HomeWorld NewsMusical magic when Bach met Michael Miles and his banjo – Chicago Tribune
Musical magic when Bach met Michael Miles and his banjo – Chicago Tribune
September 12, 2023
Separated by centuries but tied together by music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Michael Miles have had a demanding if fruitful relationship that continues to thrive, giving us a spectacular new album titled “American Bach Revisited.”
Bach, that towering figure of 18th century music, has been dead since 1750. Miles is very much alive and remembers “meeting” Bach in 1977. He was a student at the University of Illinois when, one day that year, he stopped into a classical guitar recital featuring the playing of the Gigue movement of Bach’s Third Cello Suite.
“I thought it was the most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard,” Miles says. “And that moment changed my world.”
A child of Oak Park, he had played guitar in a rock band as a teenager but when his father died, he and four siblings each were given $500 from the life insurance money and told by their mother, “Go buy something in honor of your father.”
Miles bought a banjo and that has been his musical focus ever since, with Bach nestled in his head and part of his musical life as he went on to postgraduate work in England and at Northeastern Illinois University, where he earned a master’s degree in music performance and pedagogy.
He then embarked on a marvelously varied career, marked by a lengthy relationship with the Old Town School of Folk Music as a teacher, programmer and performer. Some early encouragement by the great Pete Seeger was inspirational and empowering. Miles had boldly — the two had never met — sent Seeger a letter and a copy of his first recording, “Counterpoint.” Seeger responded with a letter: “Only today I was able to get to listen to your tape of clawhammer banjo duets, and I hasten to write again to let you know it is one of the most beautiful tapes I ever listened to in all my 70 years.”
Seeger and Miles remained in contact until Seeger’s death in 2014, as Miles created more recordings, produced shows both musical and theatrical, and traveled the world to teach. He played in such places as the Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Institution, the Ravinia Festival and Harris Theater, American University of Beirut and the Royal Theatre in Marrakech, Morocco.
It was in the late 1980s that he was drawn closer to Bach. “He became a sanctuary for me, as I was going through some bad personal problems,” Miles says. “It was a great relief to be in my practice room and face-to-face with Bach, who delivered an energy and splendor that outshined any outside challenges.”
It took nearly a decade of hard work and some false starts before Miles debuted 1997′s “American Bach,” his album of two cello suites by Bach, transcribed for and played by Miles and his five-string banjo, which he has long played in the aforementioned clawhammer style.
It was greeted with a bit of surprise and a great deal of praise. My former colleague Howard Reich wrote that Miles had “dared to take on some of the most dramatic and profound music ever written and succeeded.”
Though there were a few purists who argued that this Bach music was exclusively for the cello, Miles would counter by saying, “When you see an audience of people moved by this music on banjo, how can you argue with that?”
He has always been aware that as revered as is Bach, he is not what one would call a hot commercial commodity. Miles says in his charmingly self-effacing way, “Let’s just say that ‘Bach and banjo’ does not make my phone ring off the hook with calls about gigs in concert halls.”
Still, during the pandemic, he was again brought back to Bach, or as he puts it, “was compelled to return to the holy grail.”
In doing so he found “a deeper perspective, a splendor that has only grown. I found that I was breathing new life into ‘American Bach,’ making discoveries, taking new risks, feeling new confidence.” He wanted to record a new album and asked renowned cellist Jill Kaeding to join him.
“My experience with Bach, as humbling as that has been, has ultimately served to open the door of composition for me,” he says.
His compositions form the album’s “Chicago Suite,” its five movements named for, and needless to say reflecting, various streets and areas meaningful to Miles. “I have lived in the city itself most of my life and the ‘Chicago Suite’ is my instrumental attempt to capture the spirit of some of the streets, instrumental music that tells a story,” he says.
Asked to elaborate on one of the movements, “The Alley,” he says, “‘The Alley’ is special in that alleys are where the kids play, places of danger and magic. It is where you get in fights, where you kiss a girl for the first time. It’s fun and it’s dangerous and it’s ours.”
Miles lives with his wife, Nina Newhouser, on a street that inspired another of the “Chicago Suite” movements. She will be in the audience at Space in Evanston this weekend when her husband will be performing and celebrating the official release of “American Bach Revisited” along with Kaeding.
Miles has traveled many different musical roads in his life, with great success and tremendous self-fulfillment. Though he and Kaeding plan to toss in “maybe a Stevie Wonder song or two” on Saturday, he will happily tell you that “playing Bach goes on forever,” and that continues to be a very good way to go.
Michael J. Miles with Jill Kaeding will be 1 p.m. Sept. 17 at Space, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; tickets $12-$20 at evanstonspace.com