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A Documentary About Bach Gives Food for Thought

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One of the most fascinating documentaries I've seen recently is Mike Lawrence's Bach and Friends. It's a two-hour compilation of some extraordinary performances coupled with information about the composer's life and times and personal reflections of musicians.

One thing that emerges most clearly from this DVD is how Bach, of all composers, is universal. Play his music on the organ, the violin, the piano, the cello, the clarinet, the banjo, the ukulele, the glass, the human voice -- it doesn't matter. It all sounds wonderful as this movie demonstrates.

Why is that, I wonder? There are many other examples of musical transcriptions from one instrument to another of the work of other composers that succeed in their way, although they are always profoundly altered by the transition.

But no other composer, modern or ancient, is so instantly transferable through so many different media. Perhaps it's because of the strict and formal mathematics that underpins Bach's work. Or perhaps it's because his music is so pure that it exists in a realm beyond the specifics of an individual performance on an individual instrument.

The poet William Blake wrote:
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

This is what Bach does.

The story behind this movie is interesting. Filmmaker Mike Lawrence was a folksinger and a bluegrass banjo player. Until someone loaned him the Swingle Singers first LP, he was unaware of Bach. "The music completely blew me away and I was hooked. I had never heard anything like it before," he wrote me in an email.

It took three years to make the movie, which began with no funding and a crew working on spec. Performers like Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Bobby McFerrin, Richard Stoltzman, Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn gave their time and talent.

The result is truly uplifting. But the movie also made me worry about the future. Bach's music is highly accessible to those exposed to it -- but it also demands a degree of intellectual engagement and concentration from the listener. In these days when we are cutting back on music education and stinting on "culture," Bach and classical music in general is viewed as elitist and irrelevant. And in an era when we are bombarded by stimuli, I wonder whether we can retain the ability to focus.

In a society obsessed with trivia, can we detach ourselves from the constant "noise" of modern living and reconnect with our inner voices, the music of our souls?

I don't worry about kids not learning to play this music. There are always going to be enough of them -- a small minority but enough. Bach is like a drug; once you experience your first high, you always want more. But I do worry about where the audiences of the future will come from.

Someone in the movie mentions that Bach's music was included on some recordings launched into space in 1977 aboard the Voyager spacecraft as representative samples of the highest achievements of human civilization.

It would be ironic if some extraterrestrial civilization far into the future were one day to find these recordings and become entranced by them at a time when they have become forgotten here on Earth.