This morning, J. S. Bach’s birthday, I woke not to the tolling of church bells as he might have done on any March 21stbetween 1685 and 1750.
The tinny reveille I heard came not from a Gothic belfry but from a space-grey MacBook Pro a few feet from my right ear. My wife was on the internet and had launched an unlikely wake-up call.
However feebly delivered, the melody I heard would have been familiar to old Johann, so deeply engraved on his hard drive was this venerable Lutheran chorale. Emanating from the laptop were the hymn’s first two short phrases, rising resolutely step-wise up the minor scale.
The tune was delivered in electric piano tones, first as a single line, then repeated along with a droning alto, and finally in four parts that were the work of the birthday boy himself. The message conveyed, even without the text being sung, was not exactly one to launch me out of bed to greet the spring day, attack the problems of the world, and be at one with myself and the planet: Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig.
One common English translation of the chorale runs: “Ah, how futile, how insignificant.” Nichtig is the toughest bit to translate. Nichtis the German negative—“not.” The adjectival form nichtigmight more poetically be rendered as “vain” or its connotations more closely approached with the clinical “nugatory”—even more ungainly than “insignificant.” Nichtigpoints toward nothingness: the desires of earthly life worthless, human striving a black hole of meaninglessness. Nichtigis a bleak word. When the Germans begin talking about the futility of earthly striving, translation is itself vain.
Still, one begins to understand why birthdays weren’t celebrated in Bach’s day.
My ears awake and soul duly chastened, I opened the eyes. “Look!” is the final word of the chorale’s first verse. Look at what? Your own vanity and that of the world.
My wife had reopened the Bach Doodle that today greets all the world’s Googlers, pushing Bach’s popularity way beyond its previous high point when the famous Toccata in D Minor (even if that piece is held by some not to be by Bach at all) approved credit card transactions at all Trader Joe’s last Halloween.
Bach has never been more visible, more audible, more popular than he is today. Sometimes praised by Lutheran devotees as the Fifth Apostle, he has now been sanctified by the world’s search engine: this March 21st is Saint Johann’s Day.
On the Google Doodle marking this watershed moment, a plasticky play figure in white wig, red cheeks, and black cantor’s robe sits at a little organ that looks more like a Hammond B-3 than one of the colossal instruments Bach piloted during his lifetime. The greatest master of music-making feet, this Bach’s legs are idle, almost invisible: the Google Doodle will be powered by brain not pedal power.
The Doodle is interactive. You click on the arrow in the middle of a cog that, we’ll soon learn, signifies mechanistic invention. A message asks the viewer to wait a moment as the machine springs into action. We zoom past the organist into his private chamber. There are sheaves of manuscript paper presumably filled with Bachian masterpieces. We then see a toy box with a bar code on one side: you’re always buying or selling on Google, most often something as precious as your attention. The unheard chorale text wants you to think it is your soul that’s on sale.
The box has two words stamped on it in red: “Machine Learning.” Inside the box is a toy piano with analog switches and other bewigged dolls: the look is seventies synthesizer retro.
A message appears:
“Hi, I’m 18thcentury composer Johann Sebastian Bach! I’m known for my enchanting harmonies. What is harmony? Well, let’s start with a simple melody. It’s pretty, but not very exciting.” Bach never said “Hi”. And he didn’t use exclamation points to introduce himself. He deployed them when setting words about death and the end the world—like the one based on this very melody. “Ah how futile, Ah how nugatory, is the life of man!”
The five ascending notes we hear on the piano and see on the staff could, I suppose, be construed as “pretty”—but the text makes them otherwise. They are about the nullification of prettiness. Another run through those notes is made with the alto, now appearing on the staff below just the main melody. We are told this, too, is pleasing to the ear: “harmony”. The tenor and bass join in for the four-part harmony composed by Bach and heard at the close of his cantata (BWV 26) Ach wie flüchtig, ach wei nichtig composed in 1724.
At last we are invited to collaborate with this Silicon Valley Bach: “Want to make music together? Add notes to the lines below and our machine will use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to harmonize your melodies in my signature style.”
Soon after his death Bach was held up as the greatest master of four-part chorale harmonizations. It was a practice at which, said one admirer, “he excelled all other composers in the world.” If Google has indeed captured this “signature style” through “machine learning” that assimilates the data from Bach’s own work then it has accomplished a goal long sought.
The creation of composing machines had been contemplated—and worried about—in Bach’s time, too. A Lutheran theologian writing in 1754 dismissed the accomplishments of a flute-playing automaton fabricated in France then making the rounds through Germany: “No one has yet invented an image that thinks, or wills, or composes or even does anything at all similar,” asserted J. M. Schmidt. As proof that no machine could write or perform expressive music, he adduced Bach’s Art of Fugue, a sprawling demonstration of combinatorial invention far more complex than the four-part harmonizations whose secrets Google claims to have cracked: “Everything the champions of materialism put forward must fall to the ground in view of this single example,” wrote Schmidt.
Must belief in Bach’s inimitable genius crumble against the clarion sound of Google’s Birthday Doodle?
On the interactive staff I entered the next line of the same chorale. The machine quickly created something grammatical enough: better than the results of many human undergraduate theory students, worse than many others. The plunky piano sound that Google uses for its Bach-based results is a preemptory move meant to make clear that the Machine Learners are not going for expression but rather for mechanistic reproduction of notes on a screen: this is music as math not emotion.
The Google Bach Machine knew nothing of the words, the message, the feel, the beautiful terror of the melody, its myriad possibilities. The machine did not know what Bach himself had created for the flowing accompaniment of the lower parts so as to evoke the fleetingness of human life (Leben) that, the text goes on to sing, forms like fog (Nebel) and dissipates the next moment. LEBEN and NEBEL are capitalized in eighteenth-century German hymnals to make it clear that the words are mirror images of one another: life is a fog even on the page.
The chorale’s simplicity appears to have led to its choice for the birthday demonstration—Google’s effort to make their Bach the composer, literally, of today.
Google is hardly embracing this same Lutheran view of life’s ephemerality even as they pursue the goal of analyzing, emulating, and ultimately surpassing Bach at some Deep Blue moment of the future? The unwitting adoption of this Doodle Chorale for March 21st, 2019 admits what Google never will: Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig.