The Bach Project

Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday last month, inspired Science Cheerleader contributor Stephen Zachary to examine yet another example of how science and art coexist so beautifully.

Here’s Stephen’s report:

Filmmaker Michael Lawrence’s documentary The Bach Project,  is currently in post-production.  Though we tend to think that the arts and science occupy separate realms, Lawrence went to a researcher and a mathematician for insights into Bach’s ingenuity and the structure of his music.  In the clip above, Dr. Charles Limb explains some of his research into the neural basis of musical improvisation and demonstrates how he goes about scanning musicians at work in an fMRI machine. Limb found increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex while musicians engaged in spontaneous performance.  While the prefrontal cortex as a whole is recognized as the site of complex cognitive function, the medial area seems to play a key role in several important facets of human uniqueness, including internally-motivated behavior and a sense of the self.

The vast majority of neuroscientific research focuses on either perception or brain abnormalities, but Limb is designing elegant experiments that shed light on the very personal and mystifying phenomena of creativity.  As he explains in The Bach Project, Limb firmly believes that Bach experienced brain states similar to those he observed in his subjects.   Because he’s tapped into a novel line of research, Limb hopes to conduct similar experiments focusing on diverse musical genres, so it may not be long before he’s comparing the creative processes of, say, classical musicians and freestyle rappers.

Lawrence also added some interesting commentary to the film by bringing in Harlan Brothers, an amateur mathematician who is interested in fractals.  The defining characteristic of a fractal is that its component parts mirror the structure of the whole.  In other words, fractals are “self-similar” or “self-reflective.”   Brothers did the math, so to speak, on Bach’s work and published a paper identifying fractal elements in the Cello Suite #3.   The self-reflective nature of Bach’s music provides its rich and layered texture, and it is very likely that fractal elements play a significant part in Bach’s appeal.

Lawrence interviewed over thirty people for the film, all with valuable perspectives on Bach and many performing renditions of well-known Bach pieces.  In a documentary focused on art and expected to last only ninety minutes, why would he spend precious time on the analytical perspectives of a scientist and a mathematician?  First, Lawrence’s undertaking may be the most in-depth examination of Bach ever captured on film, and he firmly believes in exploring any worthwhile avenue of inquiry.  Second, both Limb and Brothers are impressive musicians in their own right, and their emotional attachment to Bach’s music comes through in their interviews no less than any other contributor to the film.   Taken together, all these perspectives create a picture of Bach that is nearly as layered as the music itself.

For more information on The Bach Project, see the film’s website.

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