27 December 2006

a novel by William Gay
deep in the tall pineys...
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First of all – when you name a thing, it can somehow limit the scope of that thing. For instance, when William Gay’s writing is labeled ‘Southern gothic’ by reviewers, it’s possible that a potential reader who has never particularly appreciated that genre might defer experiencing what could very well be a lifechanging literary experience. Know this: nobody writes like William Gay – and in the case of his work, it’s more an instance of the genre being absolutely exploded by the depth and scope of his art.

In Twilight, Gay lays out what in the hands of most other writers would be a simple tale of good-versus-evil. A brother and sister suspect that the local undertaker has cheated them in the burial of their father – a steel vault that should have surrounded his casket is, when they dig it up, missing. Following her hunches, Corrie Tyler convinces her brother Kenneth to join her in exhuming other deceased citizens of their rural Tennessee town – and what they find exceeds her wildest grim imaginings. The undertaker, one Fenton Breece, has apparently made a practice of desecrating – oftentimes obscenely – the bodies of the departed entrusted to his benevolent care. Corrie is determined that Breece should pay for what he did to their daddy – and Kenneth manages to purloin a bit of evidence – a bundle of…shall we say…incriminating photographs – from the trunk of the grim digger’s car that the two believe should convince him to cough up a hearty (in the day, 1951) bit of cash, in reparation and punishment.

Breece, however, disagrees – and while he consents to Corrie’s proffered bargain, he has other plans in mind for the siblings. He enlists one Granville Sutter – a local convicted murder and all-around doer of evil deeds – to retrieve the evidence and silence the brother and sister. What ensues is a wild ride, both for the protagonists and the reader. Sutter is easily the most evil character that Gay has thus far created – and, I would venture, one of the vilest one is likely to come across in literature of any age. He thinks nothing of killing – be it man, woman, child or beast – and he does so on a semi-regular basis, whenever it seems to him that killing is required. He pursues Kenneth Tyler into, through and out of the Harrikin – an area of abandoned mines, concealed shafts offering a deadly drop to a quick end for the unsuspecting traveler, ghost towns, dilapidated shacks populated by some truly unique, unforgettable characters, abandoned mansions, and unfettered overgrowth that would stymie even the most seasoned woodsman. At one point, Kenneth muses that in the Harrikin even a compass would swing to some false true north of the wilderness’ own devising. Many people – and farm animals – have wandered in and never come out.

The situations and people that Kenneth encounters in his flight from Sutter and toward justice are not placed in the story on a whim – each incident, each meeting awakens something new in the boy, something that is vital to his growth as a human being, something that encourages him to cling desperately to everything that makes his humanity real. Many people don’t experience these sorts of things at this intensity over the course of their entire life – imagine the impact on a person who goes through them in the course of a few days or weeks. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
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Gay knows the area in which his books are set – and his characters – like the back of his hand, and he respects them both very deeply. The eccentricities of the land and the people who try to survive on it are played out to the fullest – and none of it ever comes across as caricature or condescension. His writing style always wraps me up as if I’ve been somehow transported to another world – another reviewer below likened reading William Gay to taking a drug, and I have to agree that’s an apt description. This story is as dark as dark can be (I certainly must say), but once I started it I couldn’t put it down. There is evil and violence here – but there is also wisdom and redemption and hope, so don’t be too afraid. I’ve read everything he’s published more than a few times, and I never tire of his work – give me more, please, doc…
I can also recommended William Gay's other books highly:
In wartime, where is the real insanity…?

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This film, by Kosovo ‘painter-director’ Isa Qosja, is the first film to emerge from that country since the war in 1999 that left the region devastated and reeling. Co-written by Qosja and Mehmet Kraja, Kukumi follows three unlikely protagonists – Kukumi, Mara and Hassan, inmates of a mental hospital – through the tattered physical and emotional landscape that remains as the fighting comes to a halt. When news of the signing of the UN-sponsored peace accord comes over the radio, the soldiers who have been guarding the hospital can’t abandon their posts quickly enough – they hop into jeeps and whatever other means of conveyance they can commandeer and leave nothing but their settling dust behind, along with open gates and a bewildered group of patients left to fend for themselves.

Kukumi narrates the film, and explains that as a newborn he cried constantly for several days, driving his parents and neighbors mad, until a local woman arrived to cast a spell to stop his wailing. He remarks that he hasn’t cried since – an observation that is all the more poignant in light of the heartbreaking scenes he encounters outside the gates. Along with Mara and Hassan, he sets out into the world and tries to make sense of what has suddenly been opened to him. It’s a difficult task for anyone to make sense of war – perhaps being insane is an advantage. It’s hard to say.
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The three travelers view their world with a childlike wonder – there are things they have never seen before, things which they have understandable difficulty in understanding. From the outset, there is a conflict between Kukumi and Hassan – they are both attracted to Mara, and both express a desire to marry her – but rather than come to blows in a situation that could easily lead to such actions among ‘normal’ citizens, they take a more philosophical approach. Whether it’s because they’re merely parroting feelings that are expected to occur between men and women, or whether their feelings for Mara are underdeveloped for other reasons, they never come close to violence over her – they’re more likely to get physical in defending her from outsiders than with each other.
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They make their way to Hassan’s home village, nearby, to find that his family is less than welcoming – his sister-in-law berates his brother for even thinking about having anything to do with him, considering him to be an embarrassment to their family and a serious liability if he hangs around. Hassan’s honest delight and enthusiasm in locating his brother again is heart-wrenching compared with the reception he gets.
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The cinematography and direction is stunning – from the long opening shot that begins with a view of a man sleeping on a cot in a room in the hospital, then retreats through the window to show other inmates milling around in the rain outside the building, it’s apparent that we’re in for something very special here. The camera pans around and finds Kukumi standing in the exercise yard in the downpour. Other patients approach him, gesturing or speaking words we can’t quite hear – but only when a young woman we soon learn to be Mara entreats him with an open, waiflike smile, does he relent and pull his flute from a fold in his robe and begin to play. The melody is beautiful and haunting – it sets the mood for Kukumi’s outlook on the world, and for the remainder of the film.

I’ve read reviews that seem to think that the metaphoric aspect of Qosja’s film is too obvious, and that this somehow lessens the impact of this work – but I disagree. While the metaphor of the three being children of war, extended to embrace everyone who has been touched by the madness of such conflict, is definitely an element, I believe the film can be viewed more directly as a simple story of pain, loss and discovery – and it’s a good look at the shameful way that the mentally ill are viewed and treated by the world as a whole.

Qosja’s direction is never heavy-handed – he lets the story and the characters carry the film beautifully. I don’t know if the actors in Kukumi are professionals or not – but they give strikingly honest, believable performances, never condescending toward their characters in the least bit. There is sadness and pain here – but there is also joy, and a good dose of humor added from time to time (especially in the scene where Kukumi comes across an outdoor ceremony honoring some visiting engineers from Thailand who have come to Kosovo to aid in reconstruction).

Whether you’re simply in the mood for something different, or you’re just looking for a well-made, moving film, you should check out Kukumi. It’s another release from the good folks at CineQuest – and you can most likely find it on NetFlix, or at local DVD rental outlets. It’s a film you won’t soon forget.
Enrico Rava
the benefits of easy living…

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...the point being that getting the most out of life, and of your art, whatever that may be, is in the approach you take to life being 'easy'...not necessarily that you have an easy time of it. Anyone who has ever know anyone who makes their living as a musician knows full well that it doesn't always lead to an 'easy' life...but oh, the benefits that come through as a result...
I’ve been listening to Enrico Rava on and off for around 30 years now – I wore out a couple of vinyl copies of his 1975 debut for ECM Records, The pilgrim and the stars and very likely left some of my friends of that era with the impression that I didn’t own any other records. He had been active – and had recorded – previous to that release, but it was my introduction to his art and cemented my love and admiration for his music. He has been continuously active since the mid-1960s, both as a valued sideman and a leader – and his recordings have been consistently at the standard-setting level of quality. With influences as diverse as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Don Cherry – and others – filtered through the unique prism of his own innate talent, it’s amazing to me that he’s not more widely known.
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After recording several albums for ECM through 1986, Rava released his work on various labels (Soul Note, Gala, Label Bleu, Philology and Enea, to name a few) before returning to Manfred Eicher’s ECM fold for 2004’s stunning Easy living, easily one of the finest jazz recordings of the decade in my opinion. Rava continues to be fearless in pushing the envelope of his music – but his creativity and sense of melody, long two of his strong points, show that his writing and playing are vital as ever.

One of the many factors that keeps Rava’s art fresh is his ability and willingness to surround himself with great players, known or unknown (as far as the casual US audience is concerned), whose imagination, chops and sheer energy inspire his own. The ensemble assembled for Easy living is astonishing in every regard.
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Stefano Bollani (piano) was born in 1972 in Milan – a child prodigy, his playing includes elements of classical and pop as well as jazz. He met Rava in 1996, who encouraged him to concentrate on jazz (good advice, considering the accolades Bollani has received since), and the two have been playing together regularly ever since. Bollani’s first ECM solo recording – the curiously-titled Piano solo (‘sorry if that’s confusing…’ – Basil Fawlty) is out now in Europe, and due to be released in the US in early 2007.
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Gianluca Petrella (trombone) is from Bari, in southern Italy. Born in 1975, he is widely respected for his musicianship and innovative ideas – he has played with Rava regularly since 1997, as well as in various other groups (including Noisemakers, since 1980, with drummer Roberto Gatto). Like Rava and Bollani, he combines tradition with experimentation, seemingly effortlessly, giving the listener a breathtaking ride on a musical evolutionary carousel. His Blue Note recording Indigo4 has garnered wide praise, and is netting him some well-deserved attention.

Roberto Gatto (drums) and Rosario Bonaccorso (double-bass) complete the ensemble for Easy living – much more than ‘simply’ sidemen, they add immeasurably to the listening experience on this recording. It simply wouldn’t be the same without their contributions.

Rava’s playing has always drawn me – he’s a true artist, a master of his instrument, able to encapsulate a wide dynamic range with both power and delicacy, never sounding shrill or brash even when turning up the volume. The nuances he achieves by controlling the distance between his horn and the microphone are incredible. The pieces on this album alternate between mellow and upbeat, without ever coming even close to releasing their holds on the listener’s attention. Starting off low-key with ‘Chromosomi’, the band works its way gently through the first four tracks – the achingly beautiful ‘Drops’, conjuring images of water trickling down a mountainside (to me at least); ‘Sand’, Rava’s tribute to Duke Ellington; and the title track, ‘Easy living’ (the only non-Rava composition here), easily one of the loveliest jazz instrumentals I’ve ever heard – before kicking it up a notch with ‘Algir Dalbughi’, which is not just stunningly creative in its composition…it’s downright fun. ‘Blancasnow’ returns to a more plaintive, haunting sound – ‘Traveling night’, led off by a great double-bass solo from Rosario Bonaccorso, settles into a wonderful groove and opens up some incredible interplay between Rava and Petrella. As the title would indicate, ‘Hornette and the drums thing’ showcases not only the wind players, but the work of Roberto Gatto as well – and the album ends on another low-key note, the beautiful ‘Rain’.
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Stepping back from the quintet for 2005’s Tati, Enrico enlisted the talents of bandmate Bollani on piano and the inimitable Paul Motian on drums and percussion for a beautiful, extremely personal recording. A true trio effort, the compositional credits are split – Rava offers 6 tracks, Motian 3, and Bollani 1, with a couple of ‘outsiders’ included: George Gershwin’s ‘The man I love’ and a little ditty by a fellow named Puccini (‘E licevan le stelle’, from Tosca). It’s clear from the first notes that this album is going to be a very special listening experience – and it doesn’t fail to live up to that promise. The intimacy of this session is palpable – the first time I heard it, I could have easily believed that it was recorded for my ears alone…but of course, given the depth of feeling that’s conveyed here, it’s too much a part of the souls of these players for me to be so selfish – this should be a gift to anyone who loves great music.

The second track, Paul Motian’s composition ‘Birdsong’, brings to mind the beauty and tranquility of Eric Satie. Bollani issues his piano lines straight from the heart, and Motian’s percussion is so delicate that it’s barely audible – Rava lays out completely on this track…which might have been planned, but I could easily imagine him taken so much by the beauty of what Bollani and Motian were playing that he simply stayed out of it. ‘Tati’, Rava’s tribute to the much-loved French film star, follows – a tune filled with both melancholia and joy, both attributes of Jacques Tati’s art. The mood remains laid-back and reflective through the next three tracks before picking up the tempo a bit with Rava’s ‘Jessica too’ – ‘Golden eyes’ and ‘Fantasm’ slow things down a little, then ‘Cornettology’ (which I suspect is another nod – along with 'Hornette’ on Easy living) by Rava to Ornette Coleman, with its jagged yet melodic melody lines). ‘Overboard’ and ‘Gang of 5’ round out the set in fine fashion. Listeners who prefer smaller, more intimate settings such as the ones featured on Tati are encouraged to check out Enrico's excellent 1993 duo recording (on the Egea label, which is a bit like an Italian ECM, considering the quality of their releases) with the fine Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, Nausicaa.
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As if I wasn’t ‘wallowing’ enough (and very happily, I might add) in these two albums, I recently discovered Enrico Rava live in Montreal 2005, a DVD recorded at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival – and while Gianluca Petrella (stunning to watch him play, as well as hear him!) is the only musician from Easy living to appear in the film, I have no complaints about Rava’s choice of sidemen…his judgment is right on the mark, as always. On piano for this outing is Andrea Pozza, another frequent Rava collaborator, and an incredible musician in his own right – his sense of timing, both in solos and in support, is nothing short of breathtaking. Guesting on alto saxophone is Francesco Cafiso, who delivers some absolutely blistering solos -- the rhythm section is made up of Enzo Pieropaoli (double-bass) and Fabrizio Sferra (drums), both veterans of the Italian / European jazz scene (having played with the great Italian pianist Danilo Rea, among others).

Rava leads this group masterfully and gently through a great set of tunes – 4 tunes from Easy living (‘Algir Dalbughi’; ‘Sand’ – given two very different treatments here; ‘Traveling night’; and ‘Hornette and the drums thing’), tracks from a couple of his other many releases (‘Certi Angoli Segreti’ and the amusing-but-honestly-titled ‘Happiness is to win a big prize in cash’), along with a couple of jazz standards, ‘Nature boy’ and ‘Ponciana’. Every tune is a treat, as Rava displays his melodic and dynamic mastery, making sure that each member of the group is given an opportunity to shine as well. Petrella and Pozza are especially effective, along with the aforementioned sax work by Cafiso – but Pieropaoli and Sferra are stunning also.

The joy that is apparent in the performance by these musicians, in playing together and sharing their creativity and vision, is infectious – I can’t think that anyone who enjoys great jazz would not be blown away by this document. At one point, during a beautifully executed solo by Pieropaoli, Rava gathers Petrella and Cafiso around him into a tight circle and leads them in some incredibly apt off-mic support riffing. These guys are having fun and creating beautiful, moving art while doing it – how much better can music get?

Rava’s next album with his quintet, The words and the days, is due from ECM in February of 2007 – I can’t wait to hear where he leads us next. I’m sure it’ll be a rewarding musical journey. If you’ve yet to experience the music of this modern master, I suggest you get busy – I doubt that you’ll be disappointed.
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related links :

Enrico Rava
Stefano Bollani
Gianluca Petrella

ECM Records
Egea Records

16 December 2006

Addison’s wall
The silence grief leaves behind

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As far as I can ascertain, Addison’s wall is the first film of (near- ?) feature length from director David Waingarten – the only other credit I found on IMDB is for his short Post (2003 – 6min), which is included on this DVD as an extra item. From the strength of these two works, in my opinion, Waingarten is someone to watch.
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Addison’s wall is a study of the effects of grief and the process of healing, not only on the nine-year-old boy of the title (Colton Lasater), but on his mother (Ritah Parrish) as well – both of them have been deeply traumatized by the suicide of Addison’s father. Addison’s own method of coping with his grief is to escape through silence and separation – he has not spoken to anyone since his father’s death, and his mother is just about at the end of her rope. She has relocated the two of them to a new town, in the hope that a ‘new start’ will set them both on the right path. Most likely due to her own emotional pain, she has a hard time deciding what is ‘right’ for her son in this crucial period – she wants very much to trust Addison’s own instincts in finding his own path to healing, and communicates this to the principal of his new school, asking that he be allowed to remain silent while he works through his grief. The principal reluctantly agrees, telling Addison’s mother that she will communicate to the boy’s teachers and ask that they be patient with him – she also expresses how dangerous she thinks it will be for him without counseling.

Addison is misunderstood by his teachers and ostracized by his classmates – one in particular, a bullying young thug named Marcus (portrayed by Ben Milam) who takes every opportunity to torment him, taunting him repeatedly with a threatening ‘Ssshhhh….!’, accompanied by the laughter of his cronies. In one particularly charged scene, Marcus corners Addison in the school’s makeshift library, pinning him to the floor and waving a pair of scissors in his face, saying ‘Now we’re gonna find out what it takes to make you scream…!’

Unfortunately for Addison, his mother’s own pain is clouding her judgement – despite her best intentions, we see the boy slip further and further from reality. He makes begrudging attempts to communicate with her (and with his teachers) through written notes – but the main expression of his grief takes place out of sight. When they move into their new home, Addison’s mother gives him a blanket that belonged to his father – he indicates by gesturing that he wants it hung on the wall of his bedroom. He begins spending time behind it, divorced from the outside world, expressing his hurt and frustration and anger by writing and drawing on the hidden wall. Feeling safe, hidden from view, he vents his hatred of Marcus, his (understandable) questions about his father’s death, and more. On one occasion, with a radio talk show playing in the room, he begins to write down numbers, seemingly at random, that appear to fit into the broadcast conversation immediately after he scrawls them on the wall – he begins to think he can influence events by what he writes, another step away from the real world.
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Addison begins spending more and more time away from the house – and his mother discovers, through a phone call from his principal, that he hasn’t been in school. Alarmed, she breaks into his locked room and discovers the wall behind the blanket – which of course leaves her shattered.

The film is shot in beautiful black and white – a perfect choice, I believe, that underscores the tension and aspects of unreality in Addison’s world. Black and white is a great way to draw the viewer further into the film – there is an unconscious urge to ‘complete’ the images we’re used to seeing in color. David Waingarten has obviously put a lot of care into the short space of the film (61 min) – not a shot, not a frame is wasted. His camera lingers on the faces of his actors beautifully – and the shots that are wider give the viewer a perfect taste of the atmosphere in which this story takes place. The cast is just right – any attempt to shoot this story using 'name' Hollywood actors would have been distracting. These people look and act 'real', and that's a vital part of the film. If some find the fact that the ending is ‘unresolved’, I don’t think this is a detraction at all – the subject matter of this film (trauma and healing) is something that bears further thought, and the ending compels the viewer to speculate more on the outcome than if everything were ‘tied up neatly’, as in too many films.
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Waingarten’s short film Post is a treasure as well, dealing beautifully and almost in a dreamlike way with a grown woman’s memory of the disappearance of a childhood friend. Shot in Super 8 color, with the overall effect of a visual echo, the film does wonders in capturing the events from a child’s point of view. Memory is an amazing thing, and like Nichola Bruce’s incredible film I could read the sky (see my entry for 22 November 2006), it’s represented here more like it actually occurs than like a film playing in one’s head. I was mesmerized watching it, and did so twice more in succession. Like Addison's wall, the ending is a bit open – but also like the longer film, the subject is one that cries out for more attention and involvement.

Both of these works show great creativity and talent from David Waingarten. His work on Addison’s wall has been compared to Hitchcock and Polanski – but I think this director will show with further films that he has a vision that is his own.

This DVD is available to order directly from the good folks at CineQuest (check out their other great titles also), as well as from Amazon, at a very reasonable price – if you’re not willing to take the plunge, it's available through NetFlix. You can also go the film's website and watch a trailer – I think you'll be hooked.

29 November 2006

Tindra : Lukkeleg vaking
fresh new music from Norway

I happened across a reference to this recording a couple of weeks ago when I was browsing on the CDRoots site – a great source for roots music from all over the world. Their brief description sounded intriguing, so I bit and ordered it – a few days later it showed up in my mailbox, and when I played it I was not in the least bit disappointed. This is some of the most delightfully fresh Nordic music I’ve heard in a while. The album title, Lukkeleg vaking, means 'sleepless and blissful' according to the notes – and I find that a very apt description of this recording.

Tindra is a trio, having played together since 2000 when they were students at the Norwegian Academy of Music : Åshild Vetrhus (vocals), Jorun Marie Kvernberg (fiddle) and Irene Tillung (accordion). That’s it – but what they do with it is incredibly satisfying. I can only detect a couple of places on the album where I think they used a little bit of overdubbing, doubling the vocals here and there, as on ‘All må do (All men must die)’, and some harmonies (unless Jorun Marie and / or Irene are offering up vocal harmonies that aren’t credited). Their producer Gabriel Fliflet contributes vocals on one track (‘Lasseskaren’), and Aasmund Nordstoga does the same on another (‘Der va om lordagskvelden [Saturday night]’). The arrangements are thus spare – but never thin or empty, thanks to the musicianship and imagination of these ladies.

To augment their sound palette, the two instrumentalists utilize the full voices of the tools in their hands. Jorun Marie sometimes strums her fiddle instead of bowing it, which of course approximates the sound of a mandolin (since it’s tuned the same as a fiddle) – and Irene is not shy about going ‘deep’ into her accordion’s range, which at times almost sounds like a double-bass bowing away in the background.

The pace of the individual tunes runs the gamut from slow ballads such as ‘Lille Lisa (Little Lisa)’, which tells an age-old tale of a maid having an affair with a knight, becoming pregnant, and being forced to leave home; through the medium tempo jauntiness of ‘Den store trasten forelskar seg (The big thrush falls in love)’, whose humor, even without a knowledge of Norwegian, is infectious; to the impossible-to-keep-still energy of the instrumental ‘Jig og du’, featuring some great work from both Jorun Marie and Irene, showing their versatility and vitality.

Two of my other favorite tracks on the CD are the final two: ‘Sjøvals (Sea waltz)’, an instrumental ‘dedicated to the rolling sea’; and ‘Kvednafjell’, a musical setting by Åshild of words written by her grandmother Gudrun, ‘describing her lifelong attachment to the mountains of Kvednafjell’.

The insert gives English titles and brief explanations of the lyrics, but not full translations – a minor inconvenience at best, since the feeling of these songs and tunes come across just fine to my ears. Emotion is carried by more than the meaning of words alone – and there’s plenty of it in this music.

I’m happy to have gotten in on the ‘ground floor’, so to speak, with this initial release from Tindra – it’s easy to hear that these women have a lot to offer the musical world. I can’t wait to hear where they go from here. If you enjoy well-played music that remains true to its roots at the same time it gently and fearlessly steps through the present into the future, you owe it to yourself to check this out. You might not find it locally (Amazon doesn’t even have it), but CDRoots is a dependable source for this and many other examples of ethnic music from all over the world – their prices are reasonable and their delivery (at least in my experience) is quick.

note: the photos are by Yina Chan, from Tindra’s website.

22 November 2006

Nichola Bruce's
I could read the sky
painting memory on the screen

This film is from 1999 – but I didn’t discover it until recently. It’s one of the most astonishing cinematic works I’ve ever encountered – director Nichola Bruce has accomplished something for which most filmmakers strive but never achieve: an artistic representation of the workings of memory, played out on the screen.

The premise of the film seems simple – an elderly man (portrayed by the great Irish writer Dermot Healy), born in rural Ireland, has lived most of his adult life in England as a laborer. Retired, living in a small apartment on a pension, he comes to the understanding that he cannot prevent his memories from washing over his consciousness – so he gives in, allowing them to take him back through the days of his life, accompanied by all of the emotions one would expect: feelings of loss, loneliness, good times and bad, love, grief and more. The trick when attempting to make a film such as this is to find a way to depict the way memories come to us – not as a film played out in our head, which is how they’re too often rendered, but in the waves of awareness that roll into and out of view in our mind’s eye. Nichola Bruce utilizes a multi-layered technique – both in visual images and sound design – to bring this process to life. To my eye, ear and mind, she’s done it with amazing success.

Because memory is an experience with myriad components, Bruce and her able crew have taken multiple images – sometimes as many as five or six, it appears – and overlaid them, applying varying degrees of transparency to each, in such a way as the standard linear view is replaced by one which is more like what we experience when we remember a time or event. When our mind travels backward to recall something from our past – whether we consciously single out an event, or it comes to us seemingly of its own accord – we remember it in bits and pieces: the feel of the sun on our shoulders, the scent of the grass beneath our feet, the sounds as well as the sights, the emotions we felt at the time. All of these things join together to make the memory whole, to allow us to come as close as possible to actually reliving the moment.

When the old man goes over events in his past, it’s in a stream-of-consciousness monologue – sometimes it becomes more conversational, as he addresses not only people in his memory, speaking to them as if they were in the room with him, but the camera itself, and through it, the viewer, effectively drawing each of us into his story, into his life. When he speaks of the farm on which he was born and raised, images of the Irish countryside, its hills, streams and fields, merge and flow into one another, leading to a view of a small, humble house set with its back to a hill, then inside to the warmth of a room filled with family, friends and music, warmed by a fire and whisky, alive with song, dancing and laughter – a moment later, the scene grows more reflective: a closeup of a hand exploring, almost caressing the edge of a table, with a single male voice softly singing a Gaelic ballad.

Through the course of the film – an incredibly rich 86 minutes – we learn about the old man leaving his home as a young man to come to England for work. He labors hard, taking mostly construction jobs – work that wears a man out early in life. He falls in with old friends who have emigrated years before, part of a large Irish laboring community in Britain – he travels the country with them, following the available work, sending money home and soothing the pain of his loneliness with music and drink and companionship. The great Irish actor Stephen Rea offers up a wonderful performance as the old man's friend PJ.

Healy's character returns to Ireland twice – once to bury his father and once to bury his mother. He meets an Irish girl in England, courts and marries her – and in his love for her he sees a chance to have the happiness that he thought would always be denied him – but this joy too is short-lived. He works until he cannot work any more, then retires on what little pension is available to him to pass his days as tolerably as possible and ruminate on the meaning of his life’s experiences.

Dermot Healy is absolutely perfect in his role as the old man – more amazing in the light of it being his first work as an actor (a fact that he reveals in one of the many ‘extra item’ interviews included on this disc). This is a part that is full of subtlety and nuance – one that would compel any actor to walk that ‘fine line’ between drama and naturalism, a tightrope from which many have fallen. In once scene, the old man recalls a fight he had with a carnival boxer called ‘Tornado’ – one of those tent matches where the amateur pays a fee to go three rounds with the boxer, standing to win more if he prevails (which of course rarely happens). Healy improvised this scene, shadowboxing with himself in the tiny apartment, giving a blow-by-blow description of the bout, excitedly at first, growing more somber and quiet when recounting being knocked out by the boxer, observing ‘strange that it didn’t hurt…’

Another element that makes this project so effective is the sound design and music. Like the visual components, the audio is layered carefully to enhance the feeling of memory washing over us in waves. The music is stunning, composed and assembled by Iarla Ó Lionáird of the group Afro-Celt Sound System. Bruce approached him about providing some music for the film, but as he began working on the project, he asked to do the entire soundtrack – a contribution that greatly adds to the film’s effectiveness.

The film is based on a book of the same title, comprised of photographs by Steve Pyke and text by Timothy O’Grady, which was received with wide critical acclaim on publication. Nichola Bruce admired the book and saw the cinematic possibilities – and obvious challenges – it offered, and worked closely with Pyke and O’Grady throughout the process of transferring their work to the screen. Her previous work had been with documentaries, shorts and music videos (she directed Peter Gabriel’s Play full-length concert video, for example) – after seeing I could read the sky, I sincerely hope that she finds more dramatic / narrative projects to address in the future. Some might say that this film is a case of every element falling together perfectly in a one-time chance occurrence – but I tend to believe that it happened largely due to her talent and perseverance, and the vision of the work shared by herself and her crew.

It’s a shame this film isn’t available in a region 1 DVD (North American format) – I don’t think it’s even been released on VHS in this country. Being seven years old at this writing, it’s something that won’t be cropping up at independent theatres in the US unless there’s a local demand for it. It’s an incredible piece of work – one that will find its way further into the deepest emotional recesses of the viewer with each experience.
Maria Kalaniemi – Bellow poetry
Accordion = polka…? Think again…!

Maria Kalaniemi’s name has been well-known for years among those who love Nordic music – she did a brief stint with Värttinä, was a member of Niekku and has several fine solo and group recordings to her credit. She has also taken part in some wonderful collaborative work with other fine musicians, such as the 2001 release Lufstråk (Airbow) (with fiddler Sven Ahlbäck) and her work with the amazing multi-national ensemble Accordion Tribe (the bellows can indeed be extended far enough to cross multiple borders!). Maria is classically trained, but is best known for her love and interpretation of the traditional musical forms of her native Finland and related Nordic cultures. However, she is in no way limited to playing what would generally be classified as ‘folk’ music – there are elements of a wide range of styles in her work, embracing characteristics of other forms and folding them skillfully into a whole that is uniquely her own.

On Bellow poetry, her latest release, one of the forms Maria has chosen as her focus is the ancient form of runo song, found in Finland, Estonia and Sweden. This tradition is hundreds of years old (in some cases over a thousand), and from what I understand about it is closely related, in purpose at least, to Druidic and other shamanic poetry. The songs were originally written as poetry and were concerned with many aspects of life – religious beliefs, recounting historical events so as to pass them from one generation to the next, matters of love, and as a tool in healing or casting spells. In her notes to the album, Maria says, ‘Runo singers sang in meditative and improvised fashion. I wanted to explore the concept of runo playing where the feelings of the runo poems are expressed not in words, but in the music…I wanted to find the pure essence of runos in this way.’

Those lucky listeners who are familiar with Maria’s work know to expect nothing but quality from her – they will not be disappointed. For those unfamiliar with her – especially anyone who hears ‘accordion’ and immediately thinks ‘polka’ – the first notes of ‘Kuun henki’ (Spirit of the moon)’, the opening track on the CD, will let them know that they’re in for something very special indeed. Maria calls the accordion ‘one of the most expressive of all instruments’, and in her capable hands it’s no exaggeration – she has perfected her technique to the point of being able to filter the whole range of human emotion through her playing. Mechanically speaking, of course, the instrument ‘breathes’ in order to produce sound – when Maria plays, it’s as if it has a life of its own. The spirit of this music, so alive within the soul of this fine player, passes through her instrument to fall on the ears and hearts of the listener – more than two entities (performer and instrument) working in tandem, Maria and her accordion become one, and the effect is incredibly moving.

All of these pieces are solo performances, with the exception of ‘Ikkunan äärellä (By the window)’ and ‘Kevään kurjet (Cranes of spring)’, which feature some beautifully delicate and very appropriate understated electric guitar work from Olli Varis, Maria's husband, who has collaborated with her in the past very effectively. In addition to the accordion, some of the pieces include Maria’s voice – again from the liner notes, she states, ‘…for this album, I used my own inner bellows by singing on a few of the pieces…This album provided me the opportunity to allow both sets of bellows to breathe and vibrate together.’ On ‘Salin hämärissä (Dim light in the farmhouse)’, she sings wordlessly, accentuating the mood and melody of the piece – on ‘Niityt ja vainiot (Meadows and fields)’ she voices the poetry as well – all to wonderful effect, adding another dimension to the already-rich music.

These tunes, in these arrangements, are possessed of an extremely intimate feeling – on first experience, I felt almost as if they were meant for my ears alone, which I take as a sign of the strong power of this musician to communicate the soul of these pieces to that of the listener. They go straight to the heart, with no barrier of culture or language strong enough to keep them out.

If you’ve heard Maria’s work previously, you know the quality you can expect from this recording – I recommend picking it up immediately. If you’re unfamiliar with her, by all means check out some of the samples available on-line (at Amazon.com, for instance). Either way, you’re in for a treat – this is music of deep emotion and beauty, to be experienced over and over. It transcends barriers effortlessly – and isn’t that what music should do…?

11 November 2006

Werckmeister harmóniák
Béla Tarr’s cinema of involvement

There are only a few directors whose films have required – demanded – that the audience work along with the filmmaker in coming to an understanding of the topic at hand. Andrei Tarkovsky comes to mind immediately, along with Theo Angelopoulos – but there have been others. In my experience, no contemporary cinematic auteur belongs more in this category that Hungarian director Béla Tarr. His films, taken at their technical level, are things of great beauty: the long, painstakingly designed and executed shots; the naturalism of the actors, giving the audience the feeling that they are truly witnessing unrehearsed reality; the convoluted, non-linear storytelling method – all of these elements and more combine into a cinematic vision that is intrinsically unique and at the same time universal, its target not only the heart but the psyche of the viewer, and its aim . . . well, Tarr is pretty tight-lipped about that, but he has indicated that ‘involvement’ of the audience in his work is one goal – it’s something that the viewers have to work through in order to understand how and why it impacts them as it does. As strange as some of the images in his films might seem, Tarr eschews the term ‘surrealism’ – he counters that the camera can only capture what is real.

Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister harmonies) is Tarr’s latest work, released in 2000. The title refers to a theory of musical harmonic relationships developed by 17th century German organist and music scholar Andreas Werckmeister. He believed that ‘true’ musical harmony and counterpoint were tied to the movements of the planets – his ideas were well-known to Johann Sebastian Bach, thus Bach’s The well-tempered klavier, referencing Werckmeister’s theories.

Cosmic harmony and disharmony are important themes in Tarr’s film, which begins in a shabby little bar in a provincial Hungarian town – one of the locals, János Valushka, is attempting to explain the celestial movements involved in a total eclipse of the sun to a number of men, all of whom appear to be more than a little intoxicated. The barman is impatient and ready to close up for the night, but his patrons ask him for a little time for János to help them understand. He selects a man to represent the sun, then another for the earth, and a third for the moon. Setting them is motion in a barroom ballet that is both humorous and imbued with a sweet and natural grace, he delivers a monologue explaining the planetary movements to them in terms of both strict science and universal harmony. This first scene is comprised of a single shot, the longest in the film at 11 minutes in length – it’s beautiful to behold.

As he leaves the bar, János is stopped in his tracks by a visual near-echo of the eclipse he has just staged in the tavern. The dark, desolate streets of the small town are lit by the headlights and resulting shadows of a tractor making its way laboriously along, pulling an enormous container that seems to be made of corrugated metal. The whining engine of the tractor and the creaking of the metal sides of the container are the only sounds disturbing the night. János watches, fascinated, as it passes – then, as he turns to go on his way, the camera takes in a poster glued to a pole announcing a coming exhibition: its only components seemingly the giant stuffed corpse of a whale and the appearance of a personality identified only as ‘The Prince’, who is later identified as a diminutive character who seems to have a sort of Svengali-like effect on those who hear him speak. Rumors abound in the town regarding the Prince, his intentions, and the potential for violence – there are already shortages of coal and food, and many of the shops we see appear to be boarded up. Men stand around fires built in the town square, idling and restless – conditions seem ripe for a spark such as the presence of the Prince to ignite the simmering unrest into full-blown anarchy.

One of János’s acquaintances (he actually calls him ‘uncle’, but he calls so many people ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ in the film that it’s hard to tell if they’re actually relatives or if this is some sort of informal honorific indicating close friendship or respect) is György Eszter, a music professor who is out to disprove Werckmeister’s theories – he believes that the scales developed by the German have resulted in impure harmonies, thus invalidating every composition conceived since their acceptance. János goes to check on him in the night and finds the elderly man asleep in his chair – he helps him dress for bed, tucks him in, and makes sure that the heat is working properly before going on his way. The scene is made up of another single shot – almost 6 ½ minutes – the camera, from inside the house, picks up János as he arrives in the yard, watches through a window as he makes his way to a door, then turns to show the movements of the two actors through the rest of the scene. Nothing is compressed – everything occurs as seen, giving the viewer a rich sensation of experiencing what is being played out on the screen, deepening both the emotional and intellectual impact.

When János visits the city square the following morning, he arrives just in time to be the first one to be admitted to view the whale. The interior of the trailer is dimly lit, and only a little of the creature can be seen at a time – the sequence of János moving around the whale, inspecting it closely, marveling at it, is stunning, one of the most memorable cinematic images I can remember. He is visibly shaken by the experience of being so close to the great beast – he sees it as irrefutable proof of what he calls ‘God’s imagination’, a thing of almost indescribable beauty. He repeatedly attempts to convey his feelings to others as the film progresses – no one seems to understand how deeply it has moved him. His concern for the welfare of not only his closest acquaintances, but of the town in general, combined with his naïvité and wide-eyed view of the world, lend him an air of something of a ‘holy fool’ – a character type also utilized by Tarkovsky in several of his works (for example, the character of Domenico in Nostalghia).

Making a surreptitious visit to the trailer in order to view the whale again, János overhears a conversation from an office inside between the Director of the exhibition and a man who is apparently a translator for the Prince. The Director is fed up with the increasing demands of the Prince – it’s also clear that he’s also fearful of the repercussions from the violence that the little man seems to inspire. As we see his shadow dramatically projected onto a wall of the room, the Prince, through his translator, launches into a tirade decrying practically all aspects of what most of us consider to be ‘civilization’, announcing that ‘The whole is nothing. Completely in ruins. What they build and what they will build, what they do and what they will do, is delusion and lies. Under construction, everything is only half complete. In ruins, all is complete.’ He threatens to make rubble of everything – and from past incidents, the Director knows what violence the Prince can inspire. He informs the Prince that he will have no more part of him, that he will not be responsible for unleashing ‘bandits and thieves’ on the population.

All of this troubles János deeply – he exits the trailer and makes his way through the crowd to leave the square – when he’s gone just a couple of blocks, he hears the noise of the crowd behind him grow louder and louder, followed by explosions. The camera finds the mob, moving from the town square, and follows them, hovering just above head level, looking into their determined faces as they march toward some as yet unknown target of their anger and hatred.

This shot of the advancing crowd – another relatively long take at around 4 minutes – is all the more disquieting for its relative silence: they advance resolutely, some carrying clubs or crowbars, toward their goal, the only accompanying sound their footsteps on the pavements. This take is married via the audio track of their relentlessly marching feet to an even longer shot depicting them reaching their destination – the local hospital – and the ensuing mayhem. Disturbingly, the silence continues, intensifying the impact of their violence. The camera follows them from room to room, ward to ward, pulling patients from their beds and beating them mercilessly – their victims do not even cry out. The soundlessness of the cruelty and destruction has the effect of magnifying the horror. Only when the mob enters a room and pulls back a plastic curtain to reveal an old, shriveled, helpless man standing naked in a bathtub does the brutality of their actions appear to sink in to their consciousness. They disperse, still in silence.

János comes upon this scene just in time to see the aftermath of the mob’s work – and he is understandably traumatized and psychologically damaged by it. The camera stays on his face for a good bit – and the viewer can almost feel the thoughts and emotions racing through his mind as he attempts to comprehend what he has witnessed, to understand how human beings can inflict such violence on other humans. In the next scene, he sits in the morning light on the floor of the wrecked hospital, reading from a pamphlet he has found – a printed version of the Prince’s manifesto of destruction – and the words resonate more desolately than before, after we have seen the horror they have inspired.

Through his many long takes (I haven’t personally counted them, but I’ve read that there are only 39 shots in the entire 2h25m film), planned and choreographed with such precision and care, Tarr compels the audience’s attention to linger on the characters as well as on the entire mise-en-scène – allowing all aspects of the film to deeply permeate both the conscious and subconscious of the viewer. The actors he has chosen – in this film, as in all of the works I’ve seen by him – masterfully convey the emotion and thought processes of the characters they portray. The sparse, strangely beautiful music is a perfectly utilized element, and the rich black-and-white cinematography adds greatly to the atmosphere.

This is the third film on which Tarr has worked with writer László Krashnahorkai (the previous two being 1988’s Kárhozat (Damnation) and his 1994 magnum opus, the 7h15m Sátántangó). Other members of the team include Ágnes Hranitzsky (Tarr’s life partner and editor), cinematographer Gábor Midvigy, and composer Míhaly Vig – Vig also appears as one of the lead actors in Sátántangó, and Tarr utilizes other actors in multiple films as well. On-screen credits show the films as collective efforts – and in interviews, Tarr has repeatedly stressed the contributions of others. Everything about his work comes together to truly make the whole greater than the sum of the parts – it has to be experienced for the true impact to come across.

His films are only now becoming more widely available in the US – Facets has released six of them, with Sátántangó scheduled to appear in a 3-disc edition at the end of November 2006. Now and then one will turn up in an art house theatre here and there – but it’s rare. Hopefully, Tarr’s work will become more widely known, and that will change. Nor will you find these films at Blockbuster or any of the other chains – look for them in your local rental outlet that specializes in foreign and out-of-the-way cinema . . . or take the plunge and check on-line to purchase them. I can almost guarantee that if what I’ve written tweaks your interest even remotely, you’ll wind up watching them over and over.

01 November 2006

Stephan Micus – On the wing
the sound of the world

With only nineteen albums released over the course of 30 years, Stephan Micus could not be called ‘overly-prolific’ – but what his catalogue might lack in quantity is more than offset by the sheer quality and beauty of his work. The time between releases makes each one an event to celebrate for his fans. Seventeen of his recordings have been released on the prestigious ECM label – their reputation for the highest quality in both technical and artistic content is one established many years ago, and one on which music lovers the world over have come to rely.

Stephan was born in Germany in 1953 – according to his biography on the ECM Records website, he made his first trip to the Orient at the age of 16. It’s immediately apparent from hearing any of his albums that exposure to other cultures struck a chord within his spirit that has resonated there ever since, and has reached out through his work to touch the hearts and minds of his listeners. He has repeatedly combined instruments on recorded selections that would normally never be heard together – sounds of Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceana meet and mingle. The result never comes across as forced or false – the varied sounds, in his hands and through his breath, blend together and complement each other in ways rarely imagined. The instruments are plucked, bowed, strummed, hammered, struck, blown, as their nature requires – and he sings. For my own tastes, his vocals are one of the most compelling features of his work – he has said that the words he sings are ‘in no language’, but he somehow manages to convey the deepest spirit, the heart, of various other cultures in his vocalizing. On one track his singing might suggest Arabic – on another Hindi, or Roma, or Tibetan. It’s the sound – and the voice – of the world that I hear.

His newest release is On the wing. So far it’s only available from ECM’s original German source – hopefully it’ll soon be released in the US through their distributor here. It’s his first album without vocals in several years – and the first one on which he plays the sitar since Implosions, his initial ECM release in 1977. As is almost always the case, with this recording he adds more instruments to his array. The ‘new additions’ for this outing are the mudbedsh (a reed instrument from Iraq), the hné (a double-reed instrument from Burma – he notes that due to its piercing sound and high volume, it’s normally played outdoors), the hang (a relatively new instrument, inspired by Caribbean steel drums), and the mandobahar (a very rare bowed bass instrument from India). Other instruments utilized on this recording are the sattar (a long-necked bowed instrument from western China), classical and 14-string guitars, the nay (a hollow reed flute played throughout the near Middle East), the sho (a mouth organ with vertical reed pipes from southeast Asia), the shakuhachi (a traditional bamboo flute from Japan), the suling (a hollow reed flute used in Balinese Gamelan orchestras), and the above-mentioned sitar from India, along with a number of percussive instruments.

This collection of instruments might indicate a dizzying conglomeration of sounds in the hands of anyone else – not to worry. Micus combines the instruments delicately and thoughtfully, never ‘overloading’ any composition needlessly. He expertly overdubs in the studio, building up each track masterfully – sometimes using the same instrument on multiple tracks, sometimes combining just two or three different instruments, sometimes performing on only one. The method he chooses depends on the spirit and mood he wishes to convey with each piece. After 30 years, it’s become a labor of love – and you can both hear it and feel it in every note.

Classifying Stephan’s music has been a daunting task for music store managers since he released his first album. ECM is mainly known for its contributions to the jazz and classical genres, but even a casual listening to any of his work would indicate the folly of placing his albums in either of those niches. Now and then I find him filed under ‘new age’ – which I suppose is well-intentioned, but that categorization carries a discomforting connotation with it, too often being a pigeonhole for the multicultural version of ‘elevator music’. Stephan’s work is much too thoughtful to be associated with that sort of thing. If it were up to me, forced to classify him, I’d place him in the ‘world music’ section, but without specifying a country or ethnic influence – a class of his own.

The ten tracks contained in On the wing seem to flow together naturally and effortlessly – a sure sign of the care that went into their composition, arranging and recording. The musical mood moves from relaxing (not to be confused with unimaginative or boring) to celebratory (and trust me, when the hné comes in, you’ll know it!) – with his musical tools, Micus invokes the power and beauty of water and wind, the life forces in nature that cause earth and stone to breathe and move, and the echoes that sound within the spirit of every creature that bind us all together. ECM’s website says that the ten pieces were conceived as a suite of sorts, with the titles of the individual pieces being ‘associative rather than descriptive'. Micus elaborates: ‘For me this is like a journey or a story: the start of a movement that is transformed in many ways and eventually comes to an end.’

I have everything he’s ever recorded (his first album, Archaic concerts, has never been released on CD – so I’m doing my best to keep my vinyl copy safe!) – I treasure them all. In speaking of all the music I have heard in my life, his work sits comfortably at the center of everything – it’s truly the sound of the world, and it calls out to each of us to transform it into the best that it can be, honoring and respecting all cultures for the tradition, beauty and spirit they contain.
Aleksandr Sokurov's
Солнце (The sun):
not your standard 'war film'

I’m a huge admirer of the work of Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov – his films have touched me on many levels, and my appreciation of them deepens with repeated viewings. His creative abilities have allowed him to transfer his vision onto the screen – the result is some of the most groundbreaking, vital cinematic art of our time. I’ve read a couple of negative reviews of his latest film, Солнце (The sun) (released in 2004) – the writers complained about the slow pace of the film and it’s lack of ‘action’, which tells me that they are most likely completely unfamiliar with Sokurov’s previous works and techniques. In my opinion, The sun is not only one of Sokurov’s best works – it’s one of the finest examples of cinematic art of our time. Before I go into detail about it, I’d like to touch briefly on some of his previous works, by way of background.

His 1996 film Mother and son was my first exposure to him – it’s one of the most visually stunning works of cinema I’ve ever seen. Most of its individual frames would make incredibly beautiful and moving art prints. There are only two characters, the mother and son of the title – the mother is apparently dying, and her son has come to be with her in her final days. The tenderness, the love and care with which he treats her, is very real and extremely moving. As in most of the director’s films, there are many shots that are much longer than what film audiences have come to expect as the ‘norm’ – I believe the viewer is drawn into the world of the film more deeply as a result, experiencing time as the characters in the film experience it.

Many of the images in Mother and son appear to be ‘skewed’, adding to the feeling that reality and dreams are closer than we think. The colors are muted and soft, and the forces of nature are depicted in such a way as to make them incredibly palpable to the viewer. I’ve read that Sokurov achieved the unique visual effects seen in this work as the film was shot, without making any alterations in post-production – if you ever get the chance to see it, you’ll see why I’m impressed.

In 1999, Sokurov released Moloch – the first of a planned tetralogy on men in power, depicting turning points in their lives, usually taking place during a time of personal tragedy. The events shown take place over the course of a single weekend, in a fortress high in the mountains, focusing primarily on the relationship between Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun. Rather than limit the view of Hitler to one of a historical figure – as he has been portrayed in countless other films – Sokurov presents him more in a psychological, even humanistic light. This is not to say that he is depicted in a positive way – only that the director delves into his subject’s personality more deeply than most. Alexandra Tuchinskaya, the editor of Sokurov’s website (Island of Sokurov) explains: ‘Decay as the consequence of an act of the will is a constant subject of the majority of Sokurov’s works. This theme is further developed in Moloch. In this film Hitler is presented as a product of the decay of the whole epoch of culture – as a personification of the highest possible stage of Power, as a symbol of the absurdity of all the universal desires of man.’

The next film in the series was Taurus, released in 2000 – this time the director turned his attention to Russia in the early 1920s. Lenin is depicted as the ‘Diseased Leader’, as his time in power draws to a close. As in Moloch, the viewer sees more private aspects of the character’s life – the affects of Power on him as a human being, rather than a faceless actor on the stage of History. Again, from Sokurov’s website: ‘By confronting his disease, the historical personality turns out to be a simple human being, unable to change anything – not the destiny of the country under his rule, not even the destiny of his doomed, failed family, nor his own disintegrating personality…The film director has constructed an artistic and philosophical model of the destructive mechanism of an aggressive will that ultimately suppresses life in its bearer.’

In 2004’s Солнце (The sun), Sokurov turns his lens on the East – Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, as World War II draws to a close. Once again, the human aspects of the character are brought to the fore – and in this case the contrast with the Emperor’s historical depiction is even starker, given his status as ‘divine’ in the eyes of his people. As with all of his work, the pace of this film is anything but rushed – the atmosphere of time and place draws the viewer into the work gently but powerfully. The atomic bombs have already been unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the war is all but over. American troops are in Japan, and Hirohito is living in one of his laboratories (his hobby was marine biology) which is equipped with underground bunker facilities.

The Emperor’s humanity is depicted in even more stark contrast with his ‘historical’ image than those of Hitler and Lenin in the earlier films. Because of his ‘divine’ status, even the smallest daily functions of his life are performed for him by his staff: meals are served, doors are opened, schedules are orchestrated, and a valet dresses him. It’s obvious that he is an intelligent, sensitive man – but he is so completely out-of-touch with day-to-day activities and planning that he appears at times to be very child-like.

In a meeting with his military advisors, he resorts to poetry written by his grandfather in order to express his thoughts on the impending acceptance of the Japanese defeat – the military men are left to decide their plans for themselves. In this scene – as in a later scene when the Emperor meets with MacArthur – the point is made that most military decisions were made by the generals, admirals and ministers, leaving the Emperor ‘out of the loop’.

During a mid-afternoon nap, Hirohito is stirred by a vision – a sort of waking dream, if you like. In one of the most brilliant scenes from any film I’ve ever seen, Sokurov presents images of Japan in flames, bombs (in the shape of tiny fish) being delivered by flying fish with aircraft engines on their ‘wings’. Chaos, flames, smoke and destruction reign – and the Emperor is moved and stunned. It leaves him determined to bring the suffering of his people to an end. The actual request / demand for Hirohito to renounce his divine status is never depicted, but we are aware that it is a decision that he must make, a condition of Japan’s surrender – as important as honor is in Japanese culture, it is a decision that he makes with little hesitation. He sacrificed national pride in order to save human lives.

General MacArthur summons the Emperor to a meeting, apparently in an attempt to evaluate Hirohito’s true role and culpability in the manner in which Japanese troops conducted their side of the war. The Emperor arrives dressed impeccably in a formal suit and top hat – when the American general asks through an interpreter, tauntingly, why he didn’t wear his kimono, Hirohito answers in English (sparing the interpreter the shame of translating such a disrespectful query), ‘I only wear kimono for ceremonies of State – but today is a day of disgrace and grief for me’. Through his conversations with the Emperor at this meeting, and later, during a private dinner shared by the two men, MacArthur comes to the conclusion that Hirohito is being truthful with him – he recommends to Washington that the Emperor not be prosecuted as a war criminal.

The scene near the end of the film where we see the Empress and the Emperor coming face to face, after having been separated for some time by the events of the war, is incredibly moving. It’s as if they’re both walking on eggshells, terrified yet joyful at being granted the opportunity to become reacquainted. The tenderness they evince for each other is deeply moving. They walk off together, arm in arm, to reunite the Emperor with his children.

Sokurov’s vision and direction are operating on a level far above that of most filmmakers working today. With The sun, we see him working at the height of his powers – the viewer should not approach this film expecting a standard ‘war drama’ filled with action sequences, but rather with an open mind and heart. The reward received will be great. The sun is not an easy film to find in the United States – it has yet to be released on either DVD or video in this country, and it only enjoyed an extremely limited run in theatres, which is an artistic shame. Artificial Eye has a beautiful release available from the UK – but it’s only available as a region 2 DVD – hopefully this incredible film will be made more available to American audiences.
If you're interested in reading more on Sokurov and his work, I can suggest a couple of links:
Strictly Film School article on Sokurov (also further links available there)
Mother and son article on the Reverse Shot website

11 October 2006

Dino Saluzzi Group
Juan Condori
music as deep as life

Most listeners probably associate the bandoneón with the tango, thanks to the genius and legacy of Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla’s work brought life back to the genre – including the ‘darkness’ of mood, the pain and sometimes the violence that accompanied life among the working classes, playing out in the bars and streets of Buenos Aires and other urban areas. While Dino Saluzzi’s work has the spirit of the tango in its soul, in no way should his work be considered to be ‘in the shadow’ of Piazzolla. He has taken his composition and playing many paces beyond the tango – he has fearlessly crossed those invisible boundaries by which too many musicians feel themselves constrained and imprisoned, naturally embracing jazz, classical and folk motifs, combining them with the tango and other influences into a music that is his own, a vehicle with which to express the song he hears in his spirit. He has always eschewed labels for his work – he calls it ‘a music of the emotions’, intended to express the widest possible range of feelings. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to hear his playing would surely agree that he has been successful in that goal.

On Juan Condori (named for a childhood friend), Dino gathers his family about him: Dino’s son José Maria Saluzzi (guitars), brother Felix ‘Cuchara’ Saluzzi (saxophones, clarinet), Felix’s son Matias Saluzzi (double-bass, bass guitar) and a family friend (‘honorary family member’) from Italy, U. T. Gandhi (drums, percussion). The sense of comfort that pervades this recording is palpable – the musicians are at ease with themselves and each other, and the result is (in my opinion) one of Saluzzi’s most satisfying sessions in years (and this is certainly not to deride anything he’s ever done – it’s all wonderful).

All of the compositions on this CD are by Dino, with the exception of ‘Milonga de mi amores (by Pedro Laurenz), ‘Soles’ (by José Maria Saluzzi) and ‘Improvisation’, a group creation. The sensitivity of these players allows them to blend their instruments’ voices effortlessly and gracefully, highlighting and complementing each other’s work without ever over-stepping or showing off. The feeling of ‘family’ – in the truest sense of the word – permeates every bar of every track…they’re here to join together and support, and they do so marvelously.

Dino Saluzzi is without a doubt the premiere bandoneón player of our time – he has made dozens of recordings (for ECM as well as other labels), as a leader and as a participant. In his hands, this difficult instrument is made – perhaps, more aptly, ‘allowed’ – to sing. His melodies can be as delicate as the wings of a butterfly or as powerful as the muscles of a horse in full gallop – and every level in between, as the spirit of his music requires. He touches the soul of the listener with his own, through his music. Saying that the bandoneón ‘breathes’ in his hands is not an overstatement – it becomes a living thing, united with the performer.

Dino’s brother Felix has played with him on and off since childhood – and the empathy that such a long-term musical (and familial) relationship encourages shines here. Felix’s reeds wind their way through the arrangements, lending accents and finding contrapuntal paths that are amazingly dexterous. Felix’s son Matias’ bass work is just right, not merely adding ‘bottom’ to the mix, but accenting melody deftly. The work of U. T. Gandhi on drums and percussion is never heavy-handed or inappropriate – he lays down a rhythmic foundation that supports and accents with perfection.

One of the delights, for me, in hearing this recording, is the ongoing growth and maturity evident in the playing – and composition, evinced by ‘Soles’ here – of Dino’s son José Maria Saluzzi. José Maria played drums on Mojotoro (at 16), Dino’s 1991 recording for ECM. He later turned his attention to the guitar, and contributed to Cité de la musique (ECM, 1997) and Responsorium (ECM, 2002). On Juan Condori, José Maria plays beautifully on both acoustic and electric guitars – his lines are flowing, melodic and inventive, and his work is an essential element of the ‘feel’ of this session.

I’ve had this CD for less than five days – but I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times. There is life here – there is the air of the mountains, the scent of the pampas, the longing of the soul for a lost friend or lover, the ache in the heart to see home again, the love of family, the pain of loss, the joy of companionship, the echo of memory – and more. When music can contain so much, and mean so many things to both the composer/performer and the listener, it’s a treasure to be savored.

10 October 2006

Sound and image:
two new releases from ECM illustrate the connection

Even before the advent of sound in motion pictures, there has been an inescapable tie between the two forms of expression. When films were still silent, musical accompaniment was provided ‘live’ in the theatre, when possible, by a pianist – and often this musician employed other sound effects to augment the images playing out of the screen, thus embedding them more deeply in the minds of the audience members. Sound recording coupled with cinema took this relationship much further – most of us, no doubt, connect certain pieces of music with the films in which they were utilized…even if it’s on a subconscious level.

Two releases from the esteemed German label ECM Records, out this week, give wonderful examples of the ways in which sound and image complement each other – and urge each other on to new paths, ideas and goals.

Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou is no doubt best known for her work in creating the scores for the films of director Theo Angelopoulos – she has worked with him on his last seven features: Voyage to Cythera (1984), The beekeeper (1986), Landscape in the mist (1988), The suspended step of the stork (1991), Ulysses’ gaze (1995), Eternity and a day (1998) and Trilogy: The weeping meadow (2004). Angelopoulos has said of her contributions to his work, ‘Eleni Karaindrou’s music doesn’t accompany the images – it penetrates the images, it becomes an inextricable part of the images. I would say it takes part of what is called anima, so, in the end, you can’t tell one from the other – that’s how closely knit they are... I believe that Eleni is at the moment one of the best existing film musicians in the world.’ Anyone who has seen any of these masterfully crafted works of modern cinema cannot fail to be moved by the effect of Eleni’s music in conjunction with Angelopoulos’ art.

However, her work extends beyond those efforts into writing music for the stage as well – both before her association with Angelopoulos and in the time since. In 2001, she produced one of her most expressive and innovative works to date – the music for a staging of a modern translation of Euripides’ Trojan women. She often draws on the ancient dramatic and musical traditions of her homeland, sometimes combining historical instruments such as the lyre, santouri, laouto, kanonaki, harp and ney with all or part of a modern orchestra, as well as voices, either by way of a choir or featuring soloists.

Eleni relates in the CD booklet that she began to sense a thread running through her work – the Angelopoulos film music as well as her compositions for the stage: the spirit of the exile, who has by choice or by fate been uprooted from his homeland. Her music laments this exile, but in the same breath gives hope and strength to the spirit – it penetrates the listener to the very soul, sometimes striking a vibrant chord, sometimes delicately setting subconscious strings in sympathetic motion, causing a subtle yet very effective echo to resonate, sending its ripples radiating out from the point of contact. There is a beauty and focus to her music that rivals that of the images seen by the eye.

The music on this 2-disc set was recorded in concert in Athens in late March of 2005. The Camerata Orchestra is conducted by Alexandros Myrat – the Hellenic Radio / Television Choir by Antonis Kontogeorgiou. Also performing is an ensemble of musicians performing on traditional instruments. Maria Farantouri – whose association with Eleni’s music goes back to the early 1970s, and whose work with such notables as Mikis Theodorakis is recognized and cherished in Greece, is the featured vocal soloist. Eleni Karaindrou performs on piano – her solo rendition of ‘Refugee’s theme’ from The suspended step of the stork is breathtakingly beautiful.

The composer has woven pieces from the films and theatre productions into a new tapestry – those who have heard these works in their original contexts will recognize them immediately, but will also be struck by the new ‘whole’ of the conceptual framework. Eleni’s music is a treasure – she has found a common golden thread and used her instincts to present it in such a way as to make it completely new, even as the familiar strains heard before echo in the well of the listener’s soul.

As a final note on this release: ECM’s production values are, as usual, of the highest order. Although it was recording in concert before an audience, you’ll completely forget about that until near the end of the second disc. The sound is perfect – every note shimmers.

The second release I’ll address here comes from François Couturier – the notable French pianist whose work with oud master Anouar Brahem (another artist on ECM’s roster) first caught my attention. On Nostalghia – song for Tarkovsky, Couturier presents twelve works that, rather than being ‘scenic’ music, are intended by the composer to represent or echo ‘…a specific emotion linked to the universe of this director – to his films, of course, but also to some of his favourite actors or composers’. To this end, while the titles of some pieces refer to specific Tarkovsky films, others bear dedications to actors Anatoli Solonitsyn and Erland Josephson (both of whom worked on multiple Tarkovsky projects), the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who contributed his amazing talents to The sacrifice), Italian writer Tonino Guerra (who co-wrote, with Tarkovsky, the screenplay for Nostalghia, as well as several films with Angelopoulos, Vittorio de Sica and Michelangelo Antonioni), electronic composer Eduard Artimiev (who contributed music for Solaris, Mirror and Stalker), as well as musical references to Bach and Pergolesi.

Accompanying Couturier on this outing are three exceptional musicians. Accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier is another veteran of the Anouar Brahem trio – he has also worked with Louis Sclavis. His playing is sensitive to both the spirit and body of the compositions. Jean-Marc Larché plays soprano saxophone – he’s another veteran of work with Brahem, as well as with the celebrated French big-band Orchestre National de Jazz. Rounding out the group is cellist Anja Lechner – a long-time member of the widely respected Rosamunde Quartett.

As one who admires – reveres – the work of Tarkovsky as a genius of filmmaking, I approach any ‘tribute’ to his work with high expectations. This recording didn’t disappoint me in the least. Couturier has captured an indescribable essence of spirit and mood from the films – and thoughts – of the great Russian director. Instead of merely echoing what Tarkovsky has placed before the viewers in his inimitable way, this CD reflects beautifully the ways in which the films have touched the soul of the composer. In his brief notes, Couturier says, ‘Andrei Tarkovsky is my favourite filmmaker…I have seen all of his films over and over again…They are long poems, hypnotic in their slowness, and pervaded with spirituality.’

The same can be said of the compositions presented here. With the exception of two group improvisations (‘Solaris’ and ‘Solaris II’) and the duo improvisation ‘Ivan’, this music is meticulously constructed – and all of it is masterfully performed. The instruments interact so naturally that at times they seem like extensions of each other – a sure sign of musicians who are operating as a living, breathing unit. There is delicacy as well as power portrayed in the various selections – and there is, even in the more free-form pieces, an elegiac quality similar in spirit to that which haunts all of Tarkovsky’s films. Just as his films reveal more and more with repeated viewings, the music on this release will open deeper levels for the listener to experience each time it is heard.

As the album background information on ECM’s website says, the meaning of ‘nostalghia’ is central to understanding the heart that beats at the centre of the director’s work. Rather than simply conveying the literal translation of ‘nostalgia’, or even the deeper Russian meaning of ‘longing for one’s homeland’, it goes on to quote Tarkovsky as saying that the word was meant to indicate a ‘global yearning for the wholeness of existence’.

It is at this point (for one) where the film works of Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos gently touch – neither is derivative of the other, but there is a yearning for ‘something more’ expressed by both in their art. The spirit sees what could be, and longs for it – it’s what drives us to reach for more, to become what we know we can be as human beings, as searching souls.