Black composer sits at piano keyboard

Composer Updates a Bach Classic for Festival’s ‘New Transcriptions’ Project

Damien Geter infuses his works with musical styles of the Black diaspora; his Oregon Bach Festival premiere is July 11

By Kristen Hudgins Photo by Jana Simmons May 22, 2024

5 min read 

It’s quiet in composer Damien Geter’s Chicago loft, save for the tinkering on two sets of keys: those of his piano and computer. Notes fly from the piano as he plays Bach’s dramatic and expressive “Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor.”

At first the piece sounds repetitive, the same several notes over and over. But with closer listening, variations emerge in a complex, woven fabric.

The piece is part of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier from the 1720s, a famous collection of compositions in all twenty-four major and minor keys, considered one of the most demanding tests of a musician’s skill. The monumental task before Geter is to transform Bach’s original “Prelude and Fugue,” written for a single keyboard, into a version for an orchestra of seventy musicians at the 2024 Oregon Bach Festival in July.

Geter, a celebrated composer whose works have been performed across the country, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, sees the journey not as daunting, but delightful.

“I already have Bach’s keyboard music here in front of me,” Geter says. “My job is to make it my own, which is really, really fun.”

As he rearranges the piece, he focuses on its inherent energy. “There’s a driving pulse to it,” he says. “The propulsion of the music is such that it makes you tap your foot. It makes you listen to it and lean into it in a different way. It honestly reminds me of jazz.”

The jazz-like propulsion is precisely what Geter intends to infuse into his reimagining of the three-minute work, expanding it into a nine-minute opus titled “Prelude and Fugue (and Riffs, too).”

Geter’s rendition inaugurates the festival’s New Transcriptions Project: composers from underrepresented communities are commissioned to reimagine Bach for the festival’s Modern Orchestra, introducing today’s audiences to the musical genius of the eighteenth-century composer.

Typically, Bach compositions are reserved for the festival’s Period Orchestra, which transports listeners to the historic eras of Bach and other composers by playing replica instruments in a manner authentic to the time. The Modern Orchestra, by comparison, uses today’s instruments and styles.

There’s a driving pulse to it. It makes you listen to it and lean into it in a different way. It honestly reminds me of jazz.”

—Damien Geter

The fusion of historical composition and contemporary interpretation presents an opportunity for the Modern Orchestra to perform Bach’s music.

“As a festival dedicated to celebrating Bach’s enduring legacy, it is imperative that we continually explore fresh avenues for both musicians and audiences to experience these timeless masterpieces,” says James Boyd, director of programming. “The color palette of our Modern Orchestra presents options for an expanded sound world that Bach didn’t have at his disposal.”

Geter is known for mixing classical music and styles from the Black diaspora, such as jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues. His compositions span classical music genres, including chamber, orchestral, and vocal works, and full-scale operas. He is also highly regarded as a bass-baritone vocalist. Geter is currently composer-in-residence at the Richmond Symphony in Virginia, artistic advisor for Resonance Ensemble, a professional vocal ensemble, and interim music director at Portland Opera. 

He’s confident his Bach interpretation will resonate with both seasoned classical music aficionados and newcomers. “I want people to walk out of the concert hall after listening to my arrangement and say, ‘Hey, that was cool! I like that!’” Geter says. “For those familiar with the work, I want them to say, ‘That was a different way for me to hear that piece, and I really liked it!’”

Geter’sPrelude and Fugue (and Riffs, too)” will be performed by the Oregon Bach Festival Modern Orchestra July 11 at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene. The full program, Organ Symphony, also features Symphony No. 3 by French composer Camille Saint Saëns and the west coast premiere of a new organ concerto by American composer Lowell Liebermann, to be performed by Grammy-Award winning organist Paul Jacobs. Visit OregonBachFestival.org to purchase tickets.

Kristen Hudgins is a public relations specialist in the School of Music and Dance.


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