J.S. Beltrami

Marco Beltrami reimagines Bach.

by Samuel Chase

Originally published on Film Score Monthly Online.

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 was played at the Soraya at California State University, Northridge, 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?

MB: I would tap into something about each piece that would inspire me. A lot of Bach’s music I feel is derived from early dance forms, so I heard a lot of rhythmic structures that were easier to work with. “Prelude No. 8” for instance, that starts off very slow with these repeated piano chords, but it’s in this triplet time signature.

From that, I imagined it to be like a broken-down waltz, and for some reason I always pictured an old man that’s sort of at the end of his life and looking back and is able to see the vigor of his youth and where he may have once been. Bach then comes in with this very stately melody over it, and that’s where I took off from. That was my inspiration for the piece. Maybe it’s my film scoring training, I don’t know, but I would hear some of these things with very visual representations, and develop them like that.

Depending on the piece, I would latch onto something about it and develop whatever it was that spoke to me. For “Prelude No. 2,” which I was talking about earlier, I found that if I just varied the rhythm of the ostinato that Bach sets up, it has a very dance-like character to it. So, as I developed the piece it goes into this flamenco-type section. And sometimes I think Bach put these things in the music to be explored, and I like to think that I’m not really disturbing what he did, but rather paying homage to him. I wanted to show that we can give somebody listening to this music today the context and the same feeling that back then someone may have felt actually listening to it.

And, for the concerts themselves, the thought is to break down some of the traditional barriers between audience and musician. We do these shows without a conductor, for example. The soloists don’t use music stands, and eventually—the idea is to tour this thing—there will be no music stands for the orchestra either.

That way, it’s really a direct connection between the audience and the musicians, so that they’re fully immersed. There might be a visual component as well; we’re working with visual artists and trying to make it an immersive experience.

SC: How many instruments and musicians do you use here?

MB: Well, it can vary somewhat. The soloists are always the same: there are two violins, cello, piano and voice. But the ensemble can change; it can have a bigger string section or smaller. The iteration we’re using at the Soraya is 17 musicians, so there’s a small string section: six violins, three cellos and a bass. But it could vary. We did a showcase of it in December with 10 musicians, which was a lot of fun.

SC: How did you put in your own musical voice? And do the pieces stay close or far from the original style and vision?

MB: Great question. I think that’s the interesting thing, and that’s why it’s taken so long for me to be able to do these pieces, because I was always told, “You can’t mess with the master.” It took a while for me to have the confidence as a composer to feel like I’m up to the task. And this is really how inspiration works, I think. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s a continuum. Bach might be the original source of this inspiration, but I’m taking this and I’m running with it, and if it can inspire something new in me and that in turn inspires other people, then I think that’s the great thing about music and about artistic creativity in general. Being able to allow that process to flourish is really what this was about. But it took a while before I could feel comfortable enough to I feel like I could do it justice.

And that’s a question for you to listen for when you hear the pieces (laughs), to see if it sounds completely far off. Some pieces take more liberties than others, but they’re all rooted in the original preludes. And I think you can recognize the pieces in all of them. They develop along different lines, but they’re actually developing things that were quite clear in the original pieces. I mean, the music that I write, and that so many people write today, is a reflection of Bach, but with this album I wanted to call attention to the original source and actually pay homage to Bach.

Like, there’s no electronics or synth parts in there; they’re all fairly standard orchestration. There is a keyboard part, but only due to practicality. There’s one piece that uses a glass harmonica, and to get a player just to play on one piece seemed crazy, so we’re using a sample of a glass harmonica. There’s also celeste on a few of them and organ on a few, so those are all being triggered as samples. But there’s no electronic component to them, it’s all acoustic.

SC: Did you originally write it all for solo violin?

MB: Not solo violin exactly. I started writing it as an ensemble featuring Sandy’s solo violin, as well as a solo cello. From there, as I was working on them, I was thinking, “Some of these would be great to feature the piano,” and then there was also a couple of them where I thought, “It’d be great to have two violins here.” So, Sandy introduced me to Lucia Micarelli, who came in and played one of them that I did. And I thought, “Well, she’s great. Now I have to use her as well.” (Laughs) So, I began to expand. I added the voice as a texture, and we ended up with five soloists. I guess it sort of evolved—the first ones were only supposed to be violin and cello.

SC: We touched on this a little at the outset, but how did you end up fitting this into your schedule amidst your film projects?

MB: In the beginning of the pandemic, I had a little bit of free time. Some of the projects that we were slated to work on had some delays, and this has been something that’s been residing in me for a long time and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start delving into it. Originally, I thought it would just be one piece. I thought it’d be a fun little idea, but as I worked on it, it began to develop and became the project that it is. I then thought, “Well, it’d be great to do a concert’s worth,” and, “Since Bach did them in different keys, maybe I’ll pick one in each key.” It evolved like that. I do find it a nice change, though, to do absolute music as opposed to film scoring. You’re developing completely different skills, and there’s a satisfaction to this that is very different from writing work for hire.

SC: Were there any parts of the process that were surprisingly difficult to work through?

MB: Yeah, some stuff stumped me a little bit. Like, I’d have an idea but then I wasn’t quite sure how to develop it. I wanted all the pieces to be a roughly four- to- five-minute range, but some of them took unexpected turns that I didn’t plan.

There’s “Prelude No. 24” in B Minor, which, as I began to work on it, the rhythm of it turned into a tango. (Laughs) I was thinking, “This is really bizarre,” but I went with it, and I think it’s one of the more fun pieces. It features two dueling violinists, and maybe it is the one that strays the most from the original Bach piece, but it’s definitely inspired by what’s in there.

I wasn’t intentionally planning on making it a tango when I started out, though, I remember that. I think that’s one of the fun things about this: working with the material and having a starting point, and being receptive to the process and not having to try to fit into any sort of box. Letting the inspiration take you has been very liberating. And I don’t always compose like this. I find that I’m usually way more controlling with it. But somehow, as this developed it became liberating in that way and I was able to let the music guide me. I think it was a great contrast to my day job.

SC: Are there any favorite moments that stand out from the whole process?

MB: I do have a few favorite moments just in the performance, listening to them play. There’s this moment in “Prelude No. 22,” which is in B-flat minor. It starts off as a very delicate piece, and there’s this high tessitura vocal line that goes through it. It opens up and becomes by the end this big, gothic moment. I remember when we played it at The Bourbon Room in Hollywood it was really amazing to see how everyone was so riveted by it.

Another one is in “Prelude No. 12” from Book 1, where there’s this interplay between Holly Sedillos for voice and the first violin with Sandy. They first start out separated, like they’re almost doing a call and response, and as the piece goes on, they come together and intertwine. Just the whole performance and the way we staged it with the violin on one side of the stage, and the voice on the other, and them actually moving towards each other, was a really powerful moment. And that’s one of the interesting surprises about this project because when you’re writing the music, you wouldn’t necessarily know that these moments would become some of the most powerful ones. But when they perform it, it comes to light.

SC: Sounds great. You said you’re hopefully touring this, so hopefully some more people will get to experience it. What other projects are you currently working on that we can look forward to?

MB: Well, this is the only classical thing that I’m doing now. (Laughs) I am working on an animated show, which I think will probably come out sometime later this summer. I think it’s really cool. It’s called Pantheon. It’s my first time ever doing that, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s musically the opposite of this: It’s completely electronic, and based on sounds that Buck [Sanders] and Brandon [Roberts] and I have created, and the three of us are doing the show together and I’m really excited about it. And then I’m just starting on a movie now for a French director as well. So, yeah, it’s always busy.