What do Hilary Hahn, Philip Glass, Béla Fleck and Dr. Charles J. Limb have in common? They are all lovers of Bach and appear in Michael Lawrence‘s wonderful new  film of conversations and music, “Bach & Friends.” My best guess is that you recognize the first three of those I listed. Dr. Limb, probably not. He’s an Otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins and double-duties on the faculty of Peabody where he studies the effects of music on the brain.
Dr. Limb – plus writers, biographers, a mathematician, and a game designer – and some of the finest Bach interpreters today – converge in a set of illuminating reflections that explore the performing of Bach, his effect on our lives, minds and hearts and why he continues to have power over us nearly three centuries later.
Michael Lawrence can also be counted as a lover of Bach, discovering the wonder of his music listening to the Swingle Singers scat Bach. Lawrence played guitar and composed music for a dozen films, but has made his reputation producing documentaries including the Emmy-nominated “The Quiz Show Scandal” for PBS that inspired – and provided much of the material – for Robert Redford’s subsequent feature film.
This time around, Michael Lawrence has combined his two loves – music and film-making – for a montage of inspired performances and thought-provoking ideas. As a bonus, the performances are available – commentary-free – on the second DVD in the two-disk package.
We never see or hear from Lawrence – or any voice-over for that matter. Although we are mightily aware of what he must have done to capture his intimate footage.
In one scene there’s a close-up of just hands – Simone Dinnerstein’s graceful fingers – crossing over one another and seemingly dancing on keys. We get inside a tracker organ’s guts while Felix Hell busily negotiates a fugue – its seemingly impossible fleet-foot work and all. We are then near enough to hear the rush of air as Richard Stolzman renders a transcription of a Bach fantasy for keyboard.
Why ask a bunch of musicians [to] play and talk?
Whenever I’ve seen a dramatic portrayal of what it means to be a musician, the movie-makers always get it wrong. Music-making is not internal with furrowed brow or a rushed inspiration as the music crescendos in the background. It’s a living and breathing world that has been thought about, parsed, dissected and discussed over a life-time. As well, music is a shared experience and this film prys open the door into that spectacular world – and mind – of the performer.
By allowing us to sit on Zuill Bailey‘s shoulder, or perch on The Emerson String Quartet’s desks or share Bobby McFerrin’s piano bench, we also come just that much closer to Bach.
Words like “transcendent,” “oneness,” “ecstasy,” “earthiness,” “the unexpected,” and “cosmic harmony” are thrown about accompanied by performances that truly do transcend, including Joshua Bell‘s only recorded performance of the Bach Chaconne.
And all in a series of gorgeous, intimate, breathe-taking shots that balance the sense of wonder in Bach – “Bach is as close to religion as I get” (Dinnerstein) with the purely visceral “Bach slams you in the gut.” (Chris Thile)
Some exquisite moments include Zuill Bailey playing one of Bach’s suites – sensing the vibration of the strings and the sizzle of the bow. When he describes the humanity of Bach – “joy, laughter, sorrow and loss, music that reaches to the heart of human nature” we find ourselves nodding our heads in agreement.
There’s a feeling of unrehearsed immediacy. When Bobby McFerrin improvises then stops to ask “how can you not dance to that?” you just have to agree with him.
Lest the movie become a catalogue of musician vignettes, we cut to Dr. Limb trying to unlock the actual corners of the brain responsible for improvising. John Bayless makes up a few lines on a special keyboard while strapped into an MRI. It’s no surprise that the part of the brain that censors and inhibits literally shuts off to allow self-expression to take over.
This was where our understanding of Bach the creator begins. The atmosphere couldn’t be more metaphysical as Philip Glass speaks of Bach’s compositional genius in a cooly lit space where we see snow falling just out the window. He’s certain that Bach couldn’t have composed such a massive amount of music without it having arrived in his mind complete.
And how do we explain that? He was a genius, like Einstein. But also a human being, so we are related, we are connected to him.
But just as we begin to drop into a time warp, Lawrence eases us back to reality with a light-hearted talk with P.D.Q. Bach’s creator, Peter Schickele. Later we hear from the maker of a Bach computer game and drop in on Robert Tiso playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on a set of crystal goblets.
As hokey as the title “Bach & Friends” might be, by the end I felt that I had made new friends and would be carrying on the dialogue with my own set of friends. Like my new buddy, bassist Edgar Meyer says, “Being involved with Bach’s music gives me as much pleasure as anything I can think of.”
In addition to the documentary, a bonus disc includes complete performances by:
Felix Hell, organist – Fugue in D Major (BWV 532)
Bobby McFerrin, singer/conductor – Bach Improvisation
Matt Haimovitz, cellist – Prelude from Suite in G Major (BWV 1007)
Mike Hawley, pianist – Fugue in G Major (BWV 577)
Ward Swingle, The Swingle Singers – Badinerie from Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor (BWV 1067)
Manuel Barrueco, guitarist – Fugue in G minor (BWV 1000)
John Bayless & Anatoly Larkin, pianists – Improvisation on Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645)
Edgar Meyer, bassist – Prelude from Suite in D minor (BWV 1008)
Simone Dinnerstein, pianist – Variation 13 from Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)
Chris Thile, mandolinist – Gigue from Partita in D minor (BWV 1004)
Richard Stoltzman, clarinetist – Chromatic fantasia in D minor (BWV 903a)
Béla Fleck, banjoist – Presto from Sonata in G minor (BWV 1001)
Emerson String Quartet – Contrapuncti nos. 1 and 9 from Art of Fugue (BWV 1080)
John Bayless, pianist – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring/Amazing Grace Improvisation (BWV 147)
Jake Shimabukuro, ukuleleist – Invention in D minor (BWV 786)
Zuill Bailey, cellist – Allemande from Suite in D Major (BWV 1012)
Hilda Huang, pianist – Fugue in D minor (BWV 948)
Joshua Bell, violinist – Chaconne from Partita in D minor (BWV 1004)