27 January 2010

Ken Vandermark
Work series : Musician
Work series : Musician DVD cover
a film by Daniel Kraus
2008 / US / color / 58 minutes (+ additional footage)
DVD (region 1) from Facets Video
Work series : Musician 003
photo by Juan-Carlos Hernandez
Anyone who has ever known anyone who worked as a musician should be well-aware of what a tough career it is – whether the performer is in a part-time local band or one who tours widely and often, with varying degrees of success and recognition. Suffice to say it’s not an option normally offered up by a high school job counselor. As difficult a road as this might be for anyone pursuing fame and fortune through relatively popular forms of music – rock & roll, singer-songwriter, country – imagine now how much more close to impossible it would be to actually earn a living and survive (both practically and artistically) when one’s chosen genre is avant-garde, experimental jazz. Chicago-based reed player Ken Vandermark has done just that – and I think it’s safe to say, looking over his career (and he’s still only in his 40s, with hopefully a long and fruitful future ahead of him), that he’s managed to do just that…and do it very well. Vandermark was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, which raised some eyebrows among those who were unfamiliar with his work (or his work ethic). I won’t claim to have heard everything he’s done – he has over 100 recordings to his credit, working with something like 40 ensembles, including his main band, The Vandermark 5, as well as collaborations with many of the brightest talents in his field, such as Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Ab Baars…the list goes on and on…) – but I can vouch for the stunning quality of everything I’ve heard. The sheer volume of his recorded output would limit the quality level when applied to most artists – but his dedication and imagination, as well as the depth and brilliance of his composition and performing, make every release something to anticipate greatly. He tours an average of 8 months every year, and when coupled with the time needed for composition, rehearsal and self-management (to say nothing of his home life!), Vandermark is, to say the least, a busy fellow.
Work series : Musician 005
photo by Amanda Kraus
Daniel Kraus turns the camera of his acclaimed Work series on Vandermark for this documentary – the cinema verité style he employs is absolutely perfect in bringing the viewer into Vandermark’s world. We see Ken in the sometimes agonizing process of working on new compositions at home, alone; listening to phone messages and returning calls; setting up tours and negotiating concert fees and accommodations; rehearsing with his various bands, working out arrangements; traveling from gig to gig (no luxury limos here, folks – one has to really want, or be driven, to this specific calling); schlepping equipment in and out of cramped, hard-to-access performance spaces; &c, &c…you get the picture. It’s not a glamorous life – it’s one that the artists who choose it are compelled to pursue for the sake of their art, which springs from their souls and, in most cases, will not be denied. In not concentrating on performance footage, per se, Kraus has imbued his film with a deeper sense of reality than other documentaries that mostly show a band going through the same motions night after night, every movement on stage choreographed to the nth degree. This is the real deal, with no make-up, no pretension.
Work series : Musician 007
photo by Juan-Carlos Hernandez
The filmmaker also eschews the direct interview – sometimes we see Vandermark speaking with audience members or others about his work, but briefly. For the most part, Kraus allows the audience to become a part of the experience by immersing them in it without additional commentary – the images are so vivid, without the façade of ‘acting’, that the film is completely successful in this and all other regards. I can recall only a handful of music-related documentaries that were this perfect – Straight, no chaser, Charlotte Zwerin’s great film about Thelonious Monk; Step across the border, Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel’s document of Fred Frith’s travels (musical and otherwise); Agujetas cantaor, Dominique Abel’s brilliant portrait of possibly the greatest cantaor flamenco of our time; and Triumph of the underdog, Don McGlynn’s film on Charles Mingus all come to mind. These are all pinnacles of the form, and it’s easy to see why Musician made the list of ‘7 masterpieces of the 00s you’ve likely never seen’ on movieline.com.
Work series : Musician 004
photo by Amanda Kraus
This is a film that can be enjoyed by anyone even remotely interested in understanding the life of a working musician – and for jazz fans, especially those already familiar with Ken Vandermark’s fine work, it’s an absolute treasure. Although there is little actual performance footage in the body of the film itself, there’s plenty of on-stage material here in the form of nearly an hour of ‘deleted scenes’ – Ken is featured in various clips with The Vandermark 5, The Territory Band-6, Bridge 61, Cinc, and in some solo and duo improv sessions as well – all of it beautifully performed, filmed, and presented. There are also some brief segments of interviews and moments of relaxed conversation – all of it adds greatly to the effect of the body of the film itself.
Daniel Kraus
Daniel Kraus...photo by Amanda Kraus
Watching it again in preparation for putting this piece together, I found it hard to limit myself – the temptation every time I put the DVD on is to view it again in its entirety…which I’m sure I’ll do again and again. It’s a wonderfully drawn portrait of someone who works very hard in pursuit not only of his livelihood but his artistic fulfillment…and an extremely compelling one. In closing, I’ll leave you with a short clip – I think you’ll get a good sense of both the mood and quality of this film from this brief excerpt…

The work series website

Ken Vandermark official website
The window (La ventana)
La ventana - DVD cover
written and directed by Carlos Sorin
2008 / Argentina / color / 77 minutes
Spanish with English subtitles
DVD (region 1) from Film Movement
La ventana 002
In Carlos Sorin’s gently poetic film The window, Time is as much a character as any of the humans. The quiet, insistent ticking of a clock in the hallway and the swish of the swinging pendulum echo almost subliminally through the house and reverberate in the lives of the people with a strength that belies the subtle sounds – but Don Antonio is acutely aware of Time’s presence in his life, looming larger with the passing of each minute. The film opens with a dream – Don Antonio sees visions from his youth 80 years before, of his mother introducing him to his babysitter for the evening. He can almost see the young woman’s face – a tantalizing memory made more poignant by his inability to bring it completely into focus. He can hear music in the house – his assumption is that his parents were entertaining at home.
La ventana 013
Reality asserts itself when he awakens and is troubled that he cannot remember the babysitter’s face – he wonders where he lost the memory, how it slipped away from him. Don Antonio is bedridden, apparently recovering from some unspecified heart-related problem, in San Juan, his ancestral home, remotely situated on the pampas of Argentina. He is under the care – and watchful eyes – of Maria del Carmen and Emilse, who function as housekeepers, cooks and caregivers, along with a longtime handyman. Their lives are pursued with little contact from the outside world – the occasional visit from a deliveryman or repairman, and of course regular visits from Don Antonio’s doctor and friend. They have no telephone, depending on a two-way radio for communication.

The film takes place over the course of a single day – a special day, with the impending visit of Don Antonio’s estranged son Pablo, who is a famous concert pianist now living in Europe. His return after many years is an opportunity for reconciliation with his father, and Don Antonio is determined that his son will be made welcome, and that the occasion will be celebrated as it should. Maria del Carmen and Emilse are pressed into readying a room for Don Pablo, as well as making sure that San Juan’s piano is properly tuned. Don Antonio’s doctor pays a call to examine his patient and check on the progress of his recuperation. He gently refuses Don Antonio’s request that he be allowed to receive his son outside of his bed, telling him that the time is not yet right for him to be more mobile. The nature of his long friendship with Don Antonio is illustrated by his calming assurance that the two of them will go fishing together when the old man’s health is better – but the look in Don Antonio’s eyes reveals that he knows more about his own condition than those around him might think.
La ventana 012
The tall window in Don Antonio’s bedroom looks out onto his land – a panoramic view of the wind-swept fields under the beautiful canopy of the Argentine sky. He longs to walk his property again, to pace through the fields, to see the condition of his beloved garden – but Maria del Carmen and Emilse keep him on a short leash, concerned about his health and the doctor’s orders. The IV constantly in his arm acts as a tether – he can move about the room from time to time, when his bed is being made, or when he sits in a chair to have his hair trimmed, but it’s easy to see that it feels more like a ball and chain to him. The aching in his eyes and on his face as he gazes out of his window is palpable.
La ventana 019
Don Antonio is a writer – one of the few modern conveniences visible in the film is his laptop computer, on which he works sporadically. During the doctor’s visit, he asks the physician to retrieve a book from the shelf – a first edition of A universal history of infamy by legendary Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. As he brings the book to Don Antonio, the doctor notices that the book is signed by Borges, with a dedication to Don Antonio, making it a very special item indeed – and he is all the more astonished when the old man insists that the doctor take the book as a gift from him. It’s a touching moment – Don Antonio conveys, through this selfless gesture, the value he places upon their friendship, at the same time letting the doctor know that the patient is aware that his time might not be long.
La ventana 014
La ventana 009
After a brief ‘escape’ for a walk around his property leaves him in a weakened state, tempering his hopes for a proper celebration around the return of his son. Don Pablo arrives not alone, but in the company of a woman named Claudia, apparently his girlfriend – she is evidently a performer herself, and is only partially present, concerned about the lack of communication with the outside world interfering with an upcoming booking. She greets Don Antonio with a combination of petulance and detached respect that clearly show she would rather be back in the ‘real world’ instead of stranded in the middle of nowhere. Antonio insists on having a bottle of champagne brought up from the cellar for a ceremonial toast – his son notes that the handwriting on the label is that of his mother, which his father acknowledges wistfully. As the bottle is uncorked, the lack of the characteristic ‘pop’ tells everyone that it is flat – another instance in which Time makes its presence and effects noticed. Afterwards, alone, the son explores the house, unfamiliar to him after the ensuing years. He approaches the piano, finding two tin soldiers on the top. They were retrieved earlier from inside, wedged among the mechanism, by the piano tuner, where they had evidently fallen many years ago, when Pablo was a child. He pockets them – a quiet, perhaps unconscious attempt to capture Time.
La ventana 020
The film is shot beautifully – there are long scenes with little dialogue, but volumes are spoken, nevertheless, by the eyes and facial expressions of the characters, as well as by the movement of the natural world, which of course has a life of its own. There is tangible poetry in the cinematography, and a completely unpretentious grace in the characters – something that cannot be taught, which must have its source deep within. The actors embody their roles, immersing themselves in them, becoming the characters they portray – it’s an essential element too often missing in modern filmmaking, and refreshing to see in such quantity and quality as in this film. Sorin’s script is neither heavy-handed nor naïve, dealing gently and openly with mortality and memory, two elements of our existence that are completely under the sometimes cruel thumb of Time. There is a sort of informed sentimentality present – it is never maudlin or simplistic, gifted to the viewer by the director and cast as an undeniable element of life. We are born, we live, and we die – what we experience over the course of a life molds us and shapes us according to our own sensibilities, directed and nudged by the events through which we pass. Don Antonio’s ghostly dream from his boyhood attains a clarity he never imagined it would reach, delivered by a messenger completely unexpected – it is all the more of a treasure for this, just as this film is a moving cinematic treasure for the viewer. It is touching without being manipulative, filled with beauty that is completely free from artifice, visual poetry that moves and flows with the natural rhythm of the wind through the grass.

03 January 2010

Olivier Themines Trio

Olivier Themines Trio - Miniatures
Yolk, 2009

The musical form of the miniature might well be viewed in the same light as the short story in literature, or the film short in cinema – arguably more challenging to the creator of the work than longer forms, in that the ideas expressed must be presented in an extremely succinct manner, without the luxury of slow development. There is no time to spare, no space to waste – every note, every rest, each rhythmic form and variation must be precisely designed toward the creation of these small bits of carefully crafted music. Clarinetist Olivier Themines rises to the occasion brilliantly on Miniatures, presenting a programme that shines from first track to last, performed in the able company of Guillaume Hazebrouck (piano) and Kit Le Marec (vibraphone). All of the compositions save one are originals, the lone cover being a piece written by the extraordinary American pianist Ran Blake – ‘Glaciation’, here reduced from the original length of 0’55 to an even more concise 0’32.

Even considering the sparse instrumentation, the arrangements are drawn frugally, in some cases featuring only one or two instruments at any given moment – but nothing is left to chance, with every piece of the musical puzzle falling into place beautifully, creating thoughtful interplay driven by perfect execution. I know that Themines and Hazebrouck are members of the extended Yolk collectif of composers / performers / improvisers – Themines has worked with the Bruno Regnier Xtet, and Hazebrouck has his own sextet as well as performing in a duo with reed player Pierre-Yves Merel. I’m not familiar with the work of vibraphonist Kit Le Marec beyond this recording, but no doubt he, Themines and Hazebrouck keep busy – the music they offer here is on a level that belies the relaxed feel it projects, something that is definitely not casually produced.

There’s a palpable sense of the spirit of Érik Satie hovering over much of this recording – that’s not to say it’s derivative, only that it has an almost dreamlike quality, one that gently reanimates the memory echoes whose resonances have faded almost to silence in the subconscious of the listener. Also present is the very real influence of Jimmy Giuffre, , the American clarinetist / composer whose ground-breaking trio with Paul Bley (piano) and Steve Swallow (double-bass) brought a thoughtful stream of dynamic, forward-looking minimalism (not as much of a contradiction as it might seem at first glance) into the jazz scene of the 50s and 60s, proving that a drummerless ensemble could be both swinging and thought-provoking – one track on Miniatures is entitled ‘Giuffrian sketch’ as an hommage to the inspiration his work offers to Themines and his bandmates. (I highly recommend checking out some of Giuffre’s work, especially the double-disc hatOLOGY re-release of Emphasis and Flight, two albums recorded on a concert tour of Germany in 1961)
The clarinet, piano and vibraphone spin out melodies that intertwine one moment, shifting focus and sending one instrument soaring into solo flight the next, with the others alternately offering up a quiet counterpoint or dropping out altogether, only to reappear moments later to make their own statements. Far from being flights of improvised fancy, however, I’m left with the feeling that each note is placed in the score precisely where Themines intends it to be – there are doubtless short bursts of improvisation within a framework, but for the most part this seems to be strictly composed music. There are moments when the jazz backgrounds of these players are evident, others when they sound as if they would be equally at home in a classical chamber ensemble – but throughout the recording, they perform with care, emotion and an enthusiasm that enlivens the delicate nature of this music. While Themines is the leader of record here, and the composer of all but one track on the disc, this is without question a cooperative effort – the three players work together seemingly without the fences that the human ego can throw up to block equal interaction. The instruments themselves seem perfect in reflecting the intentions of the composer – the timbre and attack of the piano and vibraphone allow them to play off each other naturally, with the voice of the clarinet sliding in and out as gracefully as the breath that drives it. A trio without bass or percussion to drive the rhythm might seem weak on paper, but Hazebrouck and Le Marec never allow the music to drag. The three instrumentalists draw from their respective palettes with sensitive consideration, the resulting musical image being a delicate, spare filigree that leaves the listener holding breath as the images form and dissipate. No one seems determined to enter into every single ‘conversation’, to vie for attention – these arrangements are about as perfect as they could be, especially given the chosen form, and the experience is a rich one.

Yolk has been a source of some of the most rewarding music I’ve come across over the past 3-4 years – the label, as well as the collectif itself, seems to encourage and nourish the creativity of its participants by allowing them apparent near-total control over their individual recordings. Only in such a freeing atmosphere could musicians and projects like this one thrive and come to such complete fruition. Click on the link below to go to the label’s website – there, you can check out all of their releases and artists, as well as listen to the occasional sample tracks from their releases. If you hear something that strikes your fancy, I urge you to order it from them – they accept PayPal (the safest way to pay online that I’ve found), their prices are much cheaper than one would expect to pay for products from Europe, and their shipping is fast and securely packed. In the world of creative musical endeavors, it's a combination that's hard to beat.

Yolk Records

08 December 2009

Natsuki Tamura
Natsuki Tamura 006
trumpet - memory - dreamscapes

Any musician with talent, imagination and the desire to create something unique through their art winds up, I believe, making a concerted effort to expand the palette of their instrument or voice. Sometimes they choose to remain within their chosen genre (be it classical, jazz or whatever field in which they find their true expression) – others strain and push the limits of style to the point of bursting the envelope that attempts to contain them, giving artistic birth to something so new and different that they find themselves in a realm of their own invention. The work of Japanese trumpeter Natsuki Tamura falls variously into both of these categories. His work with his wife, renowned pianist Satoko Fujii, shows that he’s quite capable of performing in a jazz / free-jazz context, whether it’s in duo recordings with her or in her quartet or big-band ensembles. His own work, either with his quartet (which includes Satoko) or as a solo artist, tends to be more experimental and challenging. Every recording I’ve heard involving either or both of these two is a rewarding experience. Both of the releases I’m addressing here were recorded in 2003. Looking at the credits, one might imagine them to be completely different – they are at first listen, but as one allows this music to more deeply penetrate the psyche, certain elements can be recognized as shared properties.

Natuski Tamura Quartet

Natsuki Tamura Quartet - Exit
Libra (Japan), 2004

On Exit, Tamura is accompanied by Takayuki Kato (guitar), Satoko Fujii (synthesizer) and Ryojiro Furusawa (drums). The sound generated by this tight unit is very much in line with the cd cover image – the double-exposure combining inside / outside components, seemingly offering an exit from this world to another, is very evocative of the music itself. Tamura’s trumpet starts the first piece, appropriately entitled ‘Entrance’, with cascading echo-lines, with Satoko adding tuned percussive sounds from her keyboard along with angular, forceful punctuations from Furusawa and Kato. There are vocalizations as well – I’m guessing they’re coming from Tamura, but there is no mention of them in the notes – they add to the overall feeling of displacement and resurfacing memories and dreams that pervade not only this track, but most of both of these recordings. These feelings rise and fall with the sounds that conjure them, much in the same way that actual memories and dreams nudge their way into and out of our consciousness. I suspect that this is a purposeful attempt on Tamura’s part to evoke these feelings, to draw upon the effects of them in order to connect with not just his listeners, but with himself as well. It’s extremely effective – listening to this music for the first time, I had an underlying feeling of connectivity with its core that is otherwise unexplainable. ‘Endanger’ is led off again by Tamura’s trumpet, with the other instruments entering the arrangement in more subtle ways, creating a palpable surrounding presence that is vaguely threatening, the mood of the piece reflecting its title accurately. Tamura’s trumpet lines become more agitated, with bursts of lines that, again, evoke something perhaps once heard, perhaps mirroring an individual’s natural instinct of drawing upon something familiar and known when faced with the unsettling, possibly dangerous unknown.

‘Eliminate’ is a lengthier piece, clocking in at over 26 minutes, allowing the group to work through their ideas and stretch out with them – and they do so very well. Tamura’s trumpet coos, warbles, sings and screams over the bubbling background provided by his bandmates. Voice-like sounds are added to the mix – whether they’re generated live or drawn forth from samples is hard to determine, but they’re an effective addition to the mix. Melodies are touched upon in snatches; lines appear and disappear over the very effective foundation laid down by the others, whose melodic offerings are sometimes brought to the fore also. The churning rhythms of the opening section of the piece begin to fade around 7 minutes in, giving way to a more reflective section featuring Tamura’s trumpet sounding as if its tones are reaching the ears of the listener across an expanse of water, perhaps through fog – more audio equivalents of memory and dream elements, at times more felt than heard. The other instruments whisper and crackle in the background, giving the vivid impression of movement through space and / or time. Just after the half-way point in the piece, the others grow more insistent, finally charging back in to raise the energy level to a point even higher than that with which they began. Satoko’s synthesizer reasserts itself as a lead instrument, suddenly dropping out to leave the drums as the main voice – the others contribute accents, followed by the insertion of more vocalizations, then more trumpet, until everyone re-enters to close out the piece in a maelstrom of sound.

‘Expired’ is a more low-key affair overall, with Tamura’s echo-upon-echo trumpet lines offering the main trail through its darkness, with fine support from the others. His melodies zigzag over the musical landscape, with sounds (some of unknown origin) again surrounding the listener. It’s a little like seeing glowing eyes in the darkness when walking through a forest – they could be real or imaginary, benign and curious or quietly plotting. Organ-like sounds from Satoko’s synthesizer combine with Kato’s guitar in the middle section, brought to heightened reawakening by the trumpet and drums, a churning passage that gives way to the more reflective mood of the piece’s beginning to bring things to a close. The shortest track in the set, ‘Exit’, fittingly ends the album – staccato vocalizations are accompanied by a sporadically repeated melody line on the synth here and there that brings to mind ‘The girl from Ipanema’, which disappears again to allow the voice and percussive effects (drums or synthesizer) to bubble up here and there. The piece ends with echo-layered voices and a droning bass chord from the keyboard.

Natsuki Tamura
Ko ko ko ke

Natsuki Tamura - Ko ko ko ke
Natsat / Polystar (Japan), 2004

Ko ko ko ke is a true solo recording – Tamura produces all of the sounds himself with his trumpet and voice. The mood of this album is less frenetic than parts of Exit , but the effect of the music is no less insistent, drawing the listener into the audio world created by the artist. The elements of memory and dreams are present here as well (the cover photographs represent it beautifully visually), perhaps even more vivid in the less-populated audio canvas. Tamura is very obviously drawing upon his own memories here – not just directly, by way of tunes that he perhaps heard in his childhood, but in mood as well. The hazy, in-and-out-of-focus realm of time distance is recreated in an incredibly effective way here. There are snippets of songs – some tracks are performed solely as vocals – and evocations of traditional Japanese instruments (the shamisen and the taiko) as well. The album is as far as I can discern performed and recorded as heard, with no overdubs – it’s a process that leaves the artist literally naked before the listener, with no place to hide…but the honesty and sincerity with which Tamura presents these pieces adds a quality to the music that no amount of technology could ever match. He’ll play a few lines of melody on his trumpet, presented here with very little if any alteration, then sing a bit. There’s a childlike innocence and openness to not only his voice on this album, but to the entire project – it’s as if through the music he’s recorded here, he’s presenting his innermost self to the listener…and it’s a very moving experience, as well as being one that is incredibly satisfying on an artistic level. The album has a feeling of intimacy that permeates every single track – it’s almost as if he made this recording for himself. I’m very glad he chose to share it.
Natsuki Tamura 005
These recordings are a little hard to find in the US – but with a bit of online exploration, they can be found, along with his other works and releases by Satoko Fujii, all of which will give a more complete picture of two artists whose compositions and performances are as challenging as they are rewarding.

Natsuki Tamura on MySpace

Natsuki Tamura profile on Libra Records’ website

16 November 2009

Valentin Silvestrov
Fleeting melodies

Valentin Silvestrov - Fleeting memories  (2008)
Rostok (Ukraine), 2008

In the booklet for the 2004 ECM release of Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa, music journalist Steve Lake began his essay: ‘Time in Valentin Silvestrov’s music is a black lake. The water barely moves; the past refuses to slide away; and the slow, irregular stirrings of an oar remain in place.’ An apt image for the stillness present in so many of Silvestrov’s compositions – a sense of motionless repose is palpable, couple at the same time with a feeling of connection with things past, ever present in a rather Proustian way, a remembrance that exists beyond the ordinary boundaries of thought and memory, leaving its mark on the multiple, mica-fine layers of the human soul and psyche.

Valentin Silvestrov
Valentin Silvestrov

The music on Fleeting melodies is described by the composer as ‘…a large cycle, comprised of seven works, which are performed without interruption – as one large text…the expanse in which melodies exist on the boundary between their appearance and disappearance…’ There is a direct reference in the title of some pieces to Tchaikovsky, as well as Silvestrov mentioning Bach’s The art of the fugue in his brief notes – but the listener also hears / feels wisps of echoes from other sources: Schumann, Mozart, Webern…nothing that is so blatant as a copied phrase or passage, but newly created lines that vividly demonstrate the love and understanding that Silvestrov has for the historic composers he admires…those who have preceded him on the path he travels.

Bohdana Pivnenko + Valeriy Matiukhin
Bohdana Pivnenko & Valeriy Moatiukhin
The performers on this disc – Bohdana Pivnenko (violin) and Valeriy Matiukhin (piano) – show, in turn, their love and understanding of Valentin Silvestrov’s work. His interpretative instruction, which they execute brilliantly throughout the album, written in the score to one of the pieces, ‘While listening, this music must sound light and clear, distant…’, could apply to just about all of his late work – it settles on the ear of the listener like a mist that is barely there, a whisper from another place, another time…delicate, but not to be ignored. More than any other contemporary composer whose work I’ve experienced, Silvestrov’s music sings – with or without a vocal component. There is so much more at work here than mere saccharine melodies that amount to ear candy – the beauty in these pieces carries meaning and emotion felt on the deepest level, wrapped in music that appeals to both the heart and intellect. Pivnenko and Matiukhin weave their lines in and out of each other, rapt in their interpretation and at the same time sensitive to the voicings offered by their partner – there is not a single failed nuance or overplayed line. It’s like listening to liquid flowing – the recording’s generous 72 minute length is over before one expects it to be, and repeated listenings follow as naturally as one breath follows the next.

This recording is only available, as far as I know, from UMKA in Kiev (link below). For those who might be hesitant to use a credit card to order, know that their online storefront is a company based in the US that accepts PayPal, a safe and secure method of sending money that doesn’t expose your credit card number to any seller. Coming from the Ukraine, with shipping, the disc is understandably a little pricey – around $35 – but well worth it. I received my order in about 12 days, much sooner than I expected. It comes in a DVD-sized digi-pack with beautiful artwork, albeit with brief notes by the composer and a moving dedication by Bohdana Pivnenko to her late husband.

Valentin Silvestrov is a treasure among composers, contemporary or otherwise – his works are imbued with a beauty that springs from the universal human spirit, singing in a wordless language that touches the soul with grace and truth…a touch we could all use.

Fleeting memories at UMKA

09 November 2009

La silence de Lorna
(The silence of Lorna
or Lorna’s silence)
written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
2008 / Belgium / France / Italy / color / 105 minutes
French with English subtitles
DVD (region 2) from New Wave FIlms, UK
US release (region 1) from Sony Pictures (scheduled for January 2010)

The Dardenne brothers
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

When a viewer takes in a film by the Dardenne brothers, there’s work to be done. The Belgian auteurs don’t lay everything out in an ‘a + b = c’ order like so many directors – one has to pay attention. It’s not as if their films are overly obtuse or ‘difficult’ – they reflect life, and the pieces of life rarely fit together like an entry-level jigsaw puzzle. The details of characters and plot are there to be discovered / uncovered as the film progresses – it’s a process that places more responsibility on the shoulders of the viewer…but it’s more than worthwhile, engendering an interaction that, like a good exercise session, has an invigorating effect and leaves a sense of involvement and satisfaction in accomplishment in its aftermath. The process also embeds the film and the mica-like layers of thought that engendered it in the mind of the viewer, encouraging a reflection on what has been experienced that is as natural as that stimulated by events in the real world. The world depicted in the Dardennes’ films is a very real one indeed – as real as that created by the great French director Robert Bresson in his work. Their work is by no means derivative of Bresson’s, but he’s an obvious influence – they’ve taken bits and pieces of his philosophy of cinema and added them to their own ideas and goals, moving the art form forward as only those who create from their soul can do. I think Bresson would admire their work – I don’t think he’d feel as if they had copied him.

Combining these techniques with actors who have the ability to transform themselves into their characters with an incredible ease and naturalness, captured on film and brought to the screen with their almost instantly recognizable ‘invisible’ photography that places the viewer in the scene with the characters, participating as a witness, rather than simply watching a film, makes for one of the most unique experiences in contemporary cinema. Their films are works of high art that can instantly be appreciated by any viewer who offers attention – the depth of character and situation that is embodied in them can invest a depth of empathy in an audience that is a rare thing indeed.
The silence of Lorna - 06
How else could filmmakers take such characters as a junkie and a woman who has allowed herself to be involved with petty criminals in a marriage-for-citizenship scam and make us care about them, experiencing and recognizing the humanity in these far-less-than-perfect people? The titular Lorna (exquisitely portrayed by Arta Dobroshi) is a recent immigrant from Albania to Belgium, where the film is set. She has entered into a marriage with Claudy Moreau (Jérémie Renier, veteran of two other Dardenne films, La promesse [1996] and L’enfant [2005], as well as works by other directors) in order to achieve Belgian citizenship. Claudy is a junkie, and has been chosen by Fabio, a petty criminal working as a cab driver, as an easy target for the game he is playing. Fabio is in league with the Russian mafia – the long-term plan calls for Claudy to be killed, leaving Lorna a widow and free to remarry a Russian who is also seeking citizenship. Everyone gets a cut of the money involved, including Lorna's boyfriend Sokol…except of course for Claudy, who is viewed as disposable – ‘He’s only a junkie,’ says Sokol.
The silence of Lorna - 07
The very first scene of the film shows money being exchanged, Lorna apparently depositing a sum into an account. Currency changes hands so much on screen that it almost becomes another character – but on careful observation, it’s actually multiple characters…or at least possessing multiple personalities depending on its source, destination, and purpose. Sometimes it is a negative force driving characters apart – sometimes a positive one that has the potential of drawing them together.
The silence of Lorna - 04
The silence of Lorna - 08
The scheme seems to be foolproof…until Lorna begins to see Claudy not as a disposable pawn, but as a human being. The emotional process through which she passes is one of subtle shifts, but it is every bit as gut-wrenching as Claudy’s attempts to rid himself of his drug habit, desperate to reclaim his life. She agrees to help him stay clean if he will agree to a divorce, freeing her to move on to the next step in the scheme being directed by Fabio. The cab-driving would-be crime magnate, however, is not interested in any change of plans – and the conflicts deepen and become more complicated. All of this begins to play on Lorna’s conscience and psyche, the colors of her emotions shift and change hue, imperceptibly at first – and she also begins to see that those with whom she is playing this game are less concerned with her long-range plans than she first thought. As the plotline circles become tighter and tighter, the tension naturally increases, leading to a conclusion that I won’t reveal…but one that is unexpected, as are so many conclusions in life itself. Her ‘silence’ is multifold – information given by her is doled out frugally…to herself as well as to others.
The silence of Lorna - 05
There are some noticeable differences between this film and the earlier work by the Dardennes – but their style is intact, merely showing their growth as writers / directors, as well as employing some ‘improved tools’ such as the use of 35mm cameras instead of their usual 16mm. There’s even a bit of music at the end of the film, a conscious decision they made in order to allow the mood to fade slowly, much like a sustained note on a piano that ends a piece with a lingering, languid decay. The in-your-face shots are still here, along with camera work designed and executed in such a way as to enhance the viewer’s sense of true presence in the film. Working from their script with their actors, they’re willing to listen to ideas from the cast, implementing some if they feel that the film is improved by their inclusion. It’s a nice combination of a give-and-take process over which they maintain ultimate control – and one about which they speak at length in one of the interviews (the other being with Arta Dobroshi) that is included as an extra in this, the UK edition of the DVD (it’s due to be released in the US by Sony in January of 2010 – hopefully the same extras and image / sound quality will be present). These elements are hallmarks of their style, placing their work on a higher plane than most contemporary cinema – a level that, thankfully, they manage to meet and surpass with each release. Experiencing their films can bring one into closer contact with one’s own humanity by virtually inhabiting the characters created and brought to life on the screen: art that promotes empathy and understanding, which has a value far beyond that of mere entertainment.

Of their other feature films, Le fils (The son) (2002) and L’enfant (The child) (2005) are the only two available in current release in the US; La promesse (The promise) (1996) is out of print in this country, although some rental outlets might still have it. Rosetta (1999), as far as I’m aware, has never been available in this country. All of these are in print in Europe – if you have a region-free player, they’re out there and they’re not all that expensive. Each one is a modest, yet extremely enriching, satisfying masterpiece of film art – and they’ll no doubt cause your expectations to be raised where cinematic creation is concerned.

With the film currently in limited theatrical release in the US, Sony Pictures have a website for it, where you can read more about it as well as view a trailer – click here. If it comes to a theatre near you, I strongly recommend seeing it on a big screen – if not, by all means find a copy of the DVD. It’s an unforgettable experience, one that should not be missed. It won the award for best screenplay at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival...and it very much deserves this sort of recognition.

22 September 2009

Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian - Neharót
ECM New Series, 2009

Violist Kim Kashkashian has shown, over the course of her recording career at ECM, that she seemingly has a magic touch when it comes to programming her albums. Her choices come from the ‘expected’ realms of classical music (her recording of Brahms’ sonatas for viola and piano, with Robert Levin) to composers whose work, while exceptionally thoughtful and beautiful, has not enjoyed the exposure of more ‘known’ composers, most likely due to its challenging nature and more obscure inspirational sources (her previous recordings of the work of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, as well as this current release, falling into this category). It’s a shame – I know her work is highly regarded and much appreciated by both critics and listeners, but the wider listening audience is missing out on something very special indeed if they pass on her work simply because they don’t recognize names.

For Neharót, she draws from the oeuvre of four composers – Betty Olivero (Israel), Tigran Mansurian (Armenia), Komitas (Armenia) and Eitan Steinberg (Israel). The works offered here draw from the classical tradition, but also from other, age-old sources such as Armenian chant, laments and Hasidic melodies. She takes these melodies to the deepest chambers of her heart and transforms them, using her instrument as few musicians can, giving voice to their soul – and when I use the word ‘voice’, I do so very consciously, for there is a voice-like quality to her playing that brings depth of emotion and a living warmth to her music. Her tone, in her capable hands, can be pristinely intellectual or (as described by Paul Griffiths in his well-written notes to the disc) ‘earthy’ as needs dictate. She truly sings these pieces through her viola – it’s a marvel to experience.

Griffiths speaks of ‘memories we did not know’, referring to the chords struck within the listener on hearing this music – and his description is a perfect one. One can debate the validity of so-called generational or inherited memories – but few people are without the experience of feeling a sense of familiarity with something they’ve never before heard, as if the remembrances are carried in the blood, or DNA. Cultural tendencies and customs are taught, but think about that feeling of an emotion or action simply being ‘right’ touches our thoughts on a subconscious level, many times without being aware of it. These pieces – thanks to the skill of the composers and that of the performer – ring that memory-bell with a delicacy that belies the strength of deeply hidden layers of past experience.

Betty Olivero’s ‘Neharót, neharót’ opens the album – Kim’s viola leads a small ensemble (accordion, percussion and taped voices) and is accompanied by the Münchener Kammerorchester. Accordion, strings and delicate percussion lay down a dirge-like drone, with the viola serving up a melody that is a prime example of the ‘vocal’ qualities I mentioned. Just as with our internal memories, it’s easy to get lost in this piece. The title means ‘Rivers, rivers’, and is a reference to the flood of tears evoked by the seemingly continuous suffering under the yoke of wars in the Middle East. Along with the qualities of a lament, or mourning, however, are undeniable and unquenchable strains of the hope that allows people to survive as human beings in such a time and place. Olivero draws on traditional melodies from Kurdish and North African sources – taped voices of two professional singers, Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia, are used to great effect, enhancing and enriching the voice-like qualities of the viola.

Next up is Tigran Mansurian’s ‘Tagh for the funeral of the Lord’ – the sense of lament continues in this beautiful piece, with Kashkashian being accompanied by some amazingly sensitive percussion work (vibraphone, Thai gongs) by Robyn Schulkowsky, who was worked very effectively with Kim on previous recordings. This is a piece I can easily imagine hearing under darkened skies, perhaps even total night – the sounds have a gentle but firm penetrating quality, again with the quiet insistence of a voice that will not be denied expression. A piece by Komitas (1869-1935), which also appeared on Kim’s Hayren recording, is adapted by Mansurian, who performs it here, solo on piano. It’s a heart-rending, achingly lovely melody – Griffiths notes that it ‘reminds us how close are the genres of lullaby and lament’, and once again he has described the work perfectly. There is a palpable feeling of quietude, especially in the ending of the piece.

A trio of Mansurian works follows, ‘Three arias (sung out the window facing Mount Ararat)’, dedicated by the composer to Kim Kashkashian, who is accompanied here by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Gently swelling strings usher in the viola, which takes the melody firmly but delicately, almost physically handing it to the listener. Turning again to the notes, Griffiths writes, ‘The emotion…is one of longing, a feeling not so far from lament – of longing, in particular, for ancient Armenian sites that are now over the border in Turkish territory. Mansurian imagines these arias as sung out through windows looking towards the holy Mount Ararat, the mountains of Sasun and the ruins of Ani, where thousand-year-old churches testify to the splendour of a city, once one of the world’s greatest, that has been abandoned for centuries.’

Completing the bookending of the shorter pieces (along with the opening work by Olivero) and ending the recording is a longer composition by Eitan Steinberg, originally composed as a vocal work based on a traditional Hasidic ceremony, re-configured here (at Kashkashian’s suggestion) by Steinberg as an instrumental piece. Conveying the emotional impact of the now-missing words to the listener was a challenge for both the composer and the performer – Steinberg notes that Kashkashian ‘managed to cry the prayer from within the strings, to murmur the sacred text with no words’. It’s a stunning accomplishment on both their parts, and one whose result will move the listener deeply, whatever their spiritual orientation might be – emotions and feelings cross all such artificial barriers with great ease.
I’ve enjoyed Kim Kashkashian’s work for years – with each new release, I look forward to hearing composers I’ve never heard before, music performed with warmth and sensitivity, delicacy and strength, always left with the feeling that her viola is ‘speaking’ directly to me. This could well be my favorite recording of hers – but it’s hard to say, with so many of them ranking so high in my esteem, and so dear to my musical heart and soul.

24 August 2009

Don Cherry’s Multikulti
Don Cherry's Multikulti  (1991)
1991 / Germany / color / 57min approx.
DVD from Kultur / NTSC / all regions

Don Cherry (1936-1995) was an incredible jazz innovator, working with Ornette Coleman early on in defining ‘free jazz’ and forever exploding the envelope in which the genre had been contained. They were not alone in this noble pursuit, of course – but they were among the first. After working with Ornette regularly, off-again and on-again, Cherry continued to erase genre boundaries with his music – and in doing so helped break down the walls of fear and ignorance that rise up between cultures across the globe, illustrating through his work that music and art are universal languages, wielding immense power to touch common ground and intertwine hearts and souls. Multikulti is the name he gave the band / project under which he was operating when this incredible concert document was filmed, in Germany before an enthusiastic audience, in 1991, just 3½ years before his untimely death at the age of 58.

Cherry was known mainly as a trumpet player – specifically the pocket trumpet, usually relegated to the ‘practice instrument’ category until he brought it to the fore as a serious solo instrument – but he was a true multi-instrumentalist, a natural-born seeker drawn to make music on whatever fell into his reach. In this appearance, he performs on trumpet, pocket trumpet, keyboard, melodica, flute, various percussive devices and the doussin gouni, a type of folk-harp from western Africa (particularly Mali), similar to the kora – and he also sings, sometimes using words, others in a wordless manner that nevertheless conveys great emotion and evokes wondrous images. He is joined here by three other amazing musicians – Peter Apfelbaum (piano, keyboards, tenor saxophone, flute); Bo Freeman (electric bass, percussion); and Joshua Jones (drums, percussion).

There are no compositional credits in the DVD package, but from comments made by Cherry during the performance, it’s clear that Apfelbaum wrote both ‘Walk to the mountain’ and ‘When the rain comes’; ‘Rhumba Multikulti’ and ‘Trans love airways’ are either Cherry compositions or co-compositions; and ‘Bemsha swing’ is one of Thelonious Monk’s best-known works. In the case of ‘Bemsha’, it’s enthralling to watch Cherry and his bandmates take Monk’s tune, break it down and re-set it, filtering it through their own musical personalities, much the way Monk would do when he assayed standards or even lesser-known compositions by others.

For that matter, the whole concert enthralled me – Cherry calls the shots, but everyone in the band makes meaningful and thoughtful contributions to the process, and the results are wonderful. Apfelbaum and Cherry switch between various instruments almost seamlessly, and are unselfconsciously adept at all of them. Freeman and Jones execute hard-driving funk, rhythms that approach reggae in their stagger-step beats, and passages drawn with delicate, fragile beauty – all with a natural skill and ease that belie the depths of their abilities and concentration. The introduction to ‘Bemsha swing’ is unrecognizable as a Monk melody – but as soon as familiar piano comps and later sax lines flow, the audience picks up on the tune and responds audibly, bringing a beaming smile and a nod from Cherry. Later in the tune, with Apfelbaum moving to tenor saxophone, Cherry strolls over to the piano and eases into the arrangement. And lest anyone think he’s tinkering when he addresses the keyboard, let them witness his work on this piece – if you watch carefully, you can even see him gently adopt some of Monk’s trademark splayed-fingers keyboard attack.

The sound quality is first-rate throughout – no fancy 5.1 surround sound here, just crystal-clear two-channel stereo accompanied by fine multi-camera video work. The director (Ulli Pfau) and her crew are sensitive to their subjects and the music they’re creating, much to the benefit of the home viewing audience – the camera angles and choices of view are thoughtfully chosen and very much in tune with the pieces being performed.

This is a great video for anyone who loves jazz or world music – the two meet here in respect and mutual admiration. Cherry and crew illustrate that they are cultural chefs, cooking up a stew that is built on innumerable ingredients brought together tastefully to nourish the mind, heart and spirit of the listener – and it’s easy to see that the players are having a wonderful time as well. It’s infectious. The DVD is readily available through the usual sources – Amazon, CD Universe, Mosaic, &c – at reasonable prices (easy to find new copies for under $20) – check it out.