The ‘Glass Onion’ layers in Bach’s Little Fugue

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Knives Out’, the 2019 American mystery film written and directed by Rian Johnson, and I wrote a column about it shortly after.

I wasn’t expecting a sequel, and although it was released on Netflix at Christmas last year, I’ve only recently seen ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’.

It is the sort of film that bears repeated watching, as there are too many ‘Easter eggs’ (cleverly disguised visual or auditory clues) that one may not register the first time round.

I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t yet seen it, but the name is a clear allusion to the eponymous Beatles song. Beatles fans will know that John Lennon wrote the song as a somewhat annoyed reaction to people who seemed to find unintended (sometimes ‘Satanic’ or psychedelic) meaning in the lyrics of their songs. So ‘Glass Onion’ (1968) deliberately makes references to previous Beatles songs: “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “I Am the Walrus”, “Lady Madonna”, “The Fool on the Hill”, and “Fixing a Hole.”

The reason for the song’s name? A’ glass onion’ is “something that would have layer after layer peeled away, only to realise that it was transparent all along.” It is a term used when “something is overanalysed that is not intended to mean anything more then what it is.”

There are musical references all through the film, from Nat King Cole to David Bowie and Philip Glass. But the overarching one is the Big Daddy of western music, Johann Sebastian Bach.

The film opens with his ‘Little Fugue’ in G minor, BWV 578, played on the piano by Tatiana Nikolayeva.

I loved the cameo appearance, about eight minutes into the film, by Yo-Yo Ma, one of the greatest cellists of our time. He slides into the frame, totally out of the blue, in a party setting, holding a slice of pizza and identifies the clue being played by the mystery ‘box’: “Hey, this is Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor.” And then he helpfully explains to us: “So a fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change and turns into a beautiful new structure.”

This is such a simple, elegant description of a fugue, as opposed to the stuffy ‘textbook’ definition: “a contrapuntal, polyphonic compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (a musical theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches), which recurs frequently throughout the course of the composition.”

It is impossible to think of the concept of a fugue without thinking of Bach, its most prolific and genius exponent. Of the innumerable fugues he wrote, either so titled or incorporated into the body of other compositions, this ‘Little Fugue’ is probably the best known, which probably influenced its choice in the film.

Using a Bach fugue also allows some wordplay, as ‘Box fugue’ (said out loud in an American drawl) sounds a lot like ‘Bach’s fugue.’

BWV 578 at under four minutes in duration is called “Little Fugue” (composed during Bach’s years in Arnstadt, 1703 – 1707) to differentiate it from the later Grand Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 (probably improvised in 1720 during Bach’s audition for an organist post at St. James’ Church in Hamburg) which is longer in duration and more challenging to play.

Bach’s other notable G minor fugues are BWV 131a (a piece of organ music attributed to him, a transcription of his cantata ‘Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir,’ ‘Out of the depths I call, Lord, to You’ BWV 131) and BWV 1000 (a fugue he took from the second movement of his Sonata no. 1 in G minor for solo violin, BWV 1001 and rewrote, possibly for lute).

I think this film is quite unique. I can’t recall another film where the music provides such a unifying theme to a whodunit.

So in the context of ‘Glass Onion’, Bach’s Little Fugue is key to the puzzle that we the viewers would like to solve. It is heard at several pivotal moments in the film, and each time you hear it, the fugue (played now on harpsichord) has developed more ‘layers’ just as the film plot thickens with more ‘layers’ of its own. It’s such a brilliant idea.

In that sense, the Bach fugue itself is like a ‘glass onion’ in sound; and in a good way. Musicologists can peel back layer after layer of the music, and get quite absorbed in the technicalities and minutiae one discovers in the process. But the beauty of its structure is apparent even without the clinical dissection; all one has to do is just listen to it.

Composer Nathan Johnson (cousin of director Rian Johnson) cleverly uses harpsichord in the film score to build on the fugue concept to musically signal to the audience when important turning points in the plot have been reached.

I was quite amused to learn that Yo-Yo Ma’s cameo appearance was not shot at the wild party depicted in the film, but all by himself in front of a green screen, and talking to a tennis ball!

This was because ‘Glass Onion’ was shot in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to film director Rian Johnson, it was a difficult shot, “especially for a non-actor such as Ma, who presumably, has never been directed to talk to a tennis ball before.”

I also learned that Ma’s lucid definition of a fugue was the result of “adjustments” made by him to the script, and it clearly shows.

In an interview to Classic FM, Ma spoke of how he had lived with the music of Bach, particularly the cello suites all his life. “It’s like having a great best friend in each chapter of your life. A companion, someone to help you get through sticky wickets in life. You need help to get through something, the music’s there. It gives that same kind of support to so many other people; through illnesses, exams, low points.”

He ended with an insightful observation: “I think of Bach as a scientist-composer. They seem like separate fields. But he has a number of characteristics [of a scientist]. One of them is that, like a scientist, he tries to be totally objective. Describing nature and human nature. When he finds it, without colouring, without bias, this is the way things are. Yet and at the same time, I think he is totally compassionate to the human condition. So he feels your pain, he feels my pain, he feels everybody’s pain. And everybody’s joy. The whole spectrum. And so between the two, he’s narrating all of this. That kind of objectivity and subjectivity. But he does put himself at the centre.”

But Bach is unobtrusively at the centre of ‘Glass Onion’. It may have a stellar cast that includes Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick and others, but the music of “scientist-composer” Bach is its beating heart.

This article first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa, India.