Michael Lawrence: Shooting, and Loving, Bach

Michael Zwiebach on July 6, 2010
Michael Lawrence

Filmmaker Michael Lawrence’s Bach and Friends has been making waves among classical listeners and audiences who might never have suspected they would have a connection to J.S. Bach’s music.

In advance of the SFCV-sponsored premiere on July 14 at San Francisco’s Kabuki Cinema, Lawrence sat down to answer some questions about the film and his take on Bach’s music.


What was your original connection to Bach?

I’m from Indianapolis and I was a folk player and a bluegrass banjo player. Bach was not part of my world. But I had a friend who loaned me a Swingle Singers album [Bach’s Greatest Hits] and I just fell in love with Bach, even though it was a foreign world. By the way, Ward Swingle came over from Paris on his own dime to be in the movie. And we’ve become friends and we send e-mails back and forth all the time. What an honor to meet such a genius.

Is that a reason you cast your net so widely when you came to make Bach and Friends?

That’s part of it. Another part was, really, trying to open up this world to people who maybe hadn’t considered it before. My favorite e-mails come from people who say, “You know, I’d always been a little bit interested in classical music, but now I’m really hooked on Bach and downloading his music.” So the idea of these — what we would not think of as normal — Bach instruments was not so much the cardinal thing. In fact, the quality of the playing is solid on all of the instruments. It was mainly to open up this world to people like myself in Indianapolis who wouldn’t have thought that Bach was a part of their world.

Listen to the Music

Excerpts from the NY Premiere of BACH & friends

Were you surprised at how many instrumentalists in different worlds had connections to Bach?

I was lucky to get really good players. Look at Chris Thile. I mean, who would think that a bluegrass mandolin player would be among the best Bach players in the movie? To really play Bach well — that’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of people that play Bach very poorly.

Let me tell you the story of Jake Shimabukuro — you know, the ukulele player [in the film]? I contacted Jake because I had heard his playing on the Internet. And so when he was coming in the area I contacted his manager, and said, “Does Jake play Bach?” because I knew this guy was a great musician and I thought it would be interesting to have a ukulele player. And the manager says, “Oh yeah, Jake’s working on a Bach album.” So we get together outside of Washington and Jake comes up to me, pulls me off to the side, and says, “Mike, I got to be honest with you. I’m really not making a Bach album. It’s just that my idols — Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer — are in the movie.”

I studied guitar at Peabody [Conservatory], and, you know, it’s not easy to teach yourself to play even a two-part invention, especially on a weird little instrument like the ukulele. Yet he [Shimabukuro] did that all himself and worked it out, and that’s pretty impressive. He’s got that kind of talent, and he just loves Bach, and he’s willing to do that.

You were a musician first, and afterward a filmmaker?

Yeah. At one point I decided I was going to go into either jazz or classical, and I chose classical. So I ended up in Aaron Shearer’s first graduating class of guitarists at Peabody. I couldn’t even read music! Anyway, I made it through. Then, of course, I felt guilty because I went into filmmaking and composing, and Aaron [a famous guitar teacher] had spent five years grooming me as one of his young guitarists. I paid him back a little bit by doing a biography of him [Aaron Shearer: A Life With the Guitar (2005)].

I started composing soundtracks when I was at Peabody. In fact, Aaron recommended me to a guy named Julian Krainin. Julian had won an Oscar and was one of the big documentary people. He happened to be in Baltimore doing a documentary called The Other American. And I talked him into letting me compose the music for it. And I did a couple dozen other scores after that before I decided that filmmaking was what I really wanted.

Why did you decide to make this movie?

Well, you know what happened? I started out making films on my own. Then I ended up working with Julian Krainin. And we had 15 years or so of making documentaries, and one of them was Quiz Show Scandal for The American Experience (on PBS). That became [Robert] Redford’s film Quiz Show. And so that opened up Hollywood [with Krainin producing] and Julian actually became a Hollywood producer after that point.

I put a bunch of movies together [on my own]. And when you do these things for broadcast — CNN or ABC or such — you spend a lot of time developing these things, and then ... well, I’ve got a whole filing cabinet full of great films that nobody wanted. And as I started getting older I said, “The hell with it, I’m just going to do what I want to do.”

So I started the Bach film and I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anything. The first shoot, everybody on the crew worked on spec, and I even did the catering myself.

What did you feed them?

Well, sandwiches and stuff. You know, you’ve got a crew working all day. ... The first shoot we did was [24-year-old organ virtuoso] Felix Hell, and it was a long day’s shoot.

When I did this Library of Congress film years ago, Richard Saul Wurman was in it, and he’s the guy who invented the TED [Technology/Entertainment/Design] Conferences. And I stayed in touch with him over the years, and he kind of fell in [with the Bach project]. He got me into an Entertainment Gathering with Mike Hawley and they invited me to show the sample reel of the first four shoots. So I went to this conference in L.A., and after the screening a man came up to me and handed me his card. So it ends up that it’s John Abele, founder of Boston Scientific — the guy’s a billionaire. So he gives me $50,000 and then Mike introduced me to Mort Myerson, and Mort’s the guy who got his name on the Dallas Symphony Hall — he worked with Ross Perot. So Mort gives me a pile of money and all of a sudden I had money for the film! So I hired a really good D.P. [director of photography] named Richard Chisholm, and a really good sound man, Don Barto. But I’m telling you, on only $100,000 I did 36 shoots. It was very tight production work.

And then you spent a long time editing?

Yeah, but that’s the weird thing: The whole film was made on the second floor of my home in Baltimore. There was no staff. I did all the editing. I even did the DVD authoring myself.

Josh [violinist Joshua] Bell was supposed to come to my home to supervise the final editing of his performance of the “Chaconne” for a companion bonus DVD of complete performances. Three days before our session, my old Mac G5 computer died. And I had no money to buy a new computer, so Brooks Moore, who supervised the video finishing, loaned me another Mac and I was able to configure it just in time for the session with Josh.

What was the biggest surprise you found in making the movie?

Well, first of all, the experience of Bach with all these players. Nobody got paid in the movie, and they all did it just because they loved this guy’s music and it connects to them in a personal, spiritual way that is unlike any other composer — and there’s a lot of wonderful composers out there.

As much as Bach was a religious composer, the overtly religious music seems to be the music we hear less often. Is that odd to you?

Oh, I don’t know. I had one evangelical jump all over me because the film wasn’t religious enough. I think it’s religious in a sort of cosmic — you know, I’m not an organized religion person — but these sort of spiritual, cosmological feelings ... Bach does that. I had a great quote that I didn’t put in the movie because I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but [Romanian writer Emile Cioran] wrote, “If there’s anybody who owes everything to Bach, it’s God.” I have Peter Schickele saying that on film but I didn’t want to hurt the Christians.

Every person I interviewed, I asked, “Tell me about spirituality,” because Bach gives you this window into the mystery that we’re all going through. That was the last question I asked everybody. And I was surprised at the personal ways people responded.

And what about the opposite of that; what about Bach and the body? Because his music is very kinetic.

Well, I was pushing real hard for dance. In fact, there’s this line, and I finally got [cellist] Zuill Bailey to say it, which is that when Bach would conduct, he would move every bone in his body. I mean, the guy was cookin’ and he was moving physically to it. And even Bobby McFerrin, I got him to talk about why you go to concerts and nobody taps their feet, nobody feels the physicality of the music. And a lot of Bach’s music is stylized dance music.

There’s also an important element of improvisation in Bach’s music, since improvising was part of his job as an organist.

We nailed that in the movie. That’s a big theme, and a lot of people didn’t know that about Bach.

Do you have an opinion about improvisation in modern performance? Nowadays, we play the notes in a Bach piece, and only the notes, usually. Should we amend that a little bit?

That’s part of the message. Back then, people were a lot freer [with the music]. Bobby and John Bayless talk about this. You know, cadenzas weren’t written out and there was a lot of fluidity about making the thing in the moment. And if you go to the symphony, you don’t get that, much. Those people are not trained ... they don’t know how to do it. Improvisation has got to be [naturally] part of the way you do music. That’s why the jazz people, when they approach Bach, you know they’ve got that going for them. And it’s not just Bach, it’s Mozart and Beethoven — those guys were great improvisers.

But I think things are changing. There’s a movement to free things up a bit — you know, in the conservatories. I’m encouraged by the things that I see and I’m encouraged by the young people who have really connected to this movie. A friend of mine’s 9-year-old grandchild watched the whole movie. Can you imagine that?

What’s next for you?

Bach and More Friends. As a matter of fact, I shot [classical guitarist] Sharon Isbin. I didn’t use her — there was just so much I could fit into the movie. And with Sharon, she did a whole thing on Rosalyn Tureck, who was a famous Bach player [on harpsichord]. I’ll use that in the second film.

If I can raise double the money I did last time, we can do orchestral music. And I really want to do the vocal music: It’s so inaccessible to most people. You know, these guys stand up there like they’ve got a stick up their [back side], and they hold the book in front of them and they sing very formally. It’s a turnoff, even though the music is great. So I’m not going to film anybody in a church, I’m going to film them sitting around, in interesting places, singing and loving the music. I’m hoping that this film opens up some doors with the unions.

What’s the audience response been, live?

I have a video I actually paid a guy to shoot at the New York premiere at Symphony Space. It was great. [Clarinetist] Richard Stoltzman played the Chromatic Fantasy, and it’s so much more expressive, believe it or not, than it could ever be on the keyboard. It was cosmic; it just floored everybody in the whole place.