Jeremy Denk on Bach as essayist for his ability to create “in-betweens:”
I like the beat in-between: when the E-flat doesn’t know yet that it has been rethought. Where the melody’s and harmony’s tendencies clash, where the parts diverge, you get a kind of blurred double image of past and future. If you agree with me that Bach is a particularly profound essayist in the nature of time, you might agree with this leap of assocation: that dissonant beat is the present. It is neither here nor there. In its in-between-ness, it is the most beautiful, tastable moment of all. Why is it always the moment you want to hold onto, that is passing by?
That’s why it sometimes seems to me that music theory is one of the most despicable disciplines there is, because you’d probably label the bass of that magical chord a “passing tone,” and once you’ve labeled it a passing tone it’s a bit deflating … doink!, it goes in the bin with all the other passing tones. Somewhat like passing through Trenton on your way to Philadelphia: unremarkable. …. But Bach had that way of using passing tones so that you could meditate on the passing-ness of things, what it is to pass, to move on, to leave beauties behind … of labeling the labels with meaning, breathing life back into the most basic, even the most unassuming, words.
Therein is the thing. We often miss the passing tones, don’t listen for them, don’t see them, but it’s their presence — their slippery, unnamable presence — that yanks us forth. Passing tones give us passageway to leave what must be behind, behind. They give words to it. Give focus to what is between past and future. Sometimes that is the way ahead.