Every now and then you see something on television that forces an involuntary moan of pleasure from you. It happened to me twice during "Six Gestures", the first film in a new series called Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach (BBC2). This is a strenuously inventive attempt to avoid the usual pitfalls of music on television - and it takes the form of three-in-a- bed collaborations between the cellist (who plays one of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello), another artist (who responds to the music) and a film director, who must ensure that this complicated congress comes to some visibly satisfactory climax. In "Six Gestures" the cellist's partners were Torvill and Dean and the director Patricia Rozema and the result lifted the spirits - so often faintly oppressed by the dutiful servitude of arts television. "Six Gestures" was bold and risk-taking - to the degree that it would be very easy to mock its style or dismiss it as vulgar - but it was also captivating in its reckless enthusiasm.
The two moans, incidentally, were for a detail of performance and a detail of directorial style respectively. The first was an exceptionally beautiful moment during the Allemande, when Christopher Dean bent to sweep his forearm across the ice during a turn, while the second was a response to the appearance of footnotes on screen; during one of the biographical interludes (a rather too Californian depiction of J S Bach, by the actor Tom McCamus) a numeral bloomed in the top right hand corner of the screen and the camera panned slowly down to reveal a relevant quotation from the composer. By the end the film had persuaded me that the snigger which had greeted Ma's announcement that Torvill and Dean "did for ice-dancing what Bach did for the cello" may have been premature - the sight of grace won from the rigid geometry of the ice by discipline and broken symmetries wasn't just an accompaniment to the music but a proper metaphor for its beauty.
The second film in the series, shown on Sunday, was quite different - a cerebral counterpointing of Bach's music with Piranesi's fantastical etchings of prisons. Ma was actually placed inside these imaginery interiors - by courtesy of computer graphics and reverb - and there was some rather precious theorising about the links between music and architecture. The conceit finally seemed too artificial and laborious, a fact which a diplomatic valedictory remark from Ma seemed to acknowledge. Still, if such honourable failures are the price you have to pay for films like "Six Gestures" I'm not inclined to complain.
It's far more common, of course, for something you see on television to extract an involuntary moan of dismay. It happened to me just once during The South Bank Show (ITV) film about the American composer John Adams, when a powerfully doomy passage from his opera The Death of Klinghoffer was illustrated with footage from the Gulf War, including that indispensable accessory for the evocation of human folly - an oil-drenched cormorant, struggling in the sluggish waves. The cliche illustrated a tendency in Mike Bluett's film to take the Dentist's Poster approach to putting serious music on screen - in other words to supply a stream of essentially anodyne and tranquillizing images - autumnal woods, soaring helicopter shots of desert landscapes, cityscapes at twilight - all of which preoccupy the eye without distracting the mind. But his subject was a good one - Adams is a self-consciously American composer and declines to play by the rules of European intellectual movements - when the question of how he would categorise his style of music came up he smilingly declared himself to be a "post-stylist". Bluett had also built his film with real craftsmanship - constructing smooth sequences of overlapping images and sound in a way that is never as easy as it eventually looks - and he had been fortunate with his chief commentator, the director Peter Sellars - a bug-eyed, crop- haired enthusiast who spoke with such crazed conviction about Adams' greatness as a composer that it seemed ludicrous to even think of disagreeing.Reuse content