"First I lost my right hand. I told myself I could do transcriptions of Bach, and then I lost my left hand, too. And then I didn't know where I could go. At that time I realized that I could conduct. And that was the importance of Bach in my life: He kept me alive."
—from an interview with pianist Joao Carlos Martins, in BACH & friends
In 2010, we celebrate the 325th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday. Filmmaker and Peabody alumnus Michael Lawrence (BM ’70, Guitar) released a new documentary this year, BACH & friends, which features performances by and interviews with great musicians from around the world. When I watched the film, the interview with Joao Carlos Martins made me stop and go back to catch every word. Martins, a Brazilian pianist who had recorded the complete keyboard works of Bach, talked movingly about giving up his career as a concert pianist in the face of terminal physical setbacks, and how Bach's music gave him the strength to keep going. The interview's power illustrates what makes BACH & friends such an important tribute.
For many musicians, Johann Sebastian Bach is the gold standard. Born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685, Bach began singing in church choirs and studying organ at a young age. Over the course of his professional life, he served as a church Kantor and as Kapellmeister for noble patrons, working with both sacred and secular music. As Kantor in Leipzig, he composed as much as one cantata per week, an extraordinary output, especially given the individuality and artistry of each piece. Bach is also considered the greatest master of fugue, a compositional form of the baroque era that requires both meticulous structure and great creativity. These two elements characterize all of Bach's work.
Hailing from Indianapolis, filmmaker Michael Lawrence had his first musical training playing folk guitar and bluegrass banjo. He was introduced to Bach's music when he heard a recording by the Swingle Singers and, as he said in an interview about BACH & friends, "just fell in love with Bach, even though it was a foreign world." After deciding to pursue classical study, he attended Peabody and graduated in 1970 as a member of guitar faculty member Aaron Schearer's first graduating class. Lawrence's career then took him to film composition and filmmaking, where among other projects, he helped make the documentary Quiz Show Scandal—which later became Robert Redford's Hollywood film Quiz Show. After developing a number of projects for network television, Lawrence decided to focus his career on projects of personal significance.
BACH & friends, released in May 2010 to great critical acclaim, is one such project. Lawrence pulled together an all-star group of Bach interpreters to perform and discuss Bach's music, including Peabody alumnus Felix Hell (AD ’07, MM ’08, Organ), guitar faculty member Manuel Barrueco (BM ’75, Guitar), and Preparatory alumna and internationally famous violinist Hilary Hahn. For Lawrence himself, making the film was a journey, a chance to pay tribute to his musical hero. It's clear from all the interviews that the performers have the same deep connection with Bach's music.
Lawrence's chosen performers cross all genre boundaries. One segment of the film features crossover artists, including bassist Edgar Meyer, banjo great Bela Fleck, and folk mandolinist Chris Thile. They each talk about how Bach's music shaped their musical understanding, how they perform it and introduce new audiences to it, and their connection with it. Thile imagines Bach in heaven, composing new music in a closet with a bottle of brandy, the way he did in life. Fleck talks about how Bach's music is "the way we all wish we improvised," noting that compared with the bluegrass in which Fleck specializes, Bach's music sounds even more modern and surprising. Meyer sums it up with, "Ain't nobody like Bach." As a classical musician myself, I was struck with how important this crossover work is, and how these performers are reaching new audiences to keep Bach's music strong and alive.
Another segment of the film talks about Bach's compositional style and his penchant for improvisation. Jazz singer Bobby McFerrin suggests that Bach would have loved the "accidental improv" that comes from mistakes in performance. Bach thought that music should be "always asking, a constant quest," and McFerrin notes that performers shouldn't be "too hung up on technique and perfection." Pianist Uri Caine agrees, saying that for Bach, music making was natural; performers need to keep that sense of freedom and authenticity, Caine asserts. All of this was a different perspective on Bach's music for me. Hearing these musicians discuss it, I gained a new sense of the freshness and vitality of familiar pieces, and a new way to think about performance.
It's easy to see why both critics and audiences have loved BACH & friends. The movie invites us to look at the music in a new way, to understand Bach as a human being with an extraordinary gift, who created work that is still alive and vibrant three centuries later. Lawrence has created a beautiful tribute for Bach's 325th anniversary year.