Bach & Friends is a monument to the genius of Bach. The film is a labour of love by filmmaker Michael Lawrence who started the project in 2007. He has interviewed a wide range of world class composers and musicians representing a broad spectrum of today's musical world. These interviews and a host of integral musical examples have been assembled into a unique film which explores the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. Through these personal reflections, the film profoundly illustrates why this uniquely influential composer is relevant and meaningful today, 260 years after his death. The first DVD consists of the 2-hour Documentary Film itself, and the second DVD contains the full set of performances which are used as excerpts to illustate the film.
The film starts off appropriately with the organ, which was an important instrument in Bach's career. A church organ is a complicated machine, and the organists of Bach's day didn't just require to know musical technique, but they needed the technical expertise to be able to maintain and if necessary repair their instrument. The documentary considers the importance of improvisation during Bach's time, noting that many of his Organ works probably originated as improvisations which were later written down. Bobby McFerrin gives some anecdotes about improvisation, and we are treated to a marvellous duel between two improvising pianists.
Among the highlights of the film, Ward Swingle tells us about the origins of the Swingle Singers with their vocal interpretations of Bach's music, while we hear a performance of the composer's Badinerie from the Orchestra Suite No. 2. Neurological studies which scan the brain during improvisation have helped to unravel what actually happens in the brain of someone who is improvising. Compared to normal piano playing, it is no surprise that the improvising brain show increased activity in those parts related to self-expression. But other parts of the brain reduce activity, as if wanting to minimise aspects of normal consciousness which might otherwise interfere with the flow.
One of the great inventions of Bach's day was equal temperament, which inspired the Well-Tempered Clavier, and allowed Bach to experiment with works giving greater prominence to all the 12 notes of the scale. Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman illustrates this with Bach's Chromatic Fantasy. Philip Glass talks about the mental processes of artists and scientists, and speculates about Bach's compositional process. Other technological uses of Bach's music is the recreation of Glenn Gould's interpretations using computer software to calculate and reproduce minute changes in timing and finger pressure, while "CPU Bach" is computer software which can create a stream of Bach-like music.
Bach often recycled music by taking ideas from some pieces and rearranging them for different instruments and combinations of instruments. This flexibility later allowed Wendy Carlos to play Bach on a Moog Synthesiser, and different musicians illustrate the technical challenges and the artistic journeys they have each experienced while adapting Bach's music for instruments as diverse as the mandolin, the double bass, the guitar, glass harmonica, ukelele and banjo. This might seem sacrilegious to some but perhaps Bach would have approved, just as he himself greatly extended the generally-accepted role of the cello in his day.
Pianist Mike Hawley considers the personal aspects of the composer's life. His parents died while he was young and he became an orphan looked after by an older brother. His first wife and a number of his children died when he was a young man. These personal events, not to mention the normal ups and downs of a musical career and the fact that he even spent a month in jail, must surely have had a profound effect on the composer. While the mathematical precision of his music is immediately evident, the emotional aspects in some works lie a little deeper. But who can doubt the emotional intent of the composer during Joshua Bell's performance of Bach's famous Chaconne.
This brief overview has only touched on some of the topics explored in this film. "Bach and Friends" paints a picture of a composer who is long gone, but whose creations thrive among today's musicians. That legacy is unsurpassed, and I have no doubt that this film will inspire yet more musicians.
The following complete performances are included on DVD2, and the quality of the recordings is immaculate: