Depending on where you stand, reinterpreting Bach on different instruments than were originally intended, or even adding new compositional flourishes to the works, is either a fun way to explore an endlessly studied oeuvre, or irredeemable sacrilege. Here, we look at 10 modern, alternative interpretations of Bach. Historically-informed performance fanatics, look away now.

1Trio sonata no. 6 in G major on mandolin

One would think that the clipped sound of the mandolin would be just about the worst instrument in the world on which to transpose the grand, ecclesiastical tones of Bach’s Trio Sonata no. 6, originally written for organ. But this transcription of the work by mandolinist Chris Thile, featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello and Edgar Meyer on double bass, brings out the elegance of the work – split between three different instruments, the interplay between the left hand, right hand and pedal parts in the original is accentuated. Moreover, the ease with which the rustic timbre of the mandolin sits in the composition suggests that Baroque and European folk music might not be poles apart. This performance is no on-off, either: Thile, whose background is in bluegrass, released an album of mandolin transcriptions of Bach’s solo violin partitas and sonatas back in 2013, and the interpretation above comes from a 2017 album focussing on Bach’s keyboard works.

2Bach in the woods

A curious wooden structure extends through the eves of a tranquil Japanese forest. A ball is sent rolling down the apparatus, and notes begin to sound as it hits what turn out to be tuned woodblocks. Slowly it dawns that the leaping arpeggios it produces are actually the beginning of Bach’s chorale “Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude” from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. It’s a beautiful scene. Then you realise it’s actually an advert for a limited edition a mobile phone.

3Jethro Tull's flute-rock Bourrée

Progressive rock was the movement that famously brought classical music into the clubs and arenas, and not even Bach was spared the onslaught of technically proficient young musicians looking for material with which to show off their high art credentials. Over the years this has resulted in some pretty woeful interpretations (see Sky’s heinous prog disco version of the Toccata and fugue in D minor for one of the worst examples) but in the early days there were brief flashes of brilliance. On their 1969 album Stand Up, for example, Jethro Tull took the theme from the Bourrée of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor and extemporised it into a full-on psychedelic hoe-down.

4From harpsichord to jazz piano

French pianist Jacques Loussier has made a career out of his interpretations of Bach, forming a trio in 1959 which used the composer’s music as launching pads for jazz-based flights of fancy. Starting off with a slew of “Play Bach” albums in the early 1960s, the Jacques Loussier Trio are probably best known for their version of the “Air on the G String”, which was famously used in the TV adverts for Hamlet cigars. But there’s plenty more to explore. Check out this video from a 2004 performance of the Allegro from the Harpsichord concerto in D major. The pianist remains fairly faithful to the original composition; it’s the skipping rhythm section that really brings the new material, jumping into fiery improvisatory passages (the bassist even slipping in a reference to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue). The video was recorded at the Leipzig Thomaskirche where Bach served as a cantor for over a quarter of a century and where his remains are now interred. Would he be smiling down on the trio or rolling in his grave?

5Switched-On Bach

With today’s technology, it’s relatively easy to mimic acoustic sounds with a digital synthesizer, but back in the analogue 1960s, convincingly recreating the sounds of an orchestra with synthesizers was nigh on impossible. That’s why Walter (now Wendy) Carlos decided to create versions of classical works on the Moog synthesizer that intentionally sounded nothing like the acoustic instruments they were written for. The 1968 album Switched-On Bach revels in this synthetic soundworld, bringing bowel-rattling bass, twinkling high tones and mischievous squelches to works like the Sinfonia to Cantata no. 29 and the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3. More electronic interpretations of Bach came with The Well-Tempered Synthesizer the following year, Switched-On Bach II in 1973 and the Switched-On Brandenburgs in 1979, but it was Carlos’s soundtrack work for A Clockwork Orange that really brought the use of synthesizers in classical music to the wider public attention.

6The Toccata and Fugue in D minor on “glass harp”

If you’ve ever tried making a wine glass “sing” by moving a moistened finger around the rim, you’ll know it’s quite difficult to get a consistent tone. Robert Tiso is able to do this not only with one glass but a whole set, tuned to different pitches using varying quantities of water in what has been called a “glass harp”, and he specialises in interpreting works of the classical canon. This version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor adds an ethereal sheen to the original organ work’s bombast, Tiso bringing the tempo down a little by necessity.

7Big band Bach

Here’s another jazz-inflected interpretation of a Bach harpsichord concerto: this time, trombonist and composer Callum Au has transposed the Concerto in D minor into a big band extravaganza, with soloist Ksenija Sidorova taking the lead part on accordion. At the start, Bach’s rigorously systematic approach is blended with the loose rhythms and hedonistic harmonies of trad jazz. As the performance progresses, however, the separation between the two elements becomes more stated: the accordion part adhering to the original Baroque style while the Latvian Radio Big Band go further into more jazzy territories. By the close of the interpretation, it feels like jazz and the Baroque are trading blows across the centuries.

8“Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude” on theremin

Don’t worry, the Decostruttori Postmodernisti (Postmodern Deconstructionists) aren’t about to hit you round the head with some esoteric cultural criticism. They’re a band known to incorporate mandolin, kazoo and other idiosyncratic instruments to their interpretations of classical, pop and film music, describing themselves as “four professional musicians combining sharp technical skills with the verve of cabaret.” You can see this in the morbid slapstick they’ve woven into this performance of “Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude”, a quicktime version in which the angelic choir of the original composition is replaced by the alien tones of a theremin.

9A fusion “Air”

Close your eyes. You are lying, weightless, in the ocean. Go deep into yourself and open the innermost chakra. Despite the slightly New Age vibe of this ethno-fusion take on the “Air” from from the Orchestral Suite in D minor, it’s actually a rather nice interpretation by the Russian world music group Samhey. Instead of a string section we have the theme shared between a tremolo-picked nylon string guitar, a violin and a sitar – the bending pitches of the instrument lending a bittersweet tang to this already emotive melody.

10The Art of Beer

In the last years of his life, Bach composed The Art of Fugue as an instructive manual demonstrating the wide range of uses to which this compositional device could be put. He didn’t specify what instruments were to play the compositions, however, so who says you can’t give it a blast on some tuned beer bottles? In 2014 the YouTuber Beanzo did exactly that and recorded the entertaining video above. One can only guess at how long it took to map out the near-mathematical complexities of this fugue on the different bottles, let alone record the piece and create the film.