Die Stille vor Bach
Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 24 January 2008
Source 35mm print
At the start of Pere Portabella’s masterful final film, The Silence Before Bach, a serene tracking shot through an empty gallery takes a suddenly surreal turn as a motorized player piano rounds a corner and approaches the camera. As it moves forward, twisting about in semi-pirouettes, the piano performs the opening aria from The Goldberg Variations. It’s a surreal ballet where sound and image work together to not only produce a performance of Bach like no other, but also unite in a way that is rarely accomplished in films about music. For all its grace, it’s a decidedly un-subtle moment that serves to de-familiarize the viewer/listener – for the audience is required to be both of those, more so than in almost every other film – from their prior experiences with Bach. This is far removed from the Carnegie Halls, Deutsche Gramophone recordings, and solemn churches where we are most likely to encounter Bach’s baroque compositions: this is a machine from a science-fiction film, and as it approaches the audience, we are made to backtrack through the gallery, to re-trace the steps we have taken in the first shot, and to reconsider all we know about the music of Johan Sebastian Bach.
For all its mechanization, the player piano’s performance is actually quite moving, and it quite literally illustrates several key aspects of Bach’s work. First is the steady, even expression of the notes: this is not supposed to be the high Romanticism associated with Beethoven and Chopin with drastic dynamic changes. Secondly, by dehumanizing the performance and removing the performer from the screen, Portabella invites the audience to focus on the movement of the keys alone: the synchronicity of their depression becomes an artwork on their own, a rapid succession of up-down-up-down. This runs completely contrary to traditional music documentaries that almost fetishize the performers, giving them complete precedence over the music being performed. Were a pianist present in this, his hands would obscure the camera’s view of the keys, even from a relatively short distance. Perhaps only the person seated at the piano is privy to such an intimate look at the dance of the piano keys, and perhaps even he isn’t allowed as bare and stripped-down an examination as Portabella has filmed. Creating exciting, new contexts for Bach’s work is at the heart of The Silence Before Bach: not so much reinvigorating the music, but placing it in unfamiliar territory so as to emphasize its deep and varied nuances.
Shortly after the player piano sequence, Portabella leaves the gallery behind and leads us on an abstract narrative, a series of vignettes linked by their focus on the composer. The poetic structure, fluidly moving between contemporary and historical settings, conveys more understanding about the music than almost any Hollywood bio-pic which strives to understand music solely through the linear narrative of the musician’s life. Portabella’s insight lies in the fact that he understands how a body of work exists beyond the limits of its composer’s life. While The Silence Before Bach does feature a handful of short scenes that feature Bach himself, almost no information about his family or professional life is covered at all. The most we learn about him comes from a tour guide who informs a group of tourists that Bach was the cantor at St. Thomas’ church. Instead, Portabella investigates Bach’s music through a prism, considering different instruments (harmonica, bassoon, organ, amongst others) and settings (a subway car, a piano store), each of which deepens our understanding and appreciation for the composer.
There are no traditional historians in Portabella’s film, no critics, and no commentators explaining to us about the importance of Bach’s music. Much like in Jem Cohen’s documentary on Fugazi, Instrument, Portabella eschews the conventional MTV approach and refuses to tell the audience why the music is important and leaves it up to the performance and the audience to develop a relationship. By having the camera be the only intermediary between them, Portabella nurtures a much more intimate and boundless relationship between the music, the image, and the audience. It’s also a relationship that exists outside of concert halls and classically trained music halls: Bach’s music is alive and rampant and invading all areas of contemporary life. Alone in his room at night, a piano mover practices his bassoon while a storm rages outside; when his song is interrupted by a cell-phone, he puts the instrument down and searches frantically through his bag for the small, ever-disappearing device. In another scene, two truck drivers are finishing their breakfast as one of them warmly recollects about playing Bach’s music with his brothers growing up. While on the road, the other driver seat pulls out his harmonica and gives an interpretation of one of the Goldberg Variations. These scenes remind that Bach’s music isn’t only for the elite and is still relevant and accessible performers of all varieties.
In one of the film’s period vignettes, J.S. Bach says to his son, Christoph Fredrich, that must “find the pureness of the music,” which is also Portabella’s own attempt with The Silence Before Bach. Few other films (Straub and Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, along with Cohen’s Instrument, come to mind) recognize that the true relationship between music and image is not necessarily synchronicity, nor is it grounded in reality. A shot of twenty cellists seated in a subway car performing the Prelude in G from the first Cello Suite is as beautiful as it is unlikely, and as the cacophony of their collected sounds blend with the whir and clamor of the rushing subway car, Bach’s eighteenth century music seems to find reconciliation with twentieth century noise. More than bridging a somewhat arbitrary gap in time, Portabella is offering a new interpretation of Bach’s music: the abundant timbre of the cellos takes on new inflections when placed beside the urban soundscape provided by the subway, and what one particularly notices isn’t so much the classic melody (one of the most prominent in all of music history), but an almost ambient tonal center that seems completely modern. This gap between baroque and contemporary music is made again when two different organists perform both Bach and György Ligeti – the famous twentieth century atonal composer, featured prominently in several Stanley Kubrick films – on the same instrument. Instead of easily highlighting the different harmonic structures of their music, Portabella insightfully compares the ambient roar of the organ that serves to link the composers more than it does to sever them.
The physical property of music – specifically Bach’s music – is something that links every scene in the film, and perhaps Portabella’s greatest insight to Bach’s work. From the opening scene with the player piano which focuses on the movement of the keys, to a period scene of Bach himself describing and demonstrating the technique of having the pianist’s hands cross over while playing, to the final shot, a pan over several pieces of sheet music against a white background, Portabella honors all the physical attributes of music, be it the instrument, the performer, or the notation itself. In the vignette where Felix Mendelssohn discovers the scores to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion being used by his butcher to wrap meat, a singular image – a close-up of a bloodstained page – conveys more than just the physicality of Bach’s music, but the very essence of its life.