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Rock Around the Bach 

Peter Schickele's life work is devoted to the music of the mysterious P.D.Q. Bach.

The legend or myth of P.D.Q. Bach was discovered by Professor Peter Schickele of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople (USNDH), during a trip to the Bavarian Alps. As Schickele tells it, he came upon a manuscript being used as a coffee strainer while rummaging through the beautiful chambers of the Lechendochschloss Castle. The manuscript turned out to be the score for the "Sanka Cantata" by P.D.Q. Bach, "the last of Johann Sebastian Bach's 20-odd children."

Coincidentally, since Schickele's "discovery" of P.D.Q. Bach, and with the help of USNDH and some skeptical record and publishing companies, more than 100 scores from the previously ignored Bach have graced the public. Schickele's just the man to exhume Bach's works, as the two musicians seem to share some uncanny personal traits, like their fondness for unusual musical instruments.

"One of the instruments that P.D.Q. Bach uses is a tromboon, and it is a combination of part of a bassoon and part of a trombone," Schickele says of his alter-ego by phone from Pasadena, Calif., where he is the composer-in-residence at the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra. "This is something I discovered in junior high school half a century ago. I was playing a bassoon and fooling around, and put the mouthpiece of a bassoon into a trombone, and I've been using it ever since."

To understand and perform P.D.Q. Bach's magnificent scores, Schickele has mastered a variety of such inventions, including the left-handed sewer flute, the windbraker, the hardart, the double-reed slide music stand and the bicycle. Bach also liked to score for some of his favorite timbres, such as the sound of the oboe's reed -- without the oboe. Another favorite sound used is the clicking of the wind instrument's keys without the instrument being played. These humorous innovations were born out of Schickele's admiration for one of his childhood heroes.

"Spike Jones started it all for me, when I was around 10 years old," he says of the equally absurdist bandleader. "I first started hearing Spike Jones, and I flipped. I spent a lot of time with my brother and friends lip syncing those Spike Jones records to each other. Then during my teenage years I became more interested in serious music but I never lost my taste for comedy."

Since 1965, Schickele has deftly blended that dichotomy in a variety of mediums. He's performed with more than 50 major symphony and chamber orchestras all over the world, and in 1992 debuted Schickele Mix, which has become one of the most educational and informative syndicated radio shows in the nation. It runs once a week on National Public Radio stations, and Schickele has produced more than 170 installments. Each show has a theme, usually exploring musical forms and the similarities among musical genres.

Nowadays, Schickele likes to be identified as a composer of serious music, and well he should. Having composed some 100 works by P.D.Q. Bach, he also has composed more than 100 works under his own name, for symphony orchestras, choral groups, chamber ensembles, movies and television. Schickele maintains a busy touring schedule performing his own compositions thanks to numerous commissions for works from the National Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera and many others.

After putting an end to the P.D.Q. Bach concerts in 1996 except for an annual performance at Carnegie Hall, Schickele decided to bring the old buzzard back out. For his New Orleans appearance, the program consists of a double bill of the music of P.D.Q. Bach and Peter Schickele. Among the pieces is the opera "Oedipus Tex," which is the tragic story of Oedipus, his girlfriend Billie Jo Casta and the gypsy Madam Peep. "It's one of my favorite pieces, and while it doesn't happen to have any weird instruments, it has lots of pretty weird music," says Schickele.

"The Peter Schickele part of the program is mostly rounds and songs which are mostly funny," he continues. "It is basically an all-comedy type of show." It will also include Schickele's signature piece, "Songs From Shakespeare," featuring famous Shakespeare speeches set to 1950s-era rock. "I discovered this P.D.Q. Bach piece for concert band that was commissioned by the Harvard Band -- P.D.Q. Bach being the only dead composer who can still be commissioned, of course," says Schickele. "This band piece turned out to be very popular and turned a lot of people on to P.D.Q. Bach who weren't necessarily fans of classical music."

Just as P.D.Q. Bach's music has spanned generations, Schickele's work is following suit. "The audience tends to be broader now," he notes. "When I started doing this in 1965, it was known mostly to classical music buffs. A lot of people who were students in 1965 now bring their children and grandchildren."


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