I could not possibly think of a more apt title for Pere Portabella’s new film The Silence Before Bach. As idiosyncratic and inspired in its own approach to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as was Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), Portabella’s title is inspired by a poem that rhetorically asks what the world—God, musical instruments, European society—was like before Bach’s music came to uplift them. But rather than pursue a history of religious music in society before the maestro’s arrival, Portabella playfully literally observes the silence before—and usually for a beat after—Bach.
The opening shot sets both the tone (contemplative) and idea (the title). The camera tracks through the empty white halls of an art gallery before coming to rest seemingly at the same blank corner at which its movement began, when a player piano humorously starts rotating into frame and we track backwards following its lurching, awkward movement as it mechanically plays a Goldberg variation. Here it is the purity of the light, the emptiness of the rooms, and the effect of the space—almost-but-not-quite looping—that precedes Bach’s music. The next sequence of a man slowly walking to a grand piano. He is blind, and he proceeds not to play Bach but rather to tune the instrument, making sounds that hint at the work of the recently deceased György Ligeti, whose music is literally evoked later later in the film. Clearly a myriad of possibilities can precede the playing of Bach’s music, and Portabella’s graceful, reflective film—part cinematic gallery piece, part scattering of fictional excerpts, part documentary—imagines many, if not them all.
We see Bach in his workshop upon receiving a grant, and then performing a piece for the anonymous messenger. We see Bach’s son in his house in 18th century Leipzig, goofing around with his sister before sitting down to practice. The sounds of these recordings are just as important as Portabella’s visuals, the supple recession of the drawknobs on an organ at the end of a piece, the dynamic background clatter during a cello piece remarkably performed on an empty Leipzig subway, the difference between a player piano, a grand, and a clavier. The place of music in lives, as practice, as a vocation, as a trade, as a hobby, or escape. As a thing to fill space and time, or to move away from it–Portabella’s film expresses all this without pretense. Even with the elegance of Òskar Gómez’s cool photography and the deliberateness of most of Portabella’s camera movements, there is a casualness to the film, an admission above all else of the small silences before the music.
The first fictional story we see is that of a truck driver, whose driving partner we later learn can play Bach on the harmonica and who himself can play his pieces on the oboe. Portabella never loses his sense of humor even amidst the grandeur of the music, and the seriousness of the ideas. The perhaps apocryphal story of Mendelsson finding Bach’s music on his butcher’s bloodied paper, a silent shot of a piano dropped into the ocean. Music in the holocaust is brought up in a used book shop, a point whose severity is made by a casual cut to a shot of the shop’s cat looking around; it is just that kind a film. The Silence Before Bach may never push its meditation on the music to the extremes of Straub/Huillet, but its smoothness and its ease, its eloquence and tangents bespeak an wise, open vision of the world, the way music measures it, and the way we measure it to music.