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Variations on Bach

The Bach Project is done. Culled from performances and interviews with leading and/or eccentric musicians, this film, a labor of love by the Baltimore-based director and composer Michael Lawrence, which when I last wrote about it in July seemed far from completion, is now cut, edited, and available on DVD.

It's hard to make a film about something that's very, very great, because the default mode tends to be a kind of awe-struck hagiography. Bach's music "tells you about life and the world in a way that nothing else can," the violinist Joshua Bell says to the camera, which doesn't say anything very specific about Bach or about what Bell feels Bach is telling is. Far more immediate is Bobby McFerrin, who explains how you have to let yourself go in Bach and sings an excerpt to demonstrate what he means about the music essentially being a dance: this is a prime example of music speaking louder than words to illustrate a point.
(read more after the jump)

It doesn't always; the film uncritically intersperses allegations of greatness with actual demonstrations of it. It's at its best when it moves beyond the "how great Bach art" theme, which is given a number of variations by the impressive roster of musicians who participated, and gets at the substance of the story.

This is not a documentary about Bach, but about how Bach is perceived and exists today through the eyes of musicians (and others) who have a special connection to the composer. Bach therefore ends up as a foil for a range of different topics. The question of improvisation, rightly identified as a key to Bach's work, leads to an MRI of the improvising pianist John Bayless that shows that different parts of the brain are activated when a player improvises than when he plays music that he knows by heart. An exploration of Bach and technology leads from the organ (once the most complicated machinery in the world) to Zenph Studios' recreation, on a contemporary player piano, of Glenn Gould's benchmark recording of the Goldberg Variations, to the video game creator Sid Meier, who wrote a computer program to compose music in Bach's style.

Running through all of this, behind the words, are some impressive Bach performances by the project's participants, including what the director says is Bell's only recorded performance of the Chaconne. As a fine perk, these performances are also offered on their own, without commentary, on a second DVD in the two-disk package.

The film treats its interview subjects with the same kind of reverent respect that they themselves accord to the composer they're discussing. In practice, this means that questionable statements are allowed to stand; some opaque statements remain unexplained; and there's only a light editorial hand. This isn't a film that wants to ask larger questions -- about the way, perhaps, that our society regards the music of composers who lived three hundred years ago; or about the period-instruments movement, which goes surprisingly unmentioned. The content is dictated by the subjects Mr. Lawrence found. The pianist Mike Hawley does provide a unifying thread, supplying various biographical details and anecdotes about Bach, speaking during the sections devoted to performers who evidently didn't want to speak themselves (like Robert Tiso, who performs the Toccata and Fugue in d minor, beautifully, on a set of crystal glassware filled to varying degrees with water).

Yet the participants take a definite second place to Bach in that they are identified only by their names, and their own words; there's no other indication of who they are. Philip Glass, Hilary Hahn, and the Swingle Singers are reasonably self-explanatory, but other speakers raise questions. The pianist Joao Carlos Martins speaks about losing the use of his hands, but doesn't explain what happened to him (his biography does, though). Hawley himself is an unorthodox MIT professor who runs the New who was long involved with the Media Lab there and is a pioneer in an astonishing range of forms of digital technology; in the film, he is simply a performer and engaging narrator of stories of Bach's life.

In short, this is not a critical documentary but a love letter, given an additional glow by loving camerawork (a little overactive, sometimes zooming in to invade its subjects' personal space) and equally loving visual editing. And it does have plenty to offer: some fine performances; some interesting information; and what amounts to a cross-section of today's classical music world, in many of its current manifestations, from highbrow to crossover. It's up to the viewer to pursue the questions it raises or think about what it's actually saying.

By Anne Midgette  |  February 11, 2010; 6:35 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews , news  
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Comments

whew, I like your writing. Thanks for this, because Bach is my favorite. I would love to know what other DVDs about classical music you recommend, and I say "about" because I am interested in gaining insight into the music as well as hearing it performed.

-- a former Post contributor
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Posted by: bckstrtch | February 11, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this review. It has made me uninterested in seeing the documentary, for the following reasons:

"It's hard to make a film about something that's very, very great, because the default mode tends to be a kind of awe-struck hagiography. Bach's music "tells you about life and the world in a way that nothing else can," the violinist Joshua Bell says to the camera, which doesn't say anything very specific about Bach or about what Bell feels Bach is telling is."

and

"The film treats its interview subjects with the same kind of reverent respect that they themselves accord to the composer they're discussing. In practice, this means that questionable statements are allowed to stand; some opaque statements remain unexplained; and there's only a light editorial hand. This isn't a film that wants to ask larger questions -- about the way, perhaps, that our society regards the music of composers who lived three hundred years ago; or about the period-instruments movement, which goes surprisingly unmentioned."

Posted by: Lindemann777 | February 12, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

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