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On April 15, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and dancer Melissa Toogood will join Lowry Yankwich ('16) for a virtual event with Stanford Live that includes a discussion of Bach's Goldberg Variations as well as performances from Toogood and Dinnerstein. In this interview. Yankwich discusses the making of his podcast 30 Bach, his background as musician, and his time as a student at Stanford. 


How did the 30 Bach podcast originate?

As I came to the end of my senior year at Stanford, I was looking for something to do after graduation and came across a fellowship offered by the Fulbright program, in conjunction with National Geographic. The fellowship would support a recent graduate in completing a multimedia, community-centered project spanning at least three countries. The structure of the fellowship alone got me trying to think about ideas, and I landed on creating a documentary collage of Johann Sebastian Bach’s composition the Goldberg Variations, piecing together scenes from everyday life of lovers of the piece across the globe. I thought of it as a project that could highlight the universality of music while at the same time showing the diversity of ways in which people live.

That project was a bit ambitious. In hindsight, I was trying to bite off way more than I could chew. I had never done any documentary filmmaking, didn’t have any contacts “across the globe,” and didn’t have a good idea of the concrete steps I’d need to take to get started. In the end, I didn’t get the fellowship.

However, a year later, I was living in New York and still thinking about the project. I wanted to do something, if not exactly the original idea. I landed on the idea of a podcast about the Goldberg Variations, with the same idea of finding listeners and performers around the world who could help me understand the piece and their connection to it. The benefit of a podcast is that there are fewer new skills to learn, fewer costs, and generally a lower barrier to entry. I started getting really excited thinking about the idea and did some preliminary research about podcasting, including shadowing the makers of the How Do We Fix It? podcast, whom I had met while canvassing for a political campaign.

 

Why the focus on the Goldberg Variations?

I grew up playing piano and particularly idolized the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Two of the recordings that I most latched onto were his 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations. The 1955 recording is fast, buoyant, optimistic, while the 1981 recording is deep and reflective. Over time, the Goldberg Variations assumed a special place in my musical universe—it was the piece I wanted to hear when I felt a surge of gratitude for life but also the one I wanted to hear when I was down. Somehow, for me, the piece is uplifting in a way that few others are.

 

How do you select interviewees for the podcast?

At first, most of my interviewees came directly through friends and friends of friends. I was taking a music theory class at Juilliard and got my first interviewee by asking my teacher whether he knew anyone who was obsessed with the Goldberg Variations. Two people immediately sprang to his mind, and they became my first two guests. I also asked many of my former music teachers for ideas. Debra Fong, who coached my chamber music group while I was at Stanford, gave me one of my interviewees, a pianist named Jeffrey LaDeur. Interviewee Mahan Esfahani, a Stanford alum, came through Robert Huw Morgan, whom I sang for as part of the Memorial Church Choir while at Stanford.

It was amazing how many interviewees came through just generating awareness about the project. For example, one interviewee—Paul Alivisatos, a nanoscientist who listens to the Goldbergs every morning—came from a family friend who happened to hear him talk about the piece at a dinner party. There was a positive feedback mechanism for getting interviewees; once I had some interviewees, it was easier to get others.

After getting an interviewee, I would generally conduct a preinterview to learn more about the person’s connection to the piece and to get a sense of what topics would be most fruitful to explore. Each episode features a performance by a different musician of three variations—with the exception of a few episodes that have a different format—so part of my early interaction with performers was figuring out which variations they would play, as well as where we would record the performance and interview.

 

What goes into producing each episode?

Although the podcast is released episode by episode, I created the episodes simultaneously. So I waited until I had done all the interviews to start writing the scripts for the episodes. I did this because I wanted to know the full extent of the content I had to work with and because I wanted to derive themes for each episode, which in many cases required creating the sense of a conversation between multiple interviewees.

When writing the script, I tried to feature my interviewees as much as possible and add my own commentary only to clarify and connect dots. But I also found that there was a lot that I hadn’t discussed fully with my interviewees that was interesting, like stories from Bach’s life that revealed aspects of his character. For these kinds of stories, I drew from biographies of Bach, adding in choice quotes from primary documents where possible.

Throughout the writing phase, I worked with my godfather David Schrieberg, who graciously agreed to serve as my sounding board and editor. He was a journalist for much of his career and was extremely helpful in streamlining the script. We met every week in the fall and just talking to him regularly helped motivate me to keep on pace.

I recorded the episodes from a closet in my apartment in Philadelphia, outfitted with some foam pads to soften the sound. After writing and editing the script, recording was relatively straightforward, although I inevitably changed the script and tried multiple takes for every episode.

One final component of every episode was the music. I got most of the music from recording my interviewees or from them directly sending me their own recordings. However, I wanted to include other music as well. Although technically much of what I used qualified as a fair use, I sought permission as much as possible. Seeking permission to use recordings was actually really fun and brought me into conversation with an even wider range of musicians, from organists in the Netherlands and Michigan to Hugo Kitano, an amazing pianist who was in my piano studio with professor Fred Weldy at Stanford. These musicians let me use their recordings, which provided much-needed breadth to the sound of the podcast.

 

You’re a third-year law student. What’s it like balancing producing podcast episodes with the demands of law school?

I’ve been working on this project for the last three or more years, fitting it in between other obligations. That said, I would never have been able to finish it if I hadn’t taken a semester off from law school this past fall. The timing was serendipitous and reflects one of the silver linings of the pandemic. With COVID-19 still uncontained last fall, Harvard decided to continue holding classes remotely. I didn’t like the idea of doing my last year of law school entirely remotely, and I also wanted to finish the podcast before too much time elapsed. Taking a semester off became an obvious solution to both problems. I was extremely lucky to be able to take the time off and work in a much more concentrated way on the podcast.

Now I’m back at school and releasing episodes every week. Fortunately, most of the work has already been done, but I do spend a little time each week reviewing and making final touches on each episode. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming doing both the podcast and law school, but most of the time they’re complimentary in that they diversify what I get to think about day to day.

 

You are also a pianist. How did your interest in music begin?

My parents would say that my interest started with dancing to Paul Simon in the car as a baby. My first piano teacher was a pianist and puppet maker in Palo Alto, California, who cared more about students doing what they wanted to do than channeling them down a particular track. This had its benefits and its drawbacks in that my first experience of learning music was full of freedom and play, but I also didn’t learn much in the way of technique or music theory. Fairly early, I switched to working with Diane Smith, a piano teacher in Menlo Park, California, who took a stricter approach to practice. The first time I met her, I was terrified, and she told me that I had learned nothing to date. Diane imposed more structure to my practicing, but at the same time, she was extremely intuitive as a teacher, helping me connect to the music by describing elaborate stories to listen for in it. She also helped develop the fundamentals that add to an understanding of music, like music theory and music history.

I think there’s a critical juncture that generally arises for students when they’re about 10. Up until then, you’re generally not that good, so practicing feels more like a chore. But if you keep playing, you start getting to play music that’s more complicated, emotional, and satisfying. I didn’t like practicing piano when I first started, but there was a turning point somewhere around 10 when I started wanting to play piano just for myself and not because my parents were telling me I needed to. From there, I delved deeper over time, though always within the constraints of other obligations, like school and sports.

 

As an undergrad at Stanford, you studied history and statistics. How did you stay engaged with music? What opportunities did you seek out at Stanford to remain active as a musician?

Stanford expanded my musical horizons. Before Stanford, I had never played piano with other people, with the exception of a couple of duets. As soon as I got to Stanford, I joined the chamber music program and was placed in a quartet with Mindy Perkins, Patrick Kim, and Justin Solomon. This quartet became one of my favorite activities at Stanford as well as a source of friendship. We stuck together through my junior year and also added Andrew Guo, a cellist, to the mix when Justin was away. I also worked with Fred Weldy in the piano department throughout my time at Stanford.

In addition to piano, I like to sing. I joined Stanford’s Raagapella, which introduced me to a whole different musical tradition. We learned songs in Hindi, Arabic, Telugu, and Tamil, to name a few, with underlying theory that was totally different than Western classical music. More than that, through the group I made friends with other people who loved music and who introduced me to new music.

Finally, for my senior thesis, my advisor Gordon Chang encouraged me to write about classical music. I was surprised when he suggested this, given that his own specialty was Asian American history, but his reasoning was that I should choose a topic that would sustain me over the long research period. I remember feeling practically giddy when he opened the door to writing a musical thesis. I ended up writing about the New York Philharmonic’s performance of German repertoire during World War II as a means of appropriating German culture and framing the ideological battle of the war.

 

How does your background in history inform your approach to the podcast?

I love this question because I’ve thought about it often. One of the best sources I found for information about Bach’s life was a book called The New Bach Reader. It’s a giant compendium of primary sources from Bach’s life, including letters to and from Bach and his family, accounts from his students and employers, and public records. Studying history in college helped me appreciate the joy and value in returning to primary documents. When you’re trying to capture elements of Bach’s personality, there’s nothing better than seeing how he actually expressed himself. For example, the book contains Bach’s notes about different organs he inspected. From these notes, you can see both Bach’s meticulousness and his incredible understanding of music and instruments.

One of the major themes of studying history is to contextualize individual experiences. I tried to do this in the podcast, not because it was necessary but because it makes the story more interesting. For example, when thinking about how Bach relates to grief, it’s useful to know how many of his children died early in their lives, that he himself was orphaned before the age of 10, and that his first wife died while he was away for work. At the same time, it’s interesting to note how death was ever present in broader society during Bach’s time and how the memory of the Thirty Years’ War, which ended 37 years before Bach was born, may have influenced generations of musicians before Bach.

 


Bach, Dance, and a Podcast Journey through the Goldberg Variations is scheduled for April 15 at 5:00 PM PT. RSVP to receive the video link and join.