This documentary presents a number of musicians and critics
who discuss Bach’s
music and how it resonates with them. Interviewees include Joshua Bell, Hilary
Hahn, Bobby McFerrin, Richard Stoltzman, Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach), Philip Glass,
Béla Fleck, Tim Page, Zuill Bailey, Uri Caine and Simone Dinnerstein.
Each person talks about one part of Bach’s music, in most cases, for the
performers, the types of music they play. There are many bits and pieces of Bach
distributed throughout the documentary. All the people interviewed have illuminating
things to say about Bach and his music, but there is no over-arching narrative.
In spite of that, this is an engaging and rewarding film. My attention never
lagged, even though none of the speakers get very deeply into their subjects.
There is the now-obligatory neuroscientist, Dr. Charles J. Limb, who puts a pianist/improviser
(John Bayless) into an fMRI while he plays music from memory, then while improvising,
to show that the brain works differently when doing the two forms of playing.
While this is interesting, it doesn’t add much to anyone’s understanding
of Bach. At the end, a brief discussion of mathematics, fractals and Bach, unfortunately
ends proceedings on a non-musical note.
The film focuses a bit too much on non-standard performances of Bach’s
music: Richard Stoltzman playing the Chromatic Fantasy (BWV 903) on clarinet
(it was composed for keyboard); Bobby McFerrin and the Swingle Singers doing
vocal arrangements of instrumental works; Robert Tiso playing glass harp; Béla
Fleck playing banjo, and more. There is no attempt to show Bach’s music
performed on original instruments, neglecting what is perhaps the most important
part of Bachian performance practice today. I would have appreciated more performers
who work with original instruments talking about the connections they make with
the music and using instruments that are closer to what Bach knew. In addition,
this American film ignores pretty much every Bach performer from outside the
US, with the notable exception of Glenn Gould. The many European performers who
bring Bach’s music to life today are absent. Their presence would in many
ways have brought us closer to the tradition of Bach’s works.
In addition, all of the musicians interviewed are soloists. While they have many
intriguing things to say, and the performances are interesting, there is no exploration
of Bach’s larger works, be they for ensemble such as the Brandenburgs or
his sacred music, such as the cantatas or passions, which represent, perhaps,
the most significant part of his output both in quantity and profundity. Some
segments with the Emerson Quartet playing parts of The Art of Fugue form
an isolated exception. There is not even a single singer present to discuss Bach’s
vocal works. The end-result gives a skewed, perhaps naïve view, suggesting,
to those who are not familiar with Bach’s music, that it is limited to
the more personal works such as the solo keyboard or violin pieces. While it’s
certainly a novelty to see parts of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in
D minor, BWV 565, performed on a “glass harp” - essentially a set
of wine glasses containing varying amounts of water so that, when rubbed on their
rims, they play different tones - I would have preferred to see a performance
of, say, one of Bach’s motets.
The actual camera work of the film is good, at times so much so as to be distracting.
Rather than stepping back and letting performers perform, the lens captures odd
positions or eccentric angles, suggesting that the shots are more important than
The second disc of this set will quench the thirst of those who want full performances.
Many of the performances seen in the documentary are included here in their complete
form. Well, “complete” means, for example, one variation from the Goldberg
Variations, by Simone Dinnerstein, or two fugues from the Art of Fugue by
the Emerson Quartet. There are no complete works. There are 18 performances in
all, including Joshua Bell playing the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2
in D minor, BWV 1004, for solo violin.
While this is interesting, and quite enjoyable, it’s a shame that the film
ignores much of Bach’s music. It’s especially galling that it fails
even to mention his vast output of sacred music. It does give a decent overview
of the “smaller” works - those for solo instruments, mainly. Viewers
know little about Bach’s music will learn a great deal and see a number
of different arrangements of his works. Produced more for the general public
than for those familiar with Bach’s music, this is nevertheless appealing