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