Grassers in Bach and Friends

Chris Thile in Bach ProjectWhat happens when a bluegrass banjo player makes a documentary film about a legendary 18th century composer?

The result with Michael Lawrence is Bach and Friends, due for DVD release early in 2010. The film looks at the timeless music of Johann Sebastian Bach through the eyes of 21st century musicians in a variety of genres. Lawrence has made a dozen or more documentaries, many focused on musical topics and personalities.

Mike told us that this Bach film began as a small project, but starting with his connections in the bluegrass world, has grown to include interviews and performances from some of the biggest names in contemporary music. Bach and Friends features several names familiar to bluegrass fans (Chris Thile, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer), along with jazz singer Bobby McFerrin and classical notables Joshua Bell, Sharon Isbin, Glenn Gould and The Emerson String Quartet.

Michael Lawrence“The whole idea of the movie is to bring young people – and people who aren’t familiar with Bach – to learn more about him. The project started with just an idea and my savings, and I had no idea there would be so many luminaries in the movie.

I spent about a year producing from the second floor of my house, and I just started contacting people, and they said yes.”

Lawrence runs a one-man operation (Michael Lawrence Films) and came to classical music from a bluegrass background. He played banjo as a young man, and with no options to study banjo in college such as there are today, he gravitated to guitar. He was a member of the very first graduating class at The Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Aaron Shearer, and performed as a classical guitarist.

Film scoring and original music for films was Michael’s introduction to the world of the cinema. He provided music for more than a dozen projects, most notably The Other Americans, which won numerous Emmy Awards in 1969. Lawrence soon found his place behind the camera, and as writer, producer or director, has more than 20 films to his credit, aired on PBS, HBO and CNN.

After a career close to classical music, it was his bluegrass roots that got the Bach Project off the ground.

“Béla was the first big name person who came aboard, which led to Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. I knew of Chris from Nickel Creek, but had no idea he played Bach.” and Fleck’s visibility among classical musicians helped legitimize this Bach documentary (Bachumentary?) in the eyes of other artists, making it easier for Michael to get them to seriously consider their participation.

Though he expects that Bach and Friends will eventually be broadcast on television, the first step is producing a 2 hour documentary on DVD. Lawrence said that the DVD is due for release in January 2010 – a 2 DVD set to include the documentary on one disc, and all of the musical performances strung back-to-back on the other.

Here’s a look at Béla’s contribution…

More video samples can be found on Lawrence’s web site.

Michael said that while his professional career now revolves around film and classical music, he still keeps up his bluegrass chops.

“I play bluegrass about once a month at a jam here in Baltimore – so I’m usually a little rusty, but it’s always fun.”

The music of JS Bach has had appeal to banjo and mandolin players for some time, with its focus on linear melodies that can be adapted well to these instruments. Hearing Bach perfomed on the harpsichord (for which much of it was written) really brings the banjo to mind, and perhaps this new film will spur a study of this lovely music by younger string players with a bluegrass bent.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.