Bach and Friends
Bobby McFerrin
Philip Glass
Béla Fleck
Hilary Hahn
Chris Thile
Simone Dinnerstein
Emerson Quartet
Richard Stoltzman
Zuill Bailey
Jake Shimabukuro
Ward Swingle
The Swingle Singers
Edgar Meyer
Manuel Barrueco
Peter Schickele
"P.D.Q. Bach"
Matt Haimovitz
John Bayless
João Carlos Martins
Uri Cane
Hilda Huang
Robert Tiso
Mike Hawley
Sid Meier
Felix Hell
Dr. Christoph Wolff
Picture Format 4:3 Region Code 2, 3, 4, 5
MICHAEL LAWRENCE FILMS (UPC) [1:56:00 + 1:26:00]

This is a very well-produced two-DVD set. It’s full of high definition colour, relatively cogent interviews and 'talking heads'; some scenery - interior and exterior, close-up and panoramic - with lots of excerpts of Bach's best known music; most of it with voice-over. Its aim is to encompass the totality of 'how great Bach is'. Hey, Look - the Beatles' Penny Lane can (also) be made a gigue. Bach would have done that, wouldn't he!

American film maker Michael Lawrence approaches his subject impressionistically. There's little or no academic rigour or carefully-assembled insights compiled by judicious selection of original thought or leaning towards risks drawing on recent research. Rather, Bach and Friends is an American-heavy quilt of freeform personal opinion, anecdote and subjective versions of why Bach is a cut above the rest. Louis Marchand "leaves town" before his competition with Bach. Bach's "mom dying" is a "key data point" in his life. Pop performers sing concerti with "classical symphonists". They're "here to tell you, ain't nobody like Bach". "Bluegrass sounds older than Bach … but Holy Cow!" It's 'kewel' to improvise - because they "were all at it" in Bach's time … "a different take every gig"! There is a great affinity between Baroque and jazz. This register is typical but not exclusive. There are more sober comments. There's also humour - P.D.Q has been asked to contribute and obviously agreed.

This may all work very well to newcomers to Bach. It might steer aficionados of other musical genres towards an understanding of Bach. How deep that understanding will be is open to question, though. It may be argued that the essence of Bach is the stunningly numerous and varied heights which he reached by taking current musical and wider historical practices - the Passion, the Cantata, the Concerto, for example - and making something eternal and universal from them. What Bach achieved certainly stretches forward centuries after he died. At the same time - amazingly - his achievement seems somehow to reach back to humanity's first art. And thereby speaks for itself in and on its own terms in ways that no other composer has and does; Shakespeare shares this. Bach's fugues don't need to be played on tuned wineglasses for us to understand that. And there are a few welcome sequences that make this point more plainly … João Carlos Martins the pianist/conductor suggests that there is no explaining Bach - on anything other than his own terms. If that.

Bach and Friends tends to base the headier conclusions on a couple of dozen doyens' admittedly upbeat experiences. Fair enough. They should know. But they also rely on the implicit need to compare Bach to already widely accepted and generally endorsed (modern cultural and social) icons in order to legitimise our approbation for Bach: computer games and jazz clubs, for example. There are also sections explaining very clearly projects using neurological mapping of the brain during improvising. But then, improvising is 'hip'; so Bach must be good. And the fact that Bach can be played on 'any instrument' these days - from clarinet through banjo to electric guitar - surely makes Bach great - doesn't it?

On the other hand for those who can't get enough of Bach, the documentary honestly does provide something of an easy infusion of ideas and images. There’s also the odd insight … from the Emerson quartet, for example, suggesting that The Art of Fugue is about 'the contemplation of infinite possibilities'. It has to be doubted whether a Bach specialist would want to return to Bach and Friends all that often, having seen and evaluated some of the ideas once - they're not particularly challenging.

The American flavour which permeates the documentary is rich in the idiom of power; competition; getting and staying one-up; advancing slickness over humility; and rarely reaching intelligently outside the immediate environment for alternative perspectives. When asked about the emphasis on improvisation in the film, Lawrence replied, "We nailed that in the movie. That’s a big theme, and a lot of people didn’t know that about Bach."

This is not to say that there are no insightful passages … Philip Glass, for example, suggests, effectively, that Bach could not have 'planned' much of his music … there is too much of it for it not to have 'come to him' semi-automatically. Perhaps. The anecdotes are entertaining … memories of Gould, for example, and his Goldberg Variations. John Walker's attempts better to understand how Gould played using electronic images of the recordings reverse engineered to reveal timings etc are fascinating, though not explored in any real or satisfying depth. The same goes for some of the discussions on Bach's love of numbers. Christoph Wolff appears briefly; Joshua Bell too.

The film-making itself is technically excellent. We're taken inside organ pipes, under a bass's bridge - almost - and into contemporary churches. Each expert speaks compellingly and engagingly. It is good to have as wide a vision of Bach as this set offers. But it lacks depth and a consistent academic underpinning. In other words, it is entertaining but hardly likely to endure - if for no other reason than that Bach's actual music is presented almost exclusively in snippets in the documentary on the first DVD. Complete performances of 19 of the pieces are on the second disc. The price of the DVDs is probably too high. But for something a 'little different', it may be worth a look - especially if you want to do a little advocacy yourself. After all, as one performer says, "You play Bach and everyone freaks out."

This is an effort to popularise Bach to non-specialist listeners by attempting to legitimise his achievements largely by referencing (twenty-first century) topoi and commonplaces and personal thoughts, presumably these are Bach's friends. Some perceptive sequences nevertheless make this worth a look - despite being rather overpriced.

Mark Sealey

see also review by
Kirk McElhearn

An effort to popularise Bach to non-specialist listeners. Some perceptive sequences make this worth a look - despite being rather overpriced.