The following is a special preview of our upcoming interview with Marco Beltrami about his reimagining of Bach, Bach by Beltrami, which will play at the Soraya in Northridge, Calif. tomorrow, March 3.
Interview by Samuel Chase
Marco Beltrami is best known for his frightening music for some of the most iconic horror-thriller films of all time, including the Scream franchise and A Quiet Place. That said, his range extends far beyond the genre, as he is a veteran of over 140 projects for both film and television. While he he done much of his work for the screen, Beltrami has always had a passion for concert music, and for the music he grew up playing. Hearkening back to his childhood practice sessions, the composer has reimagined the ubiquitous Bach preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier and brought them to life for a new audience and a new generation.
This long-held passion project from Beltrami is aptly called Bach by Beltrami, in which he has transformed and composed new pieces inspired by 12 of Bach’s preludes for soloists and orchestra. The work will play at the Soraya in Northridge, Calif. on March 3, featuring soloists Sandy Cameron and Lucia Micarelli on violin, Eric Byers on cello, soprano Holly Sedillos, and the Delirium Musicum chamber orchestra. (FSMO readers may recall that Danny Elfman wrote his violin concerto for Cameron, who performed the L.A. premiere also at the Soraya a few years ago.) Beltrami spoke with FSMO a few days before the event, to explain the genesis of the project, and his hopes for its future.
Samuel Chase: First and foremost, this is not your usual type of gig. How did you conceive this project, and why did you decide to do it?
Marco Beltrami: I first started playing piano when I was young, and Bach and The Well-Tempered Clavier is often given to young pianists. This is for practical reasons, more than anything else; it teaches independence of the hands and it teaches following lines and harmony. Even when studying composition, Bach is always given as this pinnacle of counterpoint. The preludes are a bit austere and flat but there was something about the music inside them that drew me to them. When I was practicing them, I would hear these hidden worlds within the music structures that I wasn’t sure if Bach intended or not; they could be small, repeated rhythmic things or ostinatos or melodic fragments that led my imagination to go off in tangents. And I never was able to explore them as a kid. If I did, I got scolded; if I tried to do anything creative it was sacrilegious. (Laughs)
But, over the years I realized that Bach has unconsciously guided a lot of the music that I do. He’s really the beginning of modern music and incredibly influential—you can see a direct connection between his music and modern music today, through Mozart and Beethoven and people that came after. So I thought it’d be great to pay homage to Bach. I feel like, besides all the technical prowess that he had and he’s given us, he was also the first to completely explore the range of the human condition. Everything from spiritual enlightenment to utter despair, and all the range of emotion between. When I got into music, it was because I wanted to connect with people. I wanted to go into concert music but I became very disillusioned with the contemporary music scene; I found that we were just writing music for each other and it lacked an audience perspective. I think that’s one of the things that drew me into film scoring: I felt more of a direct connection with the audience. But Bach never left me, and when the pandemic started, I felt it would be a great time to start working on these ideas that have been brewing within me for a long time and see where they led me.
One of the things that I find is that, for many young people especially, it’s difficult for them to appreciate Bach. It was difficult for me as well; pure Bach I can appreciate, but there’s almost like a barrier there. It’s like looking at emotion through a glass filter. It’s like Bach is in a museum and his music is untouchable. It’s almost like reading Old English, or reading Shakespeare. There’s so much emotion in Shakespeare, and the seeds of modern drama are there, yet reading Shakespeare can be very dry, and it’s challenging and takes effort. So, my thought process was that I’d love to tap into these emotional responses that I had with Bach and have an audience feel these things, without having to feel like they’d have to be a music scholar to understand it. That was the original thought.
The preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier were particularly appealing to me because they were not as rigorous in terms of form as the fugues. They are much more free-form; they allow for some digression. So, I started by arranging “Prelude No. 2” and I sent it to violinist Sandy Cameron, who I’ve worked with previously, and she loved it and said, “Write more!” It was really with her encouragement that I wrote more of these, and the thing about them is that they’re virtuosic. They’re not necessarily easy to play, but I want to impart this excitement to the audience. I want them to be immersed in what the musicians are feeling. I want them to tap into the mindset of the musicians when the music’s being performed, and to feel all the range of emotions that the musicians might feel playing this. So, that was the goal with these pieces. Sorry, that was a bit long winded! (Laughs)
SC: Not at all. How did you go about choosing the specific preludes that you did?
MB: There are 48 preludes, in two books; there’s Book 1 and Book 2. And he wrote two preludes in each key: one in each key for each book. Originally, The Well-Tempered Clavier was to test out the equal temperament of the instrument. Before that, you couldn’t play in different keys, or it would sound horribly out of tune. There’s no practical reason anymore to do that, but I thought it’d be fun to pick one in each key. I use major and minor interchangeably, but I chose one prelude for each note of the 23 tones, and I picked ones that stuck out to me.
I used to play all of them, and I chose ones that I had the most personal narrative with when playing them. Each prelude is developed completely different from the previous one. It’s really about making each piece its own world, its own color, its own identity. So, that also determined which pieces I picked, because I wanted them to be diverse enough so that there wasn’t much repetition of sentiment. Most of them are minor though (laughs), only two that I picked are in a major key. I don’t know, I gravitate more towards the minor, I guess.
SC: What was the process of taking a solo piano piece and arranging it for orchestra like?
(Check the new issue of FSM Online next week for the full story!)