerson interpolated many Bachian classics into his hits, from the late 1960s with his group the Nice, and from 1970 on with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, whose intermittent existence stretched across four decades, the first of which yielded six platinum records.

First recorded with the Nice, Rondo—a version of Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo A La Turk that flattened out the quirky metrical groupings of the original’s 9/8 groove under the treads of the prog rock 4/4 bulldozer—was battleground for many of Emerson’s grandest, most egregious Bachian offensives.

Emerson’s initial interpolations in Rondo came from Bach’s Italian Concerto, whose insouciant, yet rational strains worked in visual and aural counterpoint to the slouching, shimmying flower-power rockers and the massive momentum of their bashing beat seen and heard here in a 1968 German television appearance.

In later iterations of the Rondo, the princely poise of the Italian Concerto gave way to a darker Bachian bricolage. These restive impulses unleashed Emerson’s combative virtuosity with sometimes terrifying force. In a concert in Switzerland in 1970, the look and sound have changed have already changed from the Nice years: Emerson has thrown off the orange and red for all-black—all the better to bring into relief the feats of his magic white hands.

At the start of this performance a miasma of numbing electronic effects seems to impel Emerson to rock the Hammond back forth while rubbing against it in heaves of lust, wanking the stop tabs. Suddenly he breaks into a longer statement of the opening third movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, its enlightened brio sounding forth in comic chiaroscuro against the shadowy backdrop—like a champagne cork popping in a Piranesi dungeon. This jarring sonic juxtaposition is only amplified, literally so, by the bright flash of Emerson’s fingers. It’s not so much a prelude, but foreplay to the carnal act to follow.

Emerson uses Brubeck’s melody to stomp out the Bachian flare, but eventually the Rondo itself breaks apart under the duress of the keyboardist’s slapping glissandi. The organ itself remains unfazed by the abuse as Emerson staggers back before returning to coax new fragments of Bach. These minor-key jabs, in contrast to the bright major of the Italian Concerto heard at the outset, then spawn a long angular figure of Emerson’s own invention rising up the keyboard. It’s as if the self-generating music is itself sending the entranced inventor into convulsions, his long hair thrashing in the stage lights.

The musical figure surges ever higher but without quite reaching release before diminished harmonies cascade down and flow directly into the inspiration for the torrent just heard: the crazed climax of the harpsichord cadenza from Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Emerson blazes note-perfect through the nerve-fraying thicket of Bach’s thirty-second notes, before firing off his own quick barrage of runs and arpeggios that on completion fling him back from the keyboard.

Emerson steps forward again and now really goes after the Hammond, hitting it with sledgehammer octaves before getting his fist around a chord that he holds while walking around the organ. From the wrong side he launches into alternating-hand flurries and fierce toccata jabs. After having had his way from behind, Emerson jumps back over for another spate of manic rapture.

Bizarre, obstinate, unexampled when it was written around 1720, Bach’s cadenza is the first great monument to keyboard virtuosity as freakish fantasy and brazen exhibitionism.

Even in the staid period reenactment of the harpsichord solo at the beginning of Jean-Marie Straub’s 1968 film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach one can sense how revolutionary the excess of Bach’s invention, display, and self-absorption were. At his electronic keyboards, Emerson was not only taking from the master, but learning from him, too.

Emerson is said to have discovered the Moog synthesizer when he walked into a London record shop in 1968 and heard the Fifth Brandenburg from Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach II.  That reading of the piece is shocking for its wrong-headed timidity, Carlos nullifying everything radical in the cadenza, the synthesized tinkle of faux-harpsichord barely scratching and cloying it ways through a saccharine glaze of sibilance and bells.

In his bout with the history-changing cadenza, Emerson first amply demonstrates he can fulfill Bach’s digital demands. He then proceeds to dynamite the whole teetering edifice.

In a live performance of the Rondo from Belgium in 1970, Emerson battles with another of Bach’s demonic creations, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor—a less interesting and important piece, even if more popular, than the Brandenburg. But here too there are plenty of smoldering coals in the darkness to ignite Emerson’s fingers, rocketing over the keys, bombs bursting and fragments flying. Perhaps the fact the Toccata lurks so large in the popular imagination spurred Emerson’s urges that night in Belgium. Already at the start, before the obligatory Italian concerto bit, there seems a more malevolent purpose in Emerson’s hip thrusts and electronic emissions. After the toccata riffs and sallies, he mounts the machine and stomps the keyboard, like Bach the organist gone berserk, Frankenstein’s monster in silver boots on top of the world.

It’s not simply that Bach’s music can withstand any and all attacks. These works were better for what Emerson did to and with them. Never again would the merely safe be good enough.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at