Is Bach playing? Look out!

Times Staff Writer

When the strains of classical music break into a movie, the music often plays the same role that a glass of chardonnay might on a first date: as a suggestion, however mild, of civilization, of “classiness.” A sighing string instrument can connote genteel romantic love, like gauze covering the camera. In Merchant Ivory films, classical music represents a kind of well-upholstered high culture, piping through the soundtrack as Bentleys roll past deep green lawns to country homes.

But Kristi Brown, a musicologist at the Colburn School of the Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles, says the music of J.S. Bach often works differently. These days, when you hear Bach in a film, he tends to accompany serial killers, Nazis and mad scientists. One of an emerging group of scholars who study classical music’s resonance in pop culture, Brown is looking at how movies borrow Bach’s music for scenes of stabbings, flayings and falling bombs.

What intrigues her is the peek the movies offer into the contemporary American unconscious, into the way mass culture understands, or misunderstands, high culture. The pop associations, she says, are an important part of the music’s meaning, even if the composer never intended his music to work this way.

“I became interested in the films that were violent and that had a certain kind of protagonist,” says Brown, 39, a daughter of the Central Valley who’s surely among the nation’s perkiest musicologists. These protagonists, she says, tend toward geniuses driven mad by technology and rationalism, or exemplars of a decadent European culture who’ve had the morality burned out of them -- from Benson, the crazed computer scientist in “The Terminal Man” (1974), to the erudite and malevolent Hannibal Lecter of “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Hannibal” (2001). Both men gruesomely kill, she points out, while playing the same piece, the 25th of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”


Other homicidal Bach lovers include the brilliant, shape-shifting title character in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), who plays jazz to impress friends but favors “The Italian Concerto” when alone; the Nazis in “Schindler’s List” (1993), who pause to play a Bach piano suite on their way to ransack a Jewish ghetto; and the brainy, technologically savvy serial killer in “Kiss the Girls” (1997), who gives a victim menacing advice on how to play Bach on the violin.

By all reports, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a good Lutheran who spent most of his life in a linden-lined Saxon town, playing organ, siring children and writing church music. Among his life’s biggest conflicts was a disagreement with a provincial church over his embellishing of chorale music. He went, of course, from small-town obscurity to fame -- his compositions are as basic to classical music as the blues are to rock ‘n’ roll -- but only after his death, unaware of the dark associations he would provoke.

Most of the scholars interested in the way classical music resounds through pop culture’s echo chamber are trained musicologists who draw from cultural studies and what’s called reception theory, in which meaning comes from the way a “text” lands in the real world.

In May, Stanford University was the site of an international conference called “Reviewing the Canon: Borrowed Music in Films,” at which scholars presented papers on the music in the “Godfather” films, the cinematic use of Gershwin and “Authentic Appalachia,” and the BBC’s kitschy altering of stock classical pieces for science-fiction programs in the low-budget 1950s and ‘60s. Tobias Plebuch, the Stanford professor who organized the conference, has written about Bach’s organ music as a signifier of mad scientists in films such as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Black Cat.”


A fledgling publication called the Journal of Film Music has also ventured into this area. This fall, the Illinois-based journal Beethoven Forum will publish an issue devoted to the use of Beethoven in movies; Brown is contributing a piece on his music in the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001).

Stephen Hinton, the chair of Stanford’s music department and editor of Beethoven Forum, says he respects Brown’s work because of her “ability to read the film in a very sensitive way” and her strong sense of humor. Film musicology, he says, has become “a very flourishing subdiscipline, just in the last few years.”

“I’m interested in what music means when people use it,” says Robynn Stilwell, a film musicologist at Georgetown University who’s writing for the Beethoven journal and started on the subject with a 1997 paper on the composer’s music in the 1988 movie “Die Hard.”

“Musicology had told me that music didn’t do anything, that it just is,” she says. “But I knew from living in culture that music does things -- it’s an actor.” Stilwell is working on a book on the field.

Music’s meaning changed drastically, Brown says, with the birth of recording near the turn of the 20th century. “When you could disseminate music anywhere, when you didn’t have to pay for a concert ticket or travel to hear it, music began to belong to everybody.” And music was opened to accidental meanings, as when a peaceful 18th century organist became associated with 20th century technology and National Socialism.

Indeed, it’s partly because so little is popularly known about Bach that all kinds of connotations can be projected onto his music.

“He’s kind of a blank in a lot of ways,” Brown says. “Most people can’t tell you much about Bach” -- even those who, in part through films, think of Mozart as a wacky child prodigy and Beethoven as a tormented genius.

Brown’s realization of Bach’s music’s special place in pop culture -- as “a morally ambivalent beauty that couples too easily with lethal ideology,” as she writes in an article -- came gradually.


An early turning point came with Lecter, who makes grisly use of the “Goldberg Variations” in both “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.”

Brown knew something about music’s connotations, about the fascists and Nazis who’d championed Bach, about the violence associated with Beethoven’s music long before the use of his Ninth Symphony in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). And she recalled the panning shots of smoking, bombed-out Dresden as Glenn Gould plays Bach in “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1972).

But her breakthrough came while she was collecting film clips for a Bach class at UC Davis and realized she had to warn her students about the graphic imagery. In 2001, teaching the class again, she advertised the course with a poster of a wild-eyed Lecter in a hockey mask alongside a bewigged Bach. Nearly 100 students enrolled.

“I actually did a lot of research into serial killers, most of which didn’t make it into the piece,” she says of an article that’s been a hit at two music conferences, called “Perfectly Executed: Bach’s Music, Technology, and Violence in Film.” In her research, she came across psychological studies of killers noted for their fascination with “highly organized patterns, ciphers, statistical detail, and systems of order” -- as she writes, all descriptions that have been applied to Bach’s keyboard music.

Brown says she finds it an odd kind of logic, then, that Bach’s other main present-day connotation is technology: If a computer plays music in a movie, it’s bound to be Bach -- however unlikely this may be for an organist who lived a century before the Industrial Revolution.

When it borrows Bach, Brown says, Hollywood is picking up on something that’s already a part of American culture, from Wendy Carlos’ bestselling, Moog-synthesizer-driven “Switched-On Bach” LP to the technophile Glenn Gould’s fascination with Bach’s keyboard music. Similarly, the scientist hero of Richard Powers’ novel “The Gold Bug Variations” sees Bach’s music as a blueprint for the genetic code.

There’s something about Bach’s ordered, multivoiced, contrapuntal music that suggests technology. Compared with a composer like Schubert, who wrote long, sumptuous melodic lines, Bach is nearly binary.

“It’s a sound friendly to computerization and digitalization,” Brown says, describing the mechanical, gadgety quality of the organs and harpsichords Bach composed for. “And counterpoint is a technical process -- it’s invention using formulas -- so people attracted to numbers would be drawn to it. He played with musical figures the way a mathematician plays with numbers.”


The irony of Bach’s new association with killers and computers, Brown says, lies not just in his personal piety but in his music’s sensuousness.

“When I’m singing or playing it,” she says, “it is as though my heart and mind both recognize something, something profoundly true and human.”

But a work of art, she says, can mean many, even contradictory, things. It’s not as if the 21st century gets Bach wrong, and the 19th century -- when he was a source of Victorian uplift -- got him right. Each culture, it turns out, misunderstands art in its own way.