Why We Love Bach

The Baltimore Sun

Crawling along the floor in front of a Steinway grand, Michael Lawrence aims his camera at two hands busily moving across the keys to articulate complex baroque counterpoint.

The resulting close-up isn't just about the actual pianist doing the playing. It says something, too, maybe even more, about the Baltimore filmmaker. Lawrence is trying to zoom in on nothing less than the enduring, inspiring genius of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The film, known as the Bach Project until an official name is chosen, had its final shoot on Friday in New York with celebrated composer Philip Glass. He joins a remarkable range of other Bach lovers interviewed for the film, from stellar violinists Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn to banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, from brilliant video game designer Sid Meier to ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro.

A couple of weeks ago, Lawrence and his crew filmed 12-year-old pianist Hilda Huang, who flew in from San Francisco to do the shoot at an unusual location, Keswick Multi-Care. Huang, whose affinity for Bach has earned high marks, played selections from the composer's Art of the Fugue and other pieces for an audience of seniors.

That footage may be the film's opening sequence. "It was great seeing someone so young playing Bach for the old people," says the tall, stocky Lawrence, whose long gray hair and beard give him a Santa-esque look at this time of year, complete with friendly eyes. "I'm thinking of having shots of the Keswick residents lead into a faces-of-humanity montage. I might have a title for the film now: The Faces of Bach."

That a film about Bach should end up shooting in a senior care center says something about the breadth of the enterprise. The idea came from Richard Chisolm, Lawrence's director of photography, whose many credits include the ABC series Hopkins 24/7. "His mom died at the center, and he visited her there often," Lawrence says. "He had the idea that the place would be great for the shoot, and it was."

Currently in post-production, the film will explore the different ways that a German composer who died more than 250 years ago continues to inspire musicians and non-musicians alike. An all-music bonus DVD containing complete versions of performances interwoven through interviews in the main film will be included in the final product, which should be on the market this summer.

"Right now, I'm working on finding a structure for the film," says Lawrence, who talks at the equivalent of 70 mph, interrupted by the occasional hearty chuckle. "I've got to take chances. I don't want to just string these [interviews] together. There has to be a story. It is not easy, but I've got the goods."

Those goods, preserved on state-of-the-digital-art equipment in Lawrence's meticulously organized second-floor office/studio at his home, include a sequence with Bell discussing and playing Bach's formidable, profound Chaconne, which he has never recorded. "Bach is a hero of mine, and of every other living and dead musician," Bell says from New York. "This was a nice opportunity to delve deeper into the Chaconne, and to have a snapshot of this point in my life."

He found Lawrence to be "an easygoing, jolly guy. And he has a genuine love for Bach. I'm assuming his affection will come through in the film," Bell says.

His involvement with the project didn't stop when the cameras did. He also represented the project with Lawrence in California this month at the 2008 Entertainment Gathering, an annual event that attracts a heady assortment of creative people. The roster included screenwriter Marshall Brickman, nature photographer Franz Lanting and singer/songwriter Todd Rundgren.

It was at the 2007 EG that Lawrence gave an initial presentation about his project, garnering some funding (he used his own savings to start the venture). He gave an update at this year's EG, and then introduced Bell, who played the Chaconne for the attendees.

The Indianapolis-born Lawrence, 63, traces his own fascination with Bach to his student days. "I think it was the Swingle Singers that really hooked me," he says. This a cappella jazz vocal ensemble, directed by Ward Swingle, made a splash singing ingenious versions of Bach pieces in the 1960s (they can be heard briefly on the soundtrack of the new film Milk).

Swingle flew from Paris earlier this year specifically for Lawrence's project. On film, he discusses his group's novelty - "People hadn't scatted Bach before" - and the versatility of Bach's music. "You can appreciate [it] in so many ways," he says. "It's mind-boggling." Swingle describes how he starts each morning performing something by Bach: "It lifts you up for the day, and you lead a better life as a result."

When Lawrence arrived at Peabody in the 1960s, Lawrence was getting most of his musical lifts from playing folk music and bluegrass on guitar and banjo. He was accepted into the classical guitar program created by noted pedagogue Aaron Shearer, but Lawrence could barely read music. "Aaron would play some Bach," Lawrence recalls, "and I would say, 'That song sounds cool.' 'Hey, Mike, songs have words; that's a piece.' I really didn't know much."

Lawrence went on to graduate with the first guitar class at Peabody, then gravitated toward film, first as composer for an Emmy-winning documentary by Julian Krainin, The Other Americans, and later as a collaborative filmmaker with Krainin on a dozen documentaries. These include The Quiz Show Scandal, which inspired a film by Robert Redford.

The guitar-training experience at Peabody wasn't forgotten. Once Lawrence started making his own films, he did one on his former teacher, Aaron Shearer: A Life With the Guitar. Other projects include The Mind of Music, featuring revered violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and documentaries on classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco and the Library of Congress.

Until moving to Dundalk in 2002 to the childhood home of his wife, Johanna, Lawrence worked out of a studio in Baltimore where the likes of John Waters and Barry Levinson viewed rushes of their own films. Then came digital technology, "and all of a sudden my 33mm projector and editing equipment were meaningless," Lawrence says. He sold them on eBay.

"My wife basically supports me," Lawrence says. "I keep the bookkeeping straight," says Johanna Lawrence, assistant to the director of performing arts on the Essex campus of Community College of Baltimore County.

"People either love or hate Michael's films, for some reason," she adds. "I think it's because he leaves it to the viewer to interpret."

It's impossible to predict how viewers will interpret the fully edited Bach documentary (expected to be about 90 minutes long), but there certainly is some intriguing material for the filmmaker to work with. After spending a couple of afternoons discussing the film last week in California with his friend and former collaborator Krainin, Lawrence is closer to envisioning the finished product.

"It will take a look at Bach from three vantage points," he says. "There's the emotional, spiritual side. Why is this guy so profound? We won't get any answers, but the question will lead us on a journey. There's the intellectual side - numbers, structures, fugues, fractals. And then the side that has more to do with the physical world of instruments and performance."

The most unexpected instrument in the film is the ukulele. Jake Shimabukuro is seen playing one of Bach's Two-Part Inventions outdoors, as birds provide a subtle counterpoint. "Bach has so many of these cool melodic lines," Shimabukuro says.

Edgar Meyer, the celebrated bassist who traverses bluegrass, jazz and classical with equal commitment, performs a cello transcription. "It's fun trying to make it happen on a bass," he says. "My father [played] Bach's music ... on Sunday mornings before we'd go to church. He used to say, 'That's what it's all about.' Being involved with Bach's music gives me as much pleasure as anything I can think of."

That's a recurring motif of the film footage. Cellist Zuill Bailey, for example, shot in Baltimore's elegant Basilica of the Assumption, says that playing Bach transports him "to a place of wonderment."

There are upbeat moments - Bobby McFerrin vividly sings florid Bach lines and asks: "How can you not dance to that?" - and moments of pathos. Brazilian pianist Joao Carlos Martins, whose two hands were severely damaged, manages to articulate a Bach prelude using little more than his thumbs. "This was the inspiration of Bach in my life. He kept me alive," Martins says, his voice breaking.

Among the offbeat shoots is one of Dr. Charles Limb at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducting a brain scan of pianist John Bayless improvising on a tiny keyboard to show the mental process that Bach, a famed improviser, experienced.

As he considers how to piece all of these components together, Lawrence maintains the same enthusiasm for the project he had when it started, an enthusiasm that helps explain how he got so many noted people to be in the film. "A couple of artists turned down invitations when they learned there was no pay," he says. At least one reconsidered after learning who else had agreed to participate gratis.

Funding is a constant issue; the project has cost $100,000 so far. Lawrence has had some success attracting money from individuals and foundations (the Handel Choir of Baltimore is the film's nonprofit sponsor), but he is always on the lookout for more support - financial or moral. The same day he heard that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, was a major Bach advocate, the filmmaker contacted the congressman's office.

"This project started with only one thing - a love for Bach," Lawrence says. "Every shoot is better than the last one. I've been very lucky. But I could very well fall on my face."

Whatever happens with the film, Lawrence's Bach fever won't likely subside. "For a whole year, I've played Bach on the piano every night for an hour," he says. To demonstrate one cool December evening, he sits at the Yamaha upright in his home and starts on the aria that begins the Goldberg Variations.

Two measures in he stops, not because it's too difficult, but simply too awesome. "Isn't it unbelievable," he says, "that someone could write that?"

michael lawrence

Occupation: filmmaker

Born: Indianapolis

Age: 63

Living in: Dundalk, with his wife, Johanna

How he spent one summer as a teenager: Banjo player in The Stephen Foster Story in Bardstown, Ky.

Education: Peabody Conservatory, where he studied guitar

How he spent the '60s : Living with his wife on the organic Koinonia commune in Baltimore County

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