Sunday, November 28, 2010

BACH & friends

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein says that playing Bach is "as close to religion as I get." This sums up my feeling as well as that of most of the musicians who appear in Michael Lawrence's superb new documentary, BACH & friends. The Baltimore filmmaker (see also the brilliant Barrueco: A Gift and a Life) has assembled a stellar and eclectic collection of musicians who all owe a lifetime of gratitude to the most remarkable composer in history. Fascinating interviews are joined with spellbinding performances into a two-hour (plus second bonus DVD of all performances) journey that awes as it stimulates.

All of the performances are noteworthy, but special highlights are organist Felix Hell's amazing rendition of the D Major fugue, mandolinist Chris Thile blazing through the E Major prelude, and Joshua Bell playing the Chaconne. Great camerawork captures Bobby McFerrin, Bela Fleck, Richard Stoltzman, Jake Shimabukuro, Peter Schickele, The Emerson Quartet, my friend Manuel Barrueco, and many others demonstrating the universal effect Bach has had on music and their lives. A provocative, recurring theme throughout the interviews is the notion that Bach did not "compose" the music, but rather simply wrote down what he heard in his head, channeling some otherwordly muse.

My favorite segment of the production is perhaps the Badinerie performed by the Swingle Singers, featuring the wonderful Joanna Goldsmith. This piece reveals the deep connection Bach has with humanity, transcending race, language, and the centuries. It brings to mind something Randy Kentfield once wrote:

It seems to me the various art forms are at varying stages of spiritual development, which I take to be a progression from identification with finite biology to a union with infinite physics. Dangling from the lowest rung of Jacob's Ladder are the verbal modes of expression. Poor, harried humanity, in order to deal with the world at the level of animal survival, has invented labels for what it sees, and has become attached to those names; the underlying processes are hidden from dull men's eyes by the dead weight of their illusory forms. The visual artist is somewhat more liberated. He can transform an animal's limited eyes into totally new ways of seeing. But the musician - that man has forsaken folly and revels in God - deals in a fluid medium unseen and unfelt but ecstatically experienced.

Thanks to Michael Lawrence for another landmark documentary, and I'm delighted to learn there will be a second Bach installment. I highly recommend BACH & friends, no matter your taste in music or art - there is something here for everyone to learn from and aspire to.

BACH & friends page on Michael Lawrence website

Thanks to Michael Lawrence for printing my comments!