J.S. Bach: Everyman’s Composer

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The new documentary by Michael Lawrence

AH, THE INTERNET is such a wonderful, if often roundabout vehicle for discovery—as I was reminded for the umpteenth time last week when filmmaker Michael Lawrence—after finding one of my Bach articles online—emailed me, offering to send a copy of his recent documentary film, Bach & Friends. Knowing nothing about Lawrence or his work, I hardly knew what to expect—but my curiosity was piqued at his mention of some of the stellar artists who had collaborated on the project (Joshua Bell and the Emerson String Quartet, for starters). A few days later, I spent two wonder-struck hours viewing perhaps the most deeply revealing, wide-ranging, and beguiling portrait of the old master and his music I’ve encountered in any form of media… ever!

And that from yours truly: a musician and writer who has sung Bach’s music and played it (rather badly) on the piano for decades, written dozens of articles and reviews about it, and who owns every last bit of it on CD (155 of ‘em!)—not to mention having read countless recording liner notes on top of a good biography. Thus, this documentary was not so much a personal revelation to me as it was broad and potent reinforcement of my existing understanding of Bach, formed from my many personal revelations over the years. Let me tell you about one of the first of those.

While on vacation in British Columbia back in the 1980’s, I was sightseeing on foot with a friend in downtown Vancouver… when, what to my wondering ears should appear but the faint and disjointed buzzes, burps and bleats of what sounded like bassoons amid the usual traffic noises. Sure enough, following our ears, we soon found—beside a sidewalk bistro—a pair of young ladies at their bassoons, blithely (and skillfully) playing Bach: specifically the 15 Two-Part Inventions that were originally written for keyboard. Hearing Bach via the brazen, almost comedic sound of bassoons first struck me as incongruous, almost sacrilegious (I was still something of a stuffy purist back then). Yet… it was Bach! And, as ever, it soon got to me: it made sense, it sounded somehow “right”—and it stirred my senses and soul just as much as any keyboard performance ever had.

Making the documentary

And it certainly held the sizable crowd that had gathered in thrall, too. Ordinary folk, bless them—most of whom, I’m sure, knew little or nothing about Bach—stood in rapt attention, some tapping toes or bobbing heads in time. As the players launched into the skittering, playful eighth invention, one family’s pair of little boys—no doubt sensing the music’s irresistible spirit of dance—spontaneously began to prance and pirouette to it. Yes, Virginia—even kids can dig Bach.

When our performers finally took a breather, I spoke to them warmly—and learned that they were music students from the local conservatory. They looked a little sheepish when I joked that now I’d heard everything: Bach on bassoons! But I hastened to reassure them that they had just taught me something very important: that they (and their audience’s response) had opened my ears and my mind to the endless instrumental possibilities and unfailing appeal of Bach’s music. They told me that they were doing this because Bach had written no music specifically for bassoons, save as part of an orchestra. Feeling deprived, they simply adapted suitable works for their own use and pleasure. My final crack brought both laughter and nods of fervent agreement: “I’d bet that you could transcribe a Bach fugue for a choir of kazoos, and the musical truth would still shine through.” And that’s a line I’ve often repeated since, both verbally and in print.

Pardon the lengthy personal digression, dear readers. But, in a nutshell, it should give you some idea of what this wonderful documentary is all about. For Lawrence (henceforth to be called Mike)—has done his homework, and approached Bach from practically every possible viewpoint, managing to make his points via the mouths and instruments of a staggering array of the world’s A-list musicians… and not just those of the strictly classical ilk. Sure enough, the classical end of the business is richly represented—and by established stars like violinists Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn, cellists Matt Haimovitz and Zuill Bailey, pianists Simone Dinnerstein and John Bayless, organist Felix Hell, guitarist Manuel Barrueco, clarinetist Richard Stolzman, and the Emerson String Quartet—among others.

But there are also many other fabulous musicians at hand, whose reputations are anchored primarily in other major genres of music—like jazz, folk, bluegrass, and even pop. Bach—very legitimate and superbly played Bach—is heard from Bela Fleck’s banjo, Chris Thile’s modern mandolin, Edgar Meyer’s double bass, Bobby McFerrin’s infinitely flexible voice, the Swingle Singers’ jazzy vocals, and even Jake Shimabukuro’s humble ukulele (as he calls it, “the underdog of all instruments”)! There may be no choir of kazoos at hand, but every one of these players strengthens the case for adapting Bach’s music to unconventional instruments. Bach—who was ever on the prowl for fresh instrumental possibilities—would’ve loved it.

Composers and arrangers—like Philip Glass and Uri Caine—add their unique perspectives, and much of the most compelling biographical narrative (playing, too) comes from pianist Mike Hawley. There’s even a distinguished critical voice: that of the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page—who, among other commentary, elaborates on the singular influence of Glenn Gould: the legendary pianist credited with first awakening many 20th-century ears (including mine) to Bach nearly sixty years ago with his glittering go at the towering Goldberg Variations.

And they all—classical musicians or not—have much the same message for us, though expressed in many and varied ways. No serious musician who knows Bach (and there aren’t many who don’t) can deny his importance, his endless appeal and his influence—nor his status as the true “father” of Western music. We hear repeated allusions to the universal humanity of his music—its incredible range of human emotions and conditions—its often improvisatory nature—its brain-teasing mathematical complexity and perfection—and its unfathomably “cosmic” qualities. One of the most telling testimonials comes from pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who describes his music as “the closest I get to religion.” She further characterizes his effect upon her as being akin to the experience of star-gazing on a clear, moonless night while struggling in vain to comprehend the infinity of the universe.

Everyman’s music? Cellist Matt Haimovitz speaks eloquently of his invariably successful experiments in bringing his cello (and Bach’s cello suites) to unconventional venues: like coffeehouses, jazz emporiums and even punk rock clubs. Not only does he captivate new listeners wherever he performs, but he almost always gets invited back. Chris Thile—who gets some truly amazing Bach out of his mandolin—reports that his Bach selections are consistent hits at his concerts—even though they are done before crowds who came to hear bluegrass.

There are so many other delights and surprises to be found here. Twelve-year-old pianist Hilda Huang—who is shown sharing her art via recitals at senior centers—sees straight to the heart of Bach, in both her radiant playing and her heartfelt words. One of the most unusual instruments heard is Robert Tiso’s eerie-sounding glass harp, upon which he delivers an absolutely convincing performance of the famous organ Toccata in D Minor. Pianist John Bayless—with the enthusiastic help of fellow piano whiz Anatoly Larkin—re-creates for us the sort of improvisatory “duel” that top keyboard virtuosos often staged in Bach’s day.

Elderly pianist and Bach specialist Joao Carlos Martins will make you cry as he describes the heartbreaking loss of the use of his hands—yet he continues to derive joy conducting Bach, and from playing some of his simpler keyboard works, even if only two or three of his fingers remain of use to him. Then there’s the Emerson String Quartet’s gripping exploration of one of Bach’s penultimate (and unfinished) works, the bottomless Art of the Fugue. We even get some comic relief, in the form of Peter Schickele’s mock-serious discussion of his fictitious alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach—whom Schickele alleges was the final (and by far the least accomplished) of Bach’s sons.

Beyond those selections, I won’t subject you to a laundry list of all the remaining compositions (or excerpts thereof) offered here. But everything you’ll hear is a masterpiece; trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Suffice it to say that Joshua Bell’s incredibly soulful and incandescent rendition of the famous “Chaconne” for solo violin (his only recording of it thus far) is by itself worth the cost of the DVD.

Joshua Bell and Bobby McFerrin

We mustn’t forget that this is, after all, a video documentary—and the qualities of Mike’s ingenious and imaginative videography bear discussion. His use of stately, open, and empty venues (mostly churches) is striking. I wonder if I’ve ever seen musicians at work from such a dizzying array of visual perspectives. Dizzying, indeed: have you ever watched an organist (Felix Hell) from directly above, as if you were hanging head-first from the top of the organ case? Otherwise, he pays close attention to performers’ faces, both as they speak and as they perform. Extreme facial close-ups capture the rapturous joy of performance. His cameras—often zeroing in on the eyes—catch their expressive flashes… and even a tear or two, as the speakers’ obvious reverence and emotions get the better of them. And, ah—the performers’ hands! Whether they belong to keyboard, strings or clarinet players, I’ve never seen flying fingers from so many different angles and distances (even inches). This man really knows how to capture musicians in action.

Complaints? Shortcomings? There are no serious ones to speak of, though there was one minor gripe. Whenever I hear Bach, the music seizes and dominates my consciousness in such a way that I find any interruption to be annoying. And this documentary hits you not only on the musical level, but there are also the spoken and visual dimensions happening simultaneously. Thus, there’s (at least for me) a fleeting pang of loss and mild frustration whenever the music fades in mid-work to make room for spoken passages. And the often startling videography tends to distract the hard-core listener as well. But, probably having anticipated this, Mike has included a bonus disc containing the complete, uninterrupted works (or work movements) from all the featured artists. My only other niggling complaint (being a choral singer) is that there are practically none of Bach’s many choral masterpieces represented here (or orchestral ones, for that matter), leaving the viewer’s understanding of the composer’s full range of musical expression incomplete. But there’s apparently a sequel to this release in the works—and perhaps those omissions will be corrected in that effort. Mayhaps he can even explore the vital roles of other distinguished pioneers of Bach performance in the 20th-century: like guitarist Andres Segovia and cellist Pablo Casals.

Michael Lawrence shooting

How fitting that the film should end on a somewhat non-musical, but supremely telling cosmic note, as one of our narrators muses about how mankind can put its best foot forward in its ongoing efforts to make contact with intelligent life-forms beyond the stars. Part of the answer is found in what the Voyager spacecraft carries with it on its mission into deep space. Cosmologist Carl Sagan and his team came up with a special, high-capacity 12-inch golden “LP” containing the sounds and images of Earth—and, among the musical selections, Bach is represented by three pieces: more than from any other composer or performer. So it’s good to know that Bach is one of Earth’s most prominent and brilliant ambassadors to whatever cultures Voyager may encounter as it hurtles beyond our solar system and reaches for cosmic points unknown.

But the best news is that Bach’s incredibly broad and vibrant musical universe belongs to us—ALL of us—right here on earth. And that, I think, is one of the documentary’s main thrusts. Whether you’re a crusty old pro like me or a bright-eyed young neophyte making his first giddy Bach discoveries, you’ll find this film to be a precious artifact—one that you’ll return to time and again, whenever your soul needs diversion or refreshment. Like Bach’s music itself, this is a relentlessly delicious and copious feast for the ears, intellect, heart, and soul—not to mention eyes. Don’t miss it!

Explore Mike’s creative process in detail — it’s well worth your attention.

If, after reading this, you feel you must have this treasure for yourself (and I think you must), the only current source is Mike’s website: tell him Lindsay sent you. –LK

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One Response to “J.S. Bach: Everyman’s Composer”

  1. anne wagner

    Well, I had tears as you described your experience of Bach and your experience of Bach & Friends, as both so mirror my own.


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