Music for Films

Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach
KTCA Channel 2

I've seen Yo-Yo Ma play his cello: He sweats a lot and stares at the ceiling, making no compromise with the intensity of his music. And I have seen him talk; he majored in something other than music at Harvard, and can chat in depth about all kinds of stuff beyond the narrow contours of rosins, bow hairs, and articulated arpeggios.

So his scope as a musician and human being are broad. But I had never seen Ma think until I encountered the six-hour PBS series (and also a Sony Video release) Inspired by Bach. This ambitious project crosses arts boundaries to re-examine a Holy Grail for both cellists and listeners, the "Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello" written between 1717 and 1723. Don't assume just because this is a PBS series about classical music that stuffy lectures are the point, or that Ma's goal was simply to play the music better than he had before. Inspired by Bach uses the composer's complex, contrapuntal music to reach other ideas and feelings about movement, nature, and inspiration; among Ma's collaborators are Olympic skaters Torvill and Dean, a garden designer, a Kabuki actor, moody auteur Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), and tall-but-impish choreographer Mark Morris, whose first thought based on this music was a dream of falling down a flight of stairs.

Admittedly, Inspired by Bach is partly an appeal to those aging boomer listeners who have parked rock behind them and feel the need to "get serious" about music as they gray. But Ma's project goes beyond those CDs of Mozart that come packaged with brunch recipes; to begin with, it's made by the unique Canadian ministudio Rhombus Media, which produced 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and the upcoming historical-musical epic, The Red Violin. These people know that old music must keep living, and that musicians can be whole people beyond their stage personae. So their ideas about visualizing these 380-year-old suites are reliably fresh, in keeping with Ma's unique concept.

Ma says he had the idea that each of the suites offered both themes and structures that could associate freely with other art forms; this is why, for example, "The Sound of the Carceri" (airing April 19) honors the maxim that architecture is like frozen music. The "carceri" are famous etchings of imaginary prisons, created by the Italian artist Piranesi in the 18th century, and the film uses up-to-date digital imaging to place Ma and his cello "inside" these cavernous spaces.

This is a great idea, and the digital rendering of the dark, forbidding etchings is appropriately drafty and overwhelming. More than just a simple stage-flat, the gimmick of perspective and depth literally sculpts the space, with foreground and background elements and a grand repertoire of "camera" positions. As with the other films, Ma responds not just to the music but to this artist's vision, and so the film shows him perfecting various reverb effects to approximate the hypothetical acoustics of the space. The only problem with this particular episode is that the finished visualizations of the performance are interrupted with ongoing discussion and planning. It's as if HBO insisted on cutting into a recent feature with one of those "making of" documentaries. However eloquently Ma can both discuss and convey the "loneliness" and "despair" of this particular suite and this artist, it's frustrating to see the work itself in patchwork form.

"Falling Down Stairs," the Mark Morris dance piece (airing April 5), has a more conclusive script, since the preparatory material comes first and the fully realized collaboration follows. This is a more whimsical work, suited to the playful yet complicated major-key "dance" of the cello bow as it alternates between scales and arpeggios. Ma, seemingly always a happy and thoughtful guy, brightens even more when Morris cuts up in conversation. "He's a doll, frankly," Morris tells the invisible interviewer, and later admits a little reluctance to slap just another veneer of interpretation on top of a hallowed work. Ma, who's done more than just dabble in tango, jazz, Appalachian and atonal forms, assures Morris the music can support new ideas; that's the whole point of these films anyway.

And the results, taken in whole, are compelling; they call for more big-screen TVs in all those recalcitrant liberal-arts households. Why restrict the applications of the 42-inch-diagonal monitor to sports alone when you can witness sweeping dancers in velour smocks leap, twirl, and soar across a handsomely shadowed space that seems a physical manifestation of the music itself? For his part, Ma responds to this particular interpretation with a grin at the dancers, accepting the challenge of Morris's structure, which ranges from sublime to kind of silly. This is the kind of reward such a hybrid movie-musical needs to provide, to see more light bulbs turning on in someone who's already pretty luminous in his own right.

Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach airs from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., April 5, 12, and 19; it is also available on Sony Classical Home Video.

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