Participating in Eternity: Bach & Jobs

By March 1, 2014 Blog No Comments

Though they lived over 200 years apart and belonged to entirely different fields, Johann Sebastian Bach and Steve Jobs possessed a similar brand of creative genius that permanently transformed our world.

 

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OHRDRUF, GERMANY, 1696 — Illuminated only by streaks of pale moonlight shining through the house’s windows, young Johann Sebastian Bach slipped carefully from his bed and tiptoed his way to his older brother’s study. Taking care to move as silently as possible, he crept toward his target: the ornate wooden cabinet that housed his brother Johann Christoph’s prized musical manuscripts.

Bach, already a promising young musician and insatiable sponge of musical knowledge, had his sights on one book in particular. The manuscript that Bach spied through the delicate lattice work of the cabinet doors was a collection of keyboard music written by his brother’s famed teacher, Pachelbel (who you might remember from every wedding you’ve ever been to). Pachelbel’s compositions must have seemed enticingly challenging and complex to Sebastian, who had already likely devoured the pieces selected for him by his elder brother.

It was remarkable that Bach was even resilient enough in his childhood to apply himself to music with such abandonment. His parents had unexpectedly died within mere months of one another, and a wayward 10 year old Johann Sebastian Bach went to live with his 24 year old brother in the nearby town of Ohrdruf (where Christoph had found employment as the organist for a church).

And so it was that a few years later, Bach found himself slinking out of bed in the night, furtively reaching for the music book locked in the cabinet, his nascent passion for music burning through any inhibitions about getting caught. Sebastian risked punishment nightly by reaching through the lattice and carefully rolling up the parchment of Christoph’s prized book so that it could be pulled free. Over the course of the next six months, Bach was able to copy out the entire forbidden tome by hand… only to finally get caught by his brother, who promptly confiscated the product of Bach’s months of nocturnal efforts.

Bach wouldn’t see the book again until inheriting it following Christoph’s death in 1721.

 

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA, 1969 — In a dusty garage, a young Steve Jobs hunched over his latest Heathkit, a build-it-yourself hobbyist product for electronics aficionados.  Do-it-yourself electronics kits existed as a rapidly growing niche for inquisitive minds, but Heathkits — with their color-coding and crystal clear instructions — were the best.

It was in this world of tubes, transformers, and resistors that the adolescent Jobs was actually assembling something far more complex — his inner understanding of the way things physically work. Jobs would later remark that through these home projects, “…it gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning, one could understand seemingly very complex things in one’s environment. My childhood was very fortunate in that way.”

Adopted at birth, Steve Jobs was given up by his biological parents with one stipulation: he must be raised by a college-educated family, and must be strongly encouraged (and presumably financially supported) to attend college himself. When all was said and done, Jobs’ adoptive parents Paul and Clara did not have bachelor’s degrees; but they promised to make sure that Steve would have that opportunity. Paul might not have had his degree, but he worked as a mechanic, and provided Steve with some of his valuable first experiences tinkering over radios and other small electronic items. The seed had been planted for Jobs’ life-long passion: mastering the fundamental workings of the physical world around him. It all started with those dusty Heathkit afternoons — just a normal boy growing up in a little neighborhood known as Silicon Valley.

 

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Grappling With Genius

Genius is not easily understood or defined, and most of us when asked to describe it would simply default to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous threshold for obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”  The creative genius, though, earns a special place in the heart of history; they are the rare visionary, the uncommon thinker who re-frames our perspective of the world in ways which continue to surprise and delight us for generations.

It’s the difference between someone who composes several pieces of beautiful music, and someone who codifies an entire approach to genre composition that stands essentially unchanged for 300 years.

The difference between someone who builds a more powerful iteration of an existing computer, and someone who invents a new paradigm of personal computing.

Between having a remarkable ear for tuning instruments, and proliferating an entirely new system of tuning… that also stands essentially unchanged for 300 years.

And yes, it’s the difference between inventing a mobile phone, and utterly changing the role and importance of a phone in our lives.

 

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

The Bach family had been proud and capable musicians for several generations, to the point where in certain regions of Germany, “Bach” had become slang for “musician” (as in, “I’m going to need a few Bachs for my wedding”). Tutored carefully by his father while he was still alive, and then by his older brother, Sebastian lived and breathed music almost from the moment he was sentient — after all, he was a Bach.

So was Bach simply a product of his all-consuming musical upbringing, the beneficiary of a time where there were far fewer distractions for a young child? Probably not, or at least not entirely. Bach’s contributions to the field of music would one day reach far beyond simply a prodigious ability to play keyboard instruments (an elite level of performance being the usual hallmark of a “child prodigy”). While Bach’s family tree boasted many successful and respected musicians, no branch can come close to approaching the enduring, astonishing musical achievement left behind by humble family man and choirmaster Johann Sebastian Bach.

What makes Bach special is the way he organized the nuts and bolts of his music. He carefully constructs intricate melodies which cascade in waves atop each other, like listening to the restless thoughts of a brilliant, beautiful mind.

Like a computer programmer who is able to take a mountain of unwieldy code and whittle it down into something elegant and efficient, Bach was able to crystallize and refine an essentially perfect way of treating melody and harmony. To this day, musicologists, musicians, and amateurs alike have run out of superlatives to describe Johann Sebastian Bach’s visionary genius. His music is often described as a jewel that reflects astonishing beauty from every facet, as if you could turn it over and over in your hand and discover something new each time.

Like a computer programmer who is able to take a mountain of unwieldy code and whittle it down into something elegant and efficient, Bach was able to crystallize and refine an essentially perfect way of treating melody and harmony.

There is another reason why you find so many musicians to be passionate devotees of Bach. Much of the instrumental music we have of Bach’s (it’s estimated that around half of his output is lost forever) was written specifically to teach his children (and wife) how to play music tastefully and skillfully.  Much of his other music is also written with an eager amateur in mind, and is structured with incredible thoughtfulness to help them (you) succeed gradually. It makes for a memorable experience as a pianist to play through the entire the Inventions and Sinfonia and Well-Tempered Clavier collections as a rite of passage, in some way experiencing the “lessons” each piece provides — as though you had just completed a course of study with the great master himself.

 

Bach was not just composer of beautiful and affecting music; he had the heart of a teacher, and an obvious desire to continue the development of his art for future generations. As a result, musicians today find themselves benefiting from a sequence of the most lovingly crafted, educationally valuable — and hauntingly beautiful — pieces of all time.

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Bach at 61

The few paintings we have of Bach stare out at us sternly, a bizarre (by modern standards) white wig adorning his head. Don’t let the wig fool you: this was not a dull, stuffy old man. The periwigs typical in paintings from this era were in fashion in Europe largely for hygienic reasons. Let’s just say it’s a lot easier to shake lice out of a wig than out of your own hair. You would have worn one, too.

Bach lived during the Enlightenment; and like many of his contemporaries, he saw the world as a glorious, mysterious gift that could offer limitless satisfaction through exploration and study. We are still reaping the benefits of his life’s incredibly productive work, though Bach died in relative obscurity and with no expectation that he would be remembered so enduringly.

A world without Johann Sebastian Bach would be devoid of Western art music’s towering central titan of harmony, theory, tuning, and counterpoint. Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and countless others adored Bach’s music for much of their lives. If Bach hadn’t been born, we wouldn’t have the B Minor Mass, the Goldberg Variations, his incredible cantatas, the Brandenburg Concertos, or the Violin Partitas.

"Sun of Composers" - An illustration from a music journal in 1799 that shows Bach as the center of the musical sun, with all subsequent composers radiating outward from him.

“Sun of Composers” – An illustration from a music journal in 1799 that shows Bach as the center of the musical sun, with all subsequent composers radiating outward from him.

The Voyager spacecraft, currently the farthest man-made object from earth, carries with it a golden record containing humanity’s finest musical achievements for whomever might one day listen. Bach is featured three times on the golden record, more than any other composer or musician. Erasing Bach from history does to music what erasing Sir Isaac Newton would do to physics. It’s completely unimaginable.

 

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Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

Steve Jobs had a well-documented history of difficulty fitting into a traditional school environment, but there was one place he felt right at home: Mr. McCollum’s Electronics class at Homestead High School. Through the kindred spirits he met at Homestead High, Jobs was eventually introduced to Steve Wozniak, a local kid who was a bit older than Jobs, but cut from the same intellectually inquisitive cloth. Wozniak had been working on what he called the “cream soda computer,” named for the prolific amount of the beverage consumed during a typical tinkering session. At that point in 1969, there would likely be few teenagers who could really get excited about what Wozniak was doing – but the cream soda computer was right up Steve Jobs’ alley.

A few years later, Jobs had traveled to India and acquired some colorful life experiences that shaped his distinctive personality and Zen Buddhist-flavored philosophy; Wozniak, on the other hand, had found an engineering job at Hewlett-Packard, while continuing to explore new possibilities of circuit design in his spare time. The two best friends decided to start their own company, and Apple was officially born. The personal computing industry was on the cusp of explosive innovation on a century-defining scale.

An article in the New Yorker shortly after Steve Jobs passed away in 2011 described the man’s particular brand of genius as “more editorial than inventive.”  Jobs certainly possessed some meaningful experience in the world of electronics, but his talents ultimately lent themselves toward a high-level mode of thinking that has led many to describe the man as a “visionary.” Jobs possessed an uncanny knack for spotting opportunities, for seeing potential product features that consumers didn’t even know they wanted yet.  He was able to envision a world in which technology could augment and enhance the everyday life of the common person in a meaningful way. This vision carried him through the dawn of personal computing with the Apple I and II, all the way through the MacBook, iPad, and iPhone. Jobs never lost his ability to surf the absolute bleeding edge of innovation and continually remain not only relevant, but a pioneer.

“Man is the creator of change in this world. As such, he should be above systems and structures – not subordinate to them.” – Steve Jobs

There’s no getting around the fact that Steve Jobs was a demanding, difficult person to work for. His uncompromising vision cared little for the protestations of employees feeling stymied by pragmatic concerns. Intuitive design and premium craftsmanship was always at the forefront of Jobs’ philosophy. His adoptive father Paul had instilled in him an important lesson during his youth – that a truly excellent carpenter will make the back side of his cabinet just as detailed and polished as the front, though it may sit unseen against the wall.

Today, Apple enjoys an almost 42% market share of all smartphone users in the United States. Their design choices, user interface, and functionality have absolutely proliferated through our social technological consciousness. For an entire generation of children, gesture-based activities like swiping and tapping are as intuitive as talking and crawling. Make no mistake, the personal computer revolution that was led in large part by Jobs has permanently altered the way humans interact with their world. The same ruthlessness that made Steve Jobs a tyrannical boss and ferocious businessman translated perfectly into his tireless quest to refine the end user experience – your experience.

Would there even be a “smartphone” as we know it today without Steve Jobs? Sure, we might have some market options sporting an unwieldy stylus and a cluttered interface, but would there be a device so positively compelling? Evidence suggests that we unlock our smartphones an average of 110 times a day – clearly, Jobs was correct in predicting a real market desire and usefulness for the now ubiquitous iPhone. Though several other major players in the computer industry have emerged along with Apple, it has been Jobs’ company that unquestionably leads the pack in terms of innovation and customer loyalty. Using an Apple device, particularly an iPhone, feels like an extension of your sensory instincts – not a wrestling match with a confusing piece of technology. How would your life be different if you didn’t have on-demand access to a phone, camera, interactive map, and – of course – access to the internet’s vast compendium of human knowledge?

 

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It’s a rare thing when in the course of human history, you can point to a cultural sea change set in motion by just one individual. While there’s no denying that J.S. Bach received some excellent musical instruction in his youth, and Steve Jobs had the help of hundreds of brilliant engineers, these men tirelessly pushed themselves to perfect their craft. But why?

Perhaps because they were just as surprised by what they discovered as we are.

 

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

— Steve Jobs

I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.

— J.S. Bach

 

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About Tim Herscovitch

Tim Herscovitch is a writer, content curator, musician, and professor. He lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.