About Bach Six Solos

Visual art component for Gil Shaham's live performance

Gil Shaham approached me in 2013 to consider crafting films for his evening of Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001-1006), a set of six works completed by Bach in 1720. Both of us were aware of violinist Jennifer Koh’s recent program that featured two of Bach's solo violin works along with film projection by visual artist, Tal Rosner, and we were looking for something that might define an original approach.

Most video and concert music pairings leave me feeling unsatisfied, and I must say, I wasn’t sure where to begin. However, several months later, I found myself in the home of a collector who had two of my own video works on her wall: side-by-side single close-ups of her boys five and seven. Using a high-speed camera, I had slowed these portraits to such a degree that, at first glance, they don’t seem to be moving (a viewer might find themselves somewhat surprised to see an occasional blink forming slowly in time). Gazing upon them, I realized that the music playing over the sound system, Yo Yo Ma performing Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, seemed to be engaging in a subtle kind of dialogue with the boy’s faces as they moved through a rich texture of micro-stages in between recognizable or discrete actions or emotional states. At times, it even seemed as though the stages themselves had been prompted by, or were reactions to, the music in the room. Shortly after this, I invited Gil over to my home to watch these and other similar videos alongside sections of Bach’s solo violin works. We both agreed there was a certain pleasure in the painring, but more importantly, the process seemed to encourage and afford both deeper listening as well as seeing. We decided to give it a go.

As I began to read up on the works, I discovered some recent research by Helga Thöne into the six sonatas and partitas which suggests that the sequence of works progress thematically in pairs according to the great feasts of the Christian year:

Christmas: Sonata no 1 (G Minor) Partita no 1 (B Minor)

Passion/Easter: Sonata no 2 (A Minor) Partita no 2 (D Minor)

Pentecost: Sonata no 3 (C Major) Partita no 3 (E Major)

In addition, this corresponds to a Latin Trinity formula found on tombstones: ex Deo nascimur (from God we are born); in Christo morimur (in Christ we die); per Spiritum Sanctum reviviscimus (through the Holy Spirit we live again). Thöne’s argument that a religious structure underpins these instrumental works is based upon the large number of chorale quotations in the movements, their relationship to the liturgical calendar and the numerological analysis of notes and letters in the works. In particular, she judges that the Chaconne of the D Minor Partita was Bach’s musical epitaph for his first wife, Maria Barbara, who died suddenly aged thirty-six after thirteen years of marriage.

While I didn’t want to manifest any of these references directly, it seemed that separating the works into the thematic pairs listed above might provide a way in to crafting images that aligned with some of Bach’s inner motives. In final product, however, it seemed that these themes should only manifest in the most oblique way for it is not likely that Bach expected listeners to take the symbolism quite so literally. Still, using the basic themes of birth, death and rebirth as blueprints or inspirations for the creation of images was helpful.

As a contemporary artist with a particular interest in motion pictures and time, I’ve been compelled to consider how the addition of extreme slow motion might be applied to moving images of the face, the body (and by extension, dance), narrative tableaux, and also still life in ways that can both enhance and alter the meanings latent within them. As a visual strategy, extreme slowness creates a continuing sense of pause within the action—as if the growth and evolution of the slow-moving image is itself a further manifestation of the deep and consuming absorptive state that often arises while observing it. As I continued to listen to famous recordings of Bach’s music, I was fascinated by the way that a change in tempo from recording to recording, would significantly change the relationship to whatever moving image that I might have tried to pair it with in my period of research. Because of that, I knew that the only way to create A really strong link between Bach’s music and my images was to work with Gil’s specific recordings.

It is clear that Bach devoted a significant portion of his life to composing dance music, and these three Partitas are no small example of that. But if dance was my point of entry for the Partitas (even looking into the dance forms that Bach makes music for such as the bouree, allemande, correnti and gavotte), what eventually began to take shape was the cultivation of dance and movement of a broader type: one that could spark the kinesthetic imagination of each viewer while not fighting with the tempo of the music in live performance. Along the way, I brought choreographer Wendy Perron on board to craft dance short dance sequences that I could eventually record.

David Michalek, 2015