06 December 2008

Sei Miguel
The tone gardens

Tone gardens
Creative Sources Recordings, 2006

There are some amazingly talented and imaginative musicians out there who are literally exploding the ‘box’ for their respective instruments. Sei Miguel is a trumpet player from Portugal whose compositional and performing skills are charting new territories and weaving sonic textures that go far beyond what most listeners have come to perceive as ‘music’. The tone gardens finds Miguel in the company of musicians with whom he has worked a great deal over the course of his career. The disc is made up of three tracks, simply titled ‘First garden’, ‘Second garden’ and ‘Third garden’ – the titles might be unassuming, but the music is decidedly thoughtful, possessed of rewarding depth. The empathy and sensitivity employed by the quartet on this recording is astonishing – diverse elements from acoustic and electronic sources swirl and merge to create a vibrant, living whole, bringing the universe of sound conceived by Miguel and his musical partners into tangible fruition. In the hands of some improvisers, music of this type sounds strained and forced – in the case of The tone gardens, working far outside of standard forms to such an extent as to be literally unclassifiable, an incredible beauty emerges. This music can be startling at times, alternately forceful and delicate – but the overall effect is transporting.
Sei Miguel
Sei Miguel sticks with pocket trumpet on this album, played with a mute throughout the first two tracks, and on the intro to track three. There are lines of beauty emerging from his horn from time to time, but he also wields it as an audio paintbrush, accenting and highlighting like a visual artist in the throes of creativity’s forces. Sounds issue forth that are difficult to source – born in his mind and heart and given birth by his life’s wind and playing technique, they cry out, rasp, breathe and sigh. He has not only expanded his musical palette, he has incorporated every tool at his command into a new language – it communicates emotion and conjures images beyond the usual power of sound.
Fala Mariam
The three players who join him on this recording are, as I mentioned, frequent collaborators. Their talents have graced several of his recordings, and the understanding they share shows brilliantly here. Fala Mariam plays alto trombone – like Miguel, she uses a mute on tracks one and two. Her instrument, in her hands, becomes an extension of herself – the control and sensitivity with which she adds colours and highlights to the set are breathtaking. Years of playing, creating and sharing music with Sei Miguel (her presence on his recordings, as well as that of César Burago, goes back to 1988) allow her to contribute a vital voice to these works that is so in sync with the leader that it sometimes seems as if the two players are of a single mind.
Rafael Toral
The electronic elements in the music presented here are added by Rafael Toral (also a guitarist, who has recorded with Sei Miguel since 1996), who has a catalogue of respected releases to his credit. He utilizes computer sinewaves (on track one), portable amplifier feedback (track two) and a modulated white noise system (track three) to balance the wind-borne organics from Miguel and Mariam. The sounds he creates are perfectly suited to the mood and structure of Miguel’s compositions – he never inappropriately overpowers the others with randomly generated noise, but adds his touches with taste and skill.
Cesar Burago
Completing the ensemble is the amazing percussionist César Burago – drawing from a surprisingly narrow ‘tool box’ (at least on this album), he calls forth an amazing array of sounds from seeds (track one), fiber (track two), tamborim + metals (track three), and dead radios (on both one and two). Swishes and whispers, rubbing sounds, seeming insect noises and other unidentifiable additions add a palpable sense of living movement to the mix.

If all of this sounds hard to imagine, I suppose that’s understandable – check out this video from YouTube of Miguel, Mariam, Burago and guitarist Manuel Mota (another frequent partner in Miguel’s creations), live at the Sonic Scope Festival in Lisbon in 2005…

A statement from Sei Miguel’s website gives a succinct description of his work: Sei Miguel is a jazz music director with innovative (and often strange) solutions. He deals with the full spectrum of sound, including frequent use of electronics. While playing trumpet with awareness of the whole Jazz history, he has nevertheless created his own musical system, allowing him to take open pieces to a remarkable state of precision. It’s pretty obvious that he has listened to and learned from the great players and composers of jazz who have come before him – Miles Davis and Sun Ra are no doubt influences in the direction he has taken – but he has taken their work as inspiration to go far beyond the boundaries that they (and others) pushed before them. His works, as those of most great jazz players (and those of other genres as well) might begin with improvisation, and he and his partners most assuredly employ it in performing – but make no mistake about it, this is not simply a series of random notes around an axis. These pieces are of great complexity and subtlety, woven like threads into a sonic tapestry of cosmic proportions – the group on this recording is a smaller ‘crew’ than Sun Ra employed on his interstellar voyages, but believe me, they get it done. Whereas Sun Ra created compositions and arrangements that bespoke density and evoked large-scale images of whirling planets and galaxies, Sei Miguel's approach might be more aptly likened to a more delicate representation of something like string theory, the microscopic structures and relationships between energies of the most basic, sub-microscopic level, which despite their almost unimaginable minuteness, are the foundations upon which everything else in the universe is built. That analogy might sound a little heady or far-fetched, but when you hear this music and allow it to enter your consciousness and touch you on the deepest levels, I think you'll see what I mean. Sei Miguel has some recordings available utilising a much larger ensemble – I can’t wait to hear them. For that matter, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be snatching up anything I can find by him – I doubt seriously that I’ll wind up disappointed.

I’ve discovered some pretty amazing and exploratory trumpet players in the last few years who have opened my ears to new forms of sound and composition – Arve Henriksen, Cuong Vu, Markus Stockhausen. Now I can add Sei Miguel to that list.

some useful links:

Sei Miguel – official website
Creative Sources Recordings
Headlights Recordings – an independent label operated by guitarist Manuel Mota, featuring his work plus other interesting items, including a couple of older Sei Miguel releases (very reasonable prices which include shipping).
Mimaroglu Music – an affordable US source for mind-stretching music, including this release.

29 November 2008

The forsaken land (Sulanga enu pinisa)
FL DVD cover
written and directed by Vimukthi Jayasundra
2005 / color / 108 minutes (plus bonus items)
Sinhala with optional English subtitles
DVD from New Yorker Video, 2008

The forsaken land is a film at once strikingly beautiful and jarringly disturbing – writer / director Vimukthi Jayasundara demonstrates in this, his first feature, that he can be expected to be a visionary force that will both enthrall and shake audiences for the remainder of a career that, it can be hoped, will be a long and productive one. Taking as his subject no less than that of the effects of war and strife on not only individuals, but on humanity as a whole, and by extrapolation the very planet we inhabit, his work stands up to the task at hand very well indeed. There are images here – and the deeper thoughts which they inspire – that will remain with the viewer for years to come.

FL Jayasundara
A society ruled by war will always look for a solution,
be it through war or peace.
This film was conceived as a poem, where shots substitute for words.
– Vimukthi Jayasundra

Set in Sri Lanka, which has been torn apart for over thirty years by a civil war that eats away at the people and society like a cancer, Jayasundara’s film draws the audience into the lives and souls of his characters. There is little dialogue – in fact, the first spoken words occur some thirteen minutes or so into the film – but volumes are communicated in the subtle nuances present in life itself, which among the arts only cinema, through its inherent combination of elements, can translate so accurately into palpable feelings. A look, a gesture, a sigh – the very landscape itself, a village on the edge of a wasteland – convey the desperation, tension, societal and emotional isolation and alienation that are the horrible byproducts of an existence lived in a constant state of war…or, in the case of this film, a truce that is so fragile that even the audience senses that outright hostilities could break out again at any time. The recurring image of a tank at twilight, prowling the area at a crawl, stopping now and then, its turret slowly casting its single threatening eye about the landscape is enough to make one hold one’s breath in anticipation. Without a shot being fired throughout the length of the film, the sense of danger is no less than if bullets were flying all around. This is truly life lived walking the edge of the proverbial razor.
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The characters at the center of this agonizingly grinding maelstrom are few. Anura is a young man who is apparently in the hire of the military as a guard, but not actually in the army. His wife Latá is a restless, beautiful young woman who finds their interrupted relationship unfulfilling, leading her to seek companionship on the sly. Living with them is Anura’s unmarried sister Somá, who although seemingly the only character who is both grounded and aware of their circumstances, is resented by Latá but adored as a mother figure by Batti, a young pre-adolescent girl who lives nearby. In one particularly poignant and telling exchange, she speaks with Somá of her future – instead of saying ‘when I grow up’, she says ‘if I grow up’, a painful reminder of the pointed uncertainty under which they all live. Piyasiri is an older man who shares guard duty with Anura and regales the wide-eyed Batti with folk tales, one of which sheds both light and darkness on their communal past. The story has not-too-cloaked parallels with the reality they inhabit.
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The war itself – or at least the sense that it lurks in such proximity that one can hear its panting breath – is as much a character as the human beings in this film. There may be a cease-fire in place, but people disappear and killings occur at night, to be discovered when the sun casts its weary eyes on the scarred land once more. The director’s incredible compositional prowess packs quite a punch – a darkened pond, with heavy clouds obscuring almost all of the available moonlight, reveals the stiff arm of a corpse seemingly sprouting like the water-based vegetation around it. Latá awakens from a restless afternoon nap, clearly in a state of emotional and sexual clamor, to methodically throw open the shutters of the house – the wind almost rips a couple of them out of her hands, exemplifying her hopelessness in controlling her desires and thoughts, blowing through the rooms like a beast in the hunt.

When Anura and Latá are awakened in the middle of the night by a pounding on their door, the young man responds and receives a command from a soldier that will change his life forever – there are things those who serve are called to perform that will linger in their mind and soul until the day they die. The helplessness he feels, the rending of his sense of self, are as real as if they were occurring to us as we watch the events play out. Afterwards, as he runs toward his home in the moonlight, seeing physically but blinded by the trauma of what he has experienced, he stumbles and collapses into the dirt, laying his face against the earth as if to reassure himself that it is still there. It’s one of the most harrowing, piercing images of the film – and one that exemplifies the feeling of being ripped from all of the normal aspects of life, with little hope of ever regaining them. One reviewer wrote that the characters seem to be sleepwalking through the film – not implying any sort of ‘wooden’ acting, but that the horror of their existence has numbed them almost to the point of being animatons. Their pain is real, but it has become so great that it has replaced happiness and fulfillment as the compass by which they navigate their lives.
War is inarguably a horrible environment, whatever its intensity or form – out-and-out direct combat, guerilla war, or the war conducted by shadows under cover of darkness. It traumatizes all of those it touches – combatants and innocents alike – in ways that will affect them physically, psychologically and emotionally for the rest of their lives. Vimukthi Jayasundara has seen that trauma, and has eloquently and poetically translated it into a film that is both jaw-droppingly beautiful and viscerally haunting. It won the prestigious Camera d’or award – given for outstanding first directorial feature – at the Cannes festival in 2005. It’s available in the US through New Yorker Video, so it should be fairly easy to find either for rental or purchase – pass it up at your peril. It’s absolutely one of the most stunning works of cinema I’ve seen in the last ten years.

02 November 2008

L'enfance-nue (Naked childhood)
L'enfance-nue DVD
directed by Maurice Pialat
1968 / colour / 80 minutes (plue extra items)
in French, with optional English subtitles
2-disc restored edition from Masters of Cinema / Eureka (UK), 2008

Maurice Pialat’s 1968 debut feature, L’enfance-nue (Naked childhood), is by no means an easy film to watch – but past the discomforting events depicted, it’s one of the most compelling, vital, and ultimately ‘real’ works of cinema that I’ve ever experienced. The film follows a young French boy, François (Michel Tarrazon), on his travels (travails might be more appropriate) through the French foster-care system. Families were paid stipends by the state to take in children who had been abandoned, offered up for adoption for various reasons, or had been removed from the homes of abusive parents. Pialat wisely chose to use mostly non-professional actors in the film – and while many directors have taken this road in their work for one reason or another, it’s especially effective in this case, the result being a film that is so close to the feel of a documentary that the audience is drawn into the boy’s story far more deeply than might otherwise be the case. (In the spirit of both self-honesty and openness with any readers, I have to say that the fact that I was an adopted child myself most likely added immeasurably to the effect the film had on me as a viewer.)
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François is an intelligent child, but troubled. The film makes the point that almost any child who is adopted or placed in a foster home, no matter how much love and care is given or how hard the host family tries to open their hearts to them, will be affected by emotional issues stemming from their situation. These might be overt or subconscious, but their presence is undeniable. In the case of François, who was placed into the system at a very young age, and has no real memory of his mother, it’s particularly heartbreaking. His feelings of separateness, his inability to connect with his foster parents on a meaningful, deep level, engender within him a sense of hopelessness and inevitability – he will never truly belong to anyone, and feels that repeated rejection is his destiny. While he is given love, shelter and sustenance from his hosts, after a while his innate desperation causes him to act out in ways that leave them no choice but to send him back into the system, to another group home or foster family. It’s as if he feels that there is no reason for him to fight against his fate, so he commits misdeeds in order to speed up the process.
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L'enfance-nue 003
He is shown at first in the home of a couple who appear to be in their late thirties or early forties – they have other foster children as well, and are troubled by François’ seeming inability to get along, to behave himself. He steals – both from family members and from local shops – and hangs with a gang of boys who seem intent on misbehaving in some very disturbing ways. In one scene, he and his mates are shown dropping his foster-sister’s cat down a multiple-level stairwell, apparently in a misguided ‘experiment’ to see if it will really land on its feet. (Needless to say, as disturbing as this scene is, it was shot in such a way that the animal was not really harmed.) The cat is, of course, injured gravely – when his sister is distraught over this, he promises to care for the animal, assuring her that it will recover. When it ultimately dies, and she inquires about it, he callously draws a finger across his own throat to indicate the animal’s fate – and receives a slap across the face from the girl as a reward. His foster parents see this behavior as the final straw, and call the social worker in charge of his case to request that he be taken from them.
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In a gesture that might be seen as calculated by some, François uses some of the money his foster dad has given him to buy a parting gift – a scarf – for his foster mother, presenting it to her as he is being led out the door by the social worker. The conflicting emotions on both sides are very honestly depicted – while the mother feels that she is making the only choice she can realistically make for the sake of her entire family, she feels the bond that she nonetheless feels for the boy tearing at her. As for François, I believe the gift was given from the heart – for one reason because he purchased it instead of stealing it – and his farewell look from behind the window of the departing automobile shows real regret and sadness, as well as resignation.

The family with whom François is seen living for the greatest part of the film is an older couple, M and Mme Thierry (René Thierry and Marie-Louise Thierry), called ‘Pépère’ and Mémère’, respectively, probably in their sixties. We learn that they were each married before, and have children and grandchildren from those unions, but were too old to have children together. There are other foster children in their home, but the only one we see interacting with François with any regularity is Raoul (Henri Puff), who appears to be in his early teens.
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Also living in the home is Mme Thierry’s aged mother, ‘Maman’ (brilliantly played by one of the only professional actors in the film, Marie Marc) – it is with this old woman that François bonds most closely, in a touchingly depicted but very believable relationship. Pépère and Mémère have seen a lot in their day – his stories of being a member of the French underground during the war captivate François – and have learned the lessons of patience over the course of their lives…and despite the honest, open love they attempt to give François, this patience will be stretched to the breaking point.
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Once again, he begins stealing and hanging out with groups of boys who are older and up to levels of mischief beyond that which might be expected from a boy his age. In one particularly destructive prank, he and some friends stand on a bridge and toss some pretty hefty stones down at approaching cars – one hits its mark and causes a serious accident, which gets the police involved and wakes the Thierrys up to the fact that they might not be able to handle this child, despite their best intentions. Once again, François has felt the subconscious need to nudge his fate along – there might not be a traditional ‘happy ending’ to a film such as this, but it’s an experience that will no doubt touch viewers very deeply, on varied levels (depending on their own background and feelings).

Pialat’s style of shooting and editing, which of course developed further as his career progressed, is fascinating to see in its infancy here. Rather than striving for smooth transitions from one scene to the next, he makes the audience do a bit of work, which I believe causes the viewer to become even more involved in the film than would otherwise be the case. Relation to the film’s timeline is not always apparent from scene to scene – just how long the break between them is, relative to the story itself, is not always clear. Is the scene we’re watching happening immediately after the previous one, or have several days or weeks passed? Pialat gives us very little chance to figure this out as the film plays out before us – it is only with hindsight that these aspects become more clearly defined. It’s one more technique that moves this film into a different category than most dramatic narratives – and one that causes it to burrow more deeply into the psyche of the viewer, ensuring a more lingering effect, giving cause for deeper reflection. Similarly, Pialat frames his shots unconventionally – rather than rely on close-ups and constant camera movement, he places the camera in a stationary spot, allowing it to take in the entire room. The characters move about in the space according to the story’s requirements (much of the movement and dialogue, while suggestions were made by the director, was improvised and spontaneous – a technique he used repeatedly in his career), giving the viewer more of a sense of actually being in the room with them, further heightening the feeling of reality in the film.

In one of the interviews included as a bonus item in this carefully-assembled two-disc release, Pialat appears on a French television show devoted to films that were well-received critically, but not commercially successful. The host introduces the film – which was apparently shown in its entirety – then speaks with Pialat afterwards. The director begins his discussion of the film in an almost self-deprecating manner, then turns the tables on the host, making the point that true creativity in cinema should never be stymied by the lack of commercial success – there are subjects to tackle and points to be made that are far too important to be ignored by such a vital medium. He even takes the French film-going public to task for not having the courage to support films that they might find ‘uncomfortable’ to watch. There are also other interviews included, featuring not only Pialat, but associates who have worked with him, discussing his art – as well as a documentary on the making of the film (a welcome treat, and unusual for a film made in 1968), which includes a round-table discussion by several former foster children who have formed a support group to aid others who have passed through the system in recognizing and coping with their resulting emotional issues.

The biggest treat for me, however, is the inclusion in the set of Pialat’s short film L’amour existe (Love exists), from 1960 – a stunningly effective 19-minute look at the numbing effect on French society caused by the emergence of sterile, nondescript suburbs which sprang up around the major cities after World War II. While rebuilding was a necessary occurrence, the short laments the lack of access to culture and recreation in these projects. The images are extremely moving, and the narration is right on target – there were aspects of society that were lost, never to be fully recovered…not the least of which was a sense of real hope for a productive and fulfilling life without the vitality and release provided by art and nature.

Masters of Cinema have done a wonderful job with this release – despite the age of the feature, their painstaking restoration has resulted in an image that is clear and compelling, with little visible damage artifacts. The restored sound tops off the presentation – it’s as if we’re viewing the film on its first release, in 1968. This is a great addition to their library (and to mine!), and a great service to film lovers.
Pierre de Bethmann

Nocturne, 2007

Pierre de Bethmann is a recent discovery for me – but like most jazz players who impress me, I’ve found that he’s been around for a few years, playing in various contexts stretching back, per the discography info on his website, to 1995. That list shows nineteen appearances as a sideman for assorted artists (including separate releases by two bandmembers, David El Malek and Michael Felberbaum), four as a member of the trio Prysm, and three with his current band (expanded from a quintet on their first two albums to a septet for Oui). With the formation of his current group, he moved more firmly into Rhodes territory, exploring and expanding the sound of the instrument, sculpting a personal expression from its possibilities with his formidable talents. I was listening to Oui the other morning while I was talking with a friend on the phone – I had to put the receiver down for a moment to tend something in the oven, and when I came back, he asked me, ‘Man, who’s that working on that Fender…?’ The style that de Bethmann has developed over his career is one that’s going to grab the attention of anyone who hears him – he’s moving the instrument into new territory both rhythmically and melodically.
Five members of Pierre’s group have graced all three of his albums – the mutual respect and empathy they share are immediately evident in the results. David El Malek is incredibly fluid on tenor saxophone, capable of swoops and arcs of notes that could induce whiplash in the listener. Michael Felberbaum’s guitar goes from beautiful chordal background work to chopping rhythmic urges to blistering solos and back again with seemingly effortless (anyone who plays an instrument knows better!) changes of focus and gear. The double-bass work of Vincent Artaud and drums of Franck Agulhon provide an invaluable steady foundation for the group, but like the great players they are, they’re not content to limit themselves, illustrating time and again that they not only have the constantly changing rhythms firmly in hand, but that their imaginations are working to add accents, counterpoints and fills to complement the work of the others as well. New members for this outing are Stéphane Guillaume, an excellent alto saxophone player, adding a nice balance / foil to David El Malek’s tenor; and Jeanne Added, whose wordless vocals are every bit as integral an instrument as the ones wielded by the others. Singing at times in unison with Pierre’s keys, or with the guitar or reeds, or providing a melodic or rhythmic counterpoint, her tonal control is about as perfect as one could imagine.

The set starts off with a vengeance, Pierre’s Rhodes setting the pace on ‘Shema’ with a repetitive 7/8 figure, joined after a few bars by the rest of the group. The vocals, reeds and guitar play off each other a bit before the piece slows down a bit – after a section of voice-alto interplay, Pierre’s Rhodes enters for a length extrapolation, leaving no doubt in the listener’s mind as to not only his compositional imagination, but the magic with which that extends into his playing. Listening closely, it’s easy to imagine someone thinking there are two keyboards working – he’s gifted with a high degree of ambidexterity, one hand delivering chordal clusters while the other explores the melody with breathtaking freedom and grace. This piece goes on for almost ten minutes – but it never drags, and the first time I heard it, I was surprised at the end that it had been going as long as it had. For that matter, there’s only one track of the CD that’s under six minutes long – and thanks to the constantly changing melodic landscape, wide dynamic range and fluid interplay between the participants, there’s not a wasted note to be found anywhere.

‘Singulier’, the second track, enters with a rolling chromatic figure from the Rhodes, joined soon by Jeanne Added’s beautiful vocals – the two instruments intertwine their melodies in an almost mesmerizing spiral until Agulhon’s drums and Artaud’s double-bass solidify the rhythmic element. Reeds and guitar accentuate the determined beat for a moment, before the tune shifts down again, with Jeanne’s voice this time alongside some lovely guitar work from Felberbaum. Focus shifts repeatedly, rhythm reasserts itself, with some very nice, more forceful lead playing from the guitar toward the end of the piece. The third offering, ‘Air courbe’, begins with quiet alternating chords from de Bethmann, soon joined by the voice carrying the lead, with the others alternately providing support, accents, and comments of their own.

The set is extremely varied overall, with no one rhythm or colour dominating for very long. Melodies are never sacrificed in the process, providing a great deal of beauty for the ears – but at the same time, these folks never settle for simply making ‘pretty music’. There’s a lot of fire and imagination at work here, with some envelope-pushing time changes and more than a few angular melody tangents – at times it almost sounds as if there are two signatures being employed simultaneously by ‘sub-committees’ within the band, with the rhythms coming around after a bit to re-join, rather like the polyrhythms heard in some African music.
This is pretty amazing stuff, folks – and like many ‘discoveries’, a little research shows me that there’s a pretty deep well here from which to draw. The interactive discography on Pierre de Bethmann’s website reveals a money pit of extreme proportions (I loves my music, so...) – but that’s often the case with jazz players, given their propensity to perform widely with other artists, offering their services in whatever form can be creatively rewarding for all concerned. The nine tracks on Oui alone tell me that I’ve found a new favorite here – I've already come across a couple of Prism CDs online at prices so low that I couldn’t pass up ordering them, and I’ve added some others to a wish list that seems to grow much faster than I can reduce it (how many years has that been going on…?). The more ‘new’ (meaning, ‘new to me’) players that I discover, the more comforted I am that creativity will always find a way to be heard (or seen, or read, or experienced in whatever medium it’s found) – and in our world, it’s always a nice feeling to be reassured.

Check out his website – you can listen to audio samples from all four Prysm albums as well as his three latest releases. Also – visit out the site's ‘video’ section, with some really high-quality offerings to enjoy.

Pierre de Bethmann – official website

29 October 2008

The sound artist as shaman…
building bridges and opening inner doors
No one travels

along this way but I,
this autumn evening.

– haiku by Matsuo Basho
(Japan, 17th century)

There seem to be more artists dipping into the well of ambient / electro-acoustic music with each passing day. The more cynical listener might suppose than anyone and everyone with access to a laptop and audio shaping programs is getting into the act – and while it might be true that the wider availability of such hardware and software is causing a proliferation of sound artists, as is the case with all forms of expression, there’s a lot more to it than that. Slapping together bits of processed recorded sound – from whatever sources – still needs to have imagination, creativity and skill at its core in order to be artistically effective. If the genre doesn’t appeal to the listener, of course, it’s all going to sound like noise anyway…but for one who can appreciate the intent, structure and craftsmanship that go into such endeavors, the results can be more than simply rewarding or entertaining – when everything comes together in the right way, such projects can induce a psychological / physical shift in the listener that is absolutely shamanistic in its power to transport.

Shamanism can of course have religious / spiritual overtones, depending on the existing beliefs of the person on the ‘receiving end’ of such activity. For some time now, I’ve become aware of some parallels between this sort of shamanism and the practice of some forms of psychology / psychotherapy. Both the traditional practices and the more modern ones seem, at least to my view, to open the mind of the person under ‘treatment’ to knowledge or thought processes which are inaccessible or at least subsurface in normal thought activity. In tribal applications, this ‘mind-opening’ can offer up what seem to be communications with or visions of people or events that are physically out of reach. In psychological settings, the therapist can utilize various methods to make the subconscious of the client more available to conscious thought, thus giving the opportunity to see issues or problems in a different light or from a different aspect. The concept of employing psychological triggers to open the subconscious mind, revealing the sources of traumas that have adversely affected the psyche, allows the individual to better understand those traumas and to deal with them and the effects they have had on their life. It’s a tool for healing, for furthering understanding.

Music and other forms of art can have just such an effect on the listener or viewer – subtle aspects of the work can open psychological doors, allowing the recipient to experience altered / augmented understanding of seemingly unrelated subjects. The trigger could be a snippet of melody, a combination of sounds or colours, a fragment of lyrics or poetry, or any of a number of elements or combinations. Sound artists who utilize recordings of environmental ambience in their work, altering them to varying degrees (or sometimes not at all) can combine sonic ingredients that have the power to affect listeners even more than more conventional components, such as literary content, that act in a more direct way on the consciousness.

Each individual who experiences such works will, naturally, be affected in different ways and with varied intensity – and some will not be affected at all beyond finding the creation interesting or entertaining on a purely aesthetic level. One might feel touched by a piece of sound art (or music), or by a work of visual art, or by a film, and not immediately understand why it has affected them so deeply – if time is devoted to further reflection, especially with repeated exposure to the work, it might become more clear.

Some of the works below are made up almost entirely of sounds from nature, or from other environments – some of them contain elements that are more ‘musical’ mixed into the material. These are not recordings for cruising around in the car – the subtleties they employ are too delicate to be thoroughly appreciated or felt in such an atmosphere filled with distractions. All of this is not to imply that having these playing in the background – even as you sleep, for example – is inappropriate, only that they merit deeper listening as well.

John Kannenberg
Autumn ensō
Autumn enso
Why Not, 2005

The ensō, basically a circle, is a symbol from Zen philosophy and calligraphy, used to invoke thoughts and images of enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void (description from Wikipedia). After viewing an art exhibition of works featuring the image, Kannenberg was inspired to create an ensō made up of autumn leaves arranged in a circle on the head of a snare drum. It wasn’t much of a leap for this sound artist to take his idea from a visual concept to an audio piece – and the results are pretty stunning in their combination of simplicity and depth. He has since released a DVD – he terms it a videopainting – to further the ideas presented in the sound version, including a live performance of the piece.

Asher / Jason Kahn
and/OAR, 2008

A collaborative work, the environmental recordings that form the basis of Vista were made by Asher in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood – sounds heard on a pre-dawn walk through the streets and alleys, including generators and other mechanical sounds, idling motors, &c were then digitally processed and sent along to Jason Kahn in Switzerland. Kahn made his own recordings, also in the pre-dawn hours, walking around Lake Zürich, which were then sent to Asher, who processed these using the same methods he had employed with his own recordings. Kahn forwarded further recordings of the wind in the Swiss Alps, unprocessed, and the two artists then worked together on the final mix. The finished recording has an almost physical sense of space to it – one can practically hear the distance between the source of the sounds and the receptive organ (ear / microphone), giving the project a heightened feeling of reality despite the obvious alteration and manipulation of source sounds.

Loren Chasse
The footpath
The footpath
Naturestrip, 2008

Loren Chasse / MNortham
The otolith
The odolith
Helen Scarsdale, 2008

Both of these releases are based on field recordings – but instead of the more ‘passing’ sounds used by some of the artists above, Chasse literally gets ‘down in the dirt’ (or whatever element he finds) for a more ‘in your ears’ effect on The footpath. He has been described as using a microphone for an ear placed directly onto the ground – the sounds of footsteps (appropriate especially given the title) on gravel, clods of earth being crushed, rocks grating together, vibrations from unknown sources transmitted through the ground, all things available are brought into the mix and treated. Some sounds are recognizable, others remain a mystery – but it all fits together beautifully, creating a vivid sonic image. The otolith (named after part of the inner ear that transmits information on the angular attitude of the head to the brain, allowing it to perceive and implement balance, a very a propos reference) adds musical instruments – albeit unconventional ones, such as magnetic table harp and bowed wires – to the mix, while The footpath seems to have its source in ‘grittier’ sounds. Both recordings are stunning and very effective.

Loren Chasse official website

MNortham official website

And finally, the pièce de résistance – one of my ‘great discoveries’ this year…

Tetuzi Akiyama / Masahiko Okura / Toshiya Tsunoda
Manfred Werder : 2006[1]
skiti, 2006

This recording is simply amazing – and more than anything I’ve heard in recent memory, it has the ability to transport me to another place / time every time I experience it. I was blown away by the effect it had on me the first time I listened to it, and I continue to be stunned to find that it happens again and again. It’s a short piece, composed by Werder and performed by a trio of respected Japanese improvisers (Tetuzi Akiyama [guitar, stones], Masahiko Okuro [alto sax] and Toshiya Tsunoda [tambura]), recorded outdoors by a riverside outside Tokyo. I was expecting something completely different when I read the credits – what I got instead is an album of incredible beauty, on which the musicians never touch their instruments, much like John Cage's famous 1952 piece 4'33. Being recorded in an outdoor setting, in a garden or park, one can lose oneself in the sounds of the world around, and as a result become more deeply aware of how sounds surround and envelope us – passers-by talking, crows in the sky, footsteps on the path, children playing (perhaps 50 yards away – another recording with a very real sense of distance and space), trains passing nearby, the wind, &c. Manfred Werder, who composed the piece, states in the notes to the CD release: ‘The world is sounding infinitely. There isn’t any silence without sounds. There isn’t any sound without silence. It’s not about exploring new sounds, but exploring a new relation to what the world sounds – as we actually are part of the world as the very phenomenon itself. What could a new relation to what the world sounds bring forth? In my work I try to describe a general situation where we are a part of it might already be the whole of the world…the fact that it sounds.’ He further describes the piece itself through a seeming subtitle, much as any ‘traditional’ composer might add information to a score in order to help the performing musicians better understand his intentions, ‘A place, natural light, where the performer, the performers like to be. A time. Sounds.’

I’ve wondered a great deal since acquiring this disc why it affects me so much. Is it the sounds of the children playing at a distance that remind me of some unspecific time in my childhood? Could it be the natural environmental sounds, so unadulterated and clearly reproduced, that bring to mind a completely stress-free place and time? The answers to these questions and others might come with repeated plays, with the passage of time – and then again, they might not. In the meantime, I find myself returning to this disc again and again, sometimes playing it repeatedly for a couple of hours at a time (it’s only a bit over 28 minutes in length). I’ve found from experience that, despite its overall low volume level, it’s not something I can play while I sleep – it’s far too personally involving for that sort of listening. It’s too rewarding on too many levels to relegate to the realm of slumber.

Paolo Fresu Devil Quartet
Stanley music!
Stanley music!
Blue Note (Italy), 2007
This album is a great example of a ‘perfect storm’ – four contemporary masters from the Italian / European jazz scene, who have played together before in various contexts, come together in a quartet to create music that is a living example of the old adage ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. It’s nothing short of stunning. (I have absolutely no idea about the meaning of the title, in case you might wonder...)

Paolo Fresu (trumpet, flugelhorn), under whose name the quartet operates, has long been a favorite of mine. As with most fine jazz players, he’s incredibly prolific, lending his talents to innumerable projects and configurations as a leader, co-leader or sideman – in every case he adds more than a little shine to the finished product. I can’t even remember where I first heard his work – but seeing his name on a recording is a sure sign of quality playing and compositional innovation. I’ve read that when he appeared at a jazz festival in Europe in the early 1980s as a relatively unknown player, the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava heard him and recognized that the future of jazz was in good hands. Fresu’s tone and control are absolutely amazing – coupled with the taste and sense of commitment that he displays in every outing, he’s definitely a force with which the music public will find itself reckoning again and again, producing a body of work that will reveal new gems with every dig.

Bebo Ferra is one of the finest guitarists I’ve heard – most of the recordings on which I’ve experienced his talent have showcased his work on acoustic or classical guitar. While there are moments of that beauty here as well, on this album he steps up on electric guitar and guitar synthesizer, issuing forth veritable lightning bolts of melodic energy that the listener might swear leave behind traces of brimstone in the air (perhaps one aspect of the quartet name…?). Never sacrificing melody or harmony for power, his guitar lines both lead the group and offer thoughtful support for the work of the others, shifting from fore to aft effortlessly with a grace that comes from a deep dedication to the music rather than any attempt to take control or show off.
Stanley music! group 02
In addition to their main instruments, Fresu and Ferra are credited with ‘multi-effects’ – the notes in the CD booklet don’t elaborate further, but beyond the numerous abilities of the guitar synthesizer, I suspect Fresu is utilizing a harmonizer of some sort with his horn. There are audible lines generated that on a casual listen might seem to be overdubs – on closer listening, they seem incredibly in-sync to my ears, leading me to suspect that they’re being produced ‘live’ as he plays. Rather than coming across as ‘gimmicky’ in any way, Fresu’s sense of restraint remains in control throughout the album – he never over-does the effect, using it to achieve fine results that add immeasurably to the mood and quality of the set. Similarly, at times I seem to detect lines played simultaneously by Fresu and Ferra that are pretty amazing – it’s the sort of near-telepathic communication between great musicians that comes from deep empathy and a unity of spirit.

Paolino Dalla Porta’s talents on the double-bass extend far beyond the limits too often imposed on the instrument – and thankfully, there are more and more players stepping outside the ‘rhythm section’ box in this regard. A fine composer in his own right, contributing two tunes to this set, Dallo Porta explores the entire tonal and dynamic ranges of the instrument, providing a firm foundation constantly, while providing contrapuntal / harmonic lines to Fresu and Ferra in such a smooth manner that one might be forgiven for realizing that so much of the music is coming from the double-bass.

The drums, handled here by the great Stefano Bognoli, are every bit as dynamically and sensitively nuanced as the other instruments – the beat is steady, to be sure, but Bognoli’s accents, fills and what could only be described as comments or conversation are breathtakingly precise and ear-opening.
Stanley music! group 01
The set opens with ‘Another road to Timbuctu’, jumping right in with a horn riff to which the melody returns after forays into melodic exploration from Fresu and Ferra – this is a driving tune, never letting up until the final notes, a great way to get things started. ‘Il tempo del sogno’, composed by Paolino Dalla Porta’, follows – it’s a beautiful, leisurely paced excursion that affords the listeners a chance to catch their breath, featuring restrained, lovely lines from Fresu, Dalla Porta and Ferra (some of his most jewel-like classical guitar work). Bognoli’s light drum / cymbal work on this tune is a great example of his abilities – it’s a talented drummer who can provide such delicate support without succumbing to the temptation to be heavy-handed. ‘Caledonian flowers’ features a bluesy melody line that both Fresu and Ferra explore to the fullest – the melody takes some surprising twists and turns, but never drifts into atonality. Fresu’s work with a mute is particularly effective on this track.

‘Moto perpetuo’ has an Iberian colour to it – now and then I can hear what I’m sure must be a conscious nod to Chick Corea’s classic composition ‘Spain’ (from Return to Forever’s 1972 Light as a feather), but it’s certainly an example of hommage rather than being derivative. The pace slows down again with the first of Bebo Ferra’s compositions to appear in the programme, ‘Giovedi’ – his acoustic guitar and Fresu’s trumpet play off each other beautifully, framing a melody that is melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Next up is ‘Dou Dou’, from the pen of drummer Bognoli – and if any listener believes that a composition by a drummer is automatically going to be built around percussion, let them immerse themselves in this piece. The other three instrumentalists figure so prominently in the delivery that it would be easy to guess that any one of them might have written it – it’s simply lovely, a great addition to the set. Bognoli’s drums are showcased in a nice, varied, brief solo to open the next track, a medley of ‘Devil’s game’ (by Dalla Porta) and ‘Labbra bianche’ (by Fresu) – two tunes joined at the hip that pick up the pace again very nicely. The first, after Bognoli’s introduction, features some near-free blowing that congeals into melody and takes off without looking back.

Fresu’s ‘L’afflato prodromo del misantropo’ has an almost anthem-like quality to it – the pace is slow, but without any sense of inactivity from any of the members, offering up a nice balance to the previous track. Some nice chording from Dalla Porta opens ‘Il diavolo e l’acquasanta’, another Bognoli composition – Fresu and Ferra trade lines over Dalla Porta, who gives the piece a palpable ‘noir’ feel until he opens up with a more walking pattern with a slight melody change. ‘Qualche anno dopo (Some year after)’, from Ferra, ends the tracklist – the tune has an almost hymn-like quality to it, perhaps more of a sense of reflection (hence the title). Fresu and Ferra weave in and out of each other, trading lines seemingly without much free improvisation, sticking to the beautiful melody without ever growing repetitive – another sign of great players. There’s a ‘ghost track’ included as well, following a bit of silence – a little online research led me to be confident that the title is ‘Cartoons’ – and the mood of the piece fits that very well, ending the set with both invention and humor.

Here’s a bit of video from YouTube featuring the quartet at the 2006 Umbria Jazz festival in Orvieto – it was apparently shot from the audience, so the quality isn’t exactly first-rate, but it’s not bad…
Stanley music! is one of those recordings that I initially heard via some samples online – I was so impressed with those brief excerpts that I immediately found a source for it and ordered a copy. When it arrived, it stayed in my player – and in my head – for several days. I’ve returned to it several times since then, always finding nuances revealed that I missed on previous hearings – a sure sign of a work of lasting quality. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who loves jazz – hell, anyone who loves good music in general, even those who might think they don’t enjoy jazz – would appreciate the quality of this recording. Why Paolo Fresu isn’t more widely known and appreciated in the US is a mystery – the labels who have issued his works are missing the boat here. These musicians are all players whose talents ensure the continued viability and vitality of not just jazz, but music of all genres.

Paolo Fresu official website

28 August 2008

Before the rain
written and directed by Milcho Manchevski
1994 – in Macedonian, Albanian and English with English subtitles
113 minutes – colour
[ Criterion DVD released 2008 ]

I’ve watched this film (in the wonderful recent edition from Criterion) three times over the past few weeks, and I cannot get it out of my head. I’m astonished that this is the first feature from director Milcho Manchevski – this is world-class cinema, crafted with artistry, depth and subtlety, taking on a subject as horrifying as the ethnic / sectarian violence that seems to be staining our world with terrifying, increasing frequency, filling it with imperfect, completely believable human characters, and setting it against a natural backdrop of some of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful locations, stunningly photographed, that a viewer is likely to encounter anywhere. The contrasts – images, events, emotions, values, choices and actions – are stark and sometimes jarring…just like those in the real world. Manchevski has created his story with care and commitment – and he has continued that commitment throughout the twists and turns of an arduous production path that at times left him wondering if the film would ever be finished, emerging with a finished product that any director would be satisfied to call a career-defining work. There is much complexity here – but it never gets in the way of a story that, while placed firmly in its setting, is so universal in its message that it cannot help but resonate within the heart and mind of any viewer anywhere in the world.

Before the rain is subtitled ‘a story in three parts’ – each has its own central protagonists, some of whom overlap, and well-defined environment. As the film progresses and moves from one section to the next, it becomes apparent that the timeline of this work is more than simply non-linear, or circular. Manchevski has taken inspiration – whether conscious or subconscious – from no less an artist than the unique M. C. Escher, constructing something the director calls ‘a circle with a kink in it’, or perhaps a Möbius strip of time. As contrived as this premise might sound at first, rather than distracting viewers from the soul and story of this film, it winds up enhancing it – at the end, when the credits roll, it is almost impossible not to ponder what one has seen, to replay it in the mind, to discuss it with others. And with a theme as vital as the seemingly endless cycle of violence that we human beings seem intent on inflicting on ourselves as a race, perhaps concentration, decompression and dissection of what has been seen, heard and felt over the length of this experience would do us more than a little good. It certainly won't end or go away if we ignore it.

The film begins with a quote from Serbian / Bosnian poet Mehmedalija ‘Meša’ Selimović (1910-1982) : ‘With a shriek, birds flee across the black sky, people are silent, my blood aches from waiting.’ Manchevski’s title itself, this quote from the epigraph of one of Selimović’s poems, repeated mentions of a rain that is expected, and other references that are imbibed with a sense of heightened anticipation, fill the film and the viewer with a tension that slowly builds to its climax. Several times the image of startled birds presages an event, or the arrival of a person, or lends a sense of foreboding to various scenes.
Part one (entitled ‘Words’) takes place in Macedonia – a monastery and the surrounding grounds, to be exact, which, from appearances, could be situated in any time during the past several centuries. It is only when we see a jet’s vapor trail in the sky that the scene comes firmly to rest in the present – but as this image is contrasted with the ancient painted icons and the darkened, serene architecture and lighting of the chapel and the monks’ quarters, there remains an undercurrent feeling of timelessness that pulls like a riptide, which lies on the landscape like a morning mist. A young monk – Father Kiril (Grégoire Colin) – is picking tomatoes in a garden, his face and posture radiating a sense of peace, sure in the knowledge that he is exactly where he belongs. An older priest approaches and begins speaking to him, making small talk about the weather. 'The flies are biting,' he says. 'It's going to rain.' As Kiril stands to walk with him, the elder man gestures across the plain below them and adds, 'It's already raining over there.' As they walk along the mountain path that leads from the monastery itself to the nearby chapel, the rolling sound of distant thunder is heard. The old man says, 'Thunder always gives me a jolt. I fear they've begun shooting here, too.' They walk past a group of children playing at war, using turtles as tanks, sitting in a circle, an apt visual metaphor for the just-referenced cycle of violence. Kiril's brother priest muses, 'Time never dies. The circle is not round'. This phrase recurs, in one form or another, in other parts of the film. A lightning strike in the distance is followed by its accompanying clap of thunder. The old man says, 'I nearly took a vow of silence like you. But this heavenly beauty merits words.' The natural panorama visible behind them is the perfect backdrop for his statement.

After the service, as Kiril is in his cell preparing for bed, he is shocked as he sits on his bunk to find it occupied. A young woman – her gender not apparent at first due to her short hair, slim build and the lighting – has taken refuge there. She speaks Albanian, Kiril speaks Macedonian – each of them is frightened at the circumstances in which they have found themselves. He understands enough from her manner that she is hiding from some sort of danger, and makes the decision to shelter her. Still unsure of his intentions, her trust begins to warm at his gift of fresh tomatoes (he has correctly guessed that she is hungry). A beautiful, effectively composed shot – one of many in this incredible film – captures her, out of focus, crouching in the dark across the moonlit room, with Kiril lying on his bunk, his back to her, his features clearly defined, smiling at the sound of her eating the tomatoes. In Albanian, she offers, ‘My name is Zamira’, and, after a pause, her judgment : ‘You are good’.

Kiril’s choice to hide the young woman in the face of the irreversable implications of his action on both of them is the central theme of the first part of the film. He has turned a corner on the path of his life from which there is no turning back. Armed men come to the monastery in search of the the girl – ‘The whore killed our brother’, they say. The elder priest attempts to calm them – the old and the new are contrasted again when the apparent leader of the armed men says, ‘An eye for an eye – blood is in the air’, to which the priest replies, ‘Turn the other cheek’. After attempting to dissuade them – and after receiving assurances, in private, from the other monks that there is no girl there – the head priest agrees to allow them search the premises. The men, while outwardly showing respect and reverence towards the priests, procede to ransack the place, leaving its traditional solitude shattered. Kiril’s tension increases as they prepare to search his cell. The director cranks this up subtly by not showing the activity directly, but by having the camera remain with Kiril on the floor below. The sounds of their search – the rough footsteps, furniture being dragged across the floor objects being thrown about and broken – filter down to the anxious monk. The camera looks up, and through the gaps between the floorboards motes of dust drift down into the light, dislodged by the men above. They return empty-handed – the girl has not been found, much to Kiril’s surprise and relief.

The searchers are not convinced, however, and refuse to leave the area of the monastery, posting a guard outside, waiting. Kiril returns to his cell to find it turned upside-down. In another old-new contrast, one of the intruders is seen outside the walls of the ancient structure, dancing to the sounds of the Beastie Boys blaring from his transistor radio. That evening, as Kiril lies on his cot, we can see the shadows of rain, running down the window opposite, play across his face. He starts from his sleep and sits up to see Zamira standing in the room. Rubbing his eyes, he looks again and realizes that he is dreaming – she is not there. A bit later, this time without the ghosts of rain on his face, he awakens again and sees her – this time the apparition is real, and she is indeed there. The next morning, two of the elder monks enter his cell unexpectedly and discover her – they feel they have no choice but to expel both the girl and Kiril from the monastery. Although Kiril and Zamira, the very picture of cast-out innocents being thrown into the world, manage to sneak past the sleeping guard, they soon encounter an equally dangerous foe – members of the girl’s family and villagers, including her grandfather and brother. Their animosity toward her is open – they consider her to be a troublemaker, her grandfather repeatedly calling her ‘whore’ and ‘slut’. It is not a pretty confrontation, and the outcome is bleak from the start.
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The second part of the film is entitled ‘Faces’, and the setting moves to bustling, modern London. A brief shot of a brick wall, acting as a thread connecting the two parts, shows scrawled graffiti that echoes the phrase spoken by the old monk in the first part of the film: 'Time never dies. The circle is not round.' One of the main characters at the centre of part two is Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), who is employed at a news photo agency – she is married, but is estranged from her husband and involved in an affair with Aleksandar Kirkov (Rade Šerbedžija), a Macedonian-born photographer whose work in the theatre of the Balkan Wars has recently won him a Pulitzer Prize. He returns from his assignment in Bosnia unexpectedly and announces to Anne that he has resigned his position. Shocked by this revelation, she presses him for a reason – she understands both him and his passion for his work well enough, to know that something serious has happened to drive him to such a decision. She begs, ‘What happened, Alex? What happened to you in Bosnia…?’, to which he quietly replies, ‘I killed.’ He has always staunchly refused to ‘take sides’ in any conflict from which he is reporting, considering himself to be a neutral window through which the world can peer. Without explaining any further, it is apparent that he feels he has crossed that line, which he has long vowed never to do. He is broken, he is burned out – he is determined to return to his home in Macedonia, which he last visited 16 years before, and to take Anne with him, to live out their lives together there.
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Anne is unable to bring herself to go with him on such short notice – there are complications in her life, not the least of which is her husband, that she feels cannot be resolved satisfactorly enough to leave immediately. She begs him, ‘…be patient with me’ – he has made up his mind to go back, with or without her, and replies, ‘Have a nice life…don’t forget to write’, and walks away.

The violence that people see on television news programs, and in newspaper and magazine photographs, can seem like another world – but sadly, more and more, that violence has a disturbing way of finding a crack in the wall and worming its way into everyday lives and activity. This is the infection that finds Anne and her husband Nick as they dine in a quiet, refined London restaurant. He thinks she has asked him there to attempt a reconciliation...but she reveals to him that she wants a divorce. As they work their way through this discussion, their private tension naturally mounts, and it is accentuated by frequent camera cuts between them, other diners, and an additional drama that develops when a man enters and begins talking with a waiter – both of them speaking in a foreign language, in tones too low to heard clearly (their dialogue is not subtitled, inferring that the viewer can learn all that is needed from the rhythm and pitch of their speech). The conversation between these two men becomes louder and more heated, growng into an abusive argument, with the man repeatedly tossing currency into the face of the waiter. The maître-d’, attempting to restore order, intervenes and tells the waiter that he should leave and not come back – effectively firing him – and that he should take his friend with him. The angry words escalate further into an all-out brawl, and customers scatter. Subdued by a number of other employees, the man leaves, only to return a few minutes later with the intent of wreaking even more violent havoc, spraying the room with gunfire. The ensuing carnage plays out so quickly that its over almost before it begins – yet, as is the case with scenes such as this, at the same time it seems to last forever.
Part three (‘Pictures’) sees a return to Macedonia – but instead of the tranquil setting of the ancient monastery, our first view is of a modern jet landing in Skopje. The subdued blue, moonlit hues that visually ruled much of part one are replaced by scenes brightly lit by sunlight, as if to imply that events are to be revealed more openly, unable to remain hidded, unavoidably seen by newly-opened eyes. Aleksandar has returned, and after a ride in an old bus along dusty rural roads to his old village, finds himself welcomed not by family and friends, but by a young thug brandishing an automatic weapon (one of the armed men who come to the monastery in part one), demanding to know where he is going. Alex turns to walk away and ignore him, but finds the youth in his path again, threatening to shoot him. The photographer sighs and says, ‘You’ll hurt yourself’, and before the boy can react, snatches the gun away from him, much as one would take a toy from an unruly child. ‘Anyone home?’ asks Alex, gently slapping the boy on the head. He slings the gun over his shoulder and continues into the village, leaving the young man hurling insults at him from behind. He makes his way down the narrow dirt lanes that are etched into his memory, pausing at one house and reaching up into a recess in the wall, retrieving a water pistol that he had apparently left their as a child. There is a sense of watching a classic American western as he walks along : villagers are reluctant to speak with him beyond a nod or a brief spoken greeting, or to meet his eye for more than a second. Startled birds take to the air, and we see a shot of a child's swing, in motion, apparently just vacated at the approach of a stranger.
When he reaches his former house, he finds much of it roofless – the walls are standing, but the structure shows a weary, harshly-weathered visage that is the architectural equivalent of seeing the scars (both physical and emotional) of warfare on the faces of human beings who have endured such horror. Alex shakes his head, laughing silently at himself for ever imagining that he would find anything different after all this time, especially considering the events that have transpired in his absence.

After spending the night in his old bed, he re-connects with his cousin Zdrave and old friend Mitre (the latter turns out to be the uncle of the young man who had challenged Alex on his arrival). The sense that things have changed more than he imagined in Macedonia sinks in more and more as he spends time with his old acquintances – the ethnic and religious hatred that has cloaked other areas of the former Yugoslavia in blood and death has begun to spread its stain here as well. Christians and Muslims (Macedonians and Albanians, respectively) distrust and dislike each other, and have gradually grown physically apart, forming separate villages. The tensions that such feelings engender threaten to erupt into full-scale civil war at any moment – all that is left is for the fuse to be lit. When he announces at a welcoming dinner that he has come home ‘for good’, his words are met with disbelief and gentle ridicule. He is told that things have changed, which he begins to believe more and more as events progress toward what seems to be, sadly, an inevitable conclusion.

One person Aleksandar is determined to see is a woman named Hana, a former sweetheart for whom he has continued to harbor a deep love since their days in school together. He knows that she married after he was home the last time, and that she is now a widow. He has brought gifts for her, her father, and her two children as a token of respect and good will. His relatives and friends advise him to stay away from her – because she’s a Muslim – but he remains headstrong. When he walks into her village, his presence is challenged by armed men from the other side of the conflict, who immediately recognize that he is not one of their own. He manages to have a visit with her father that is courteous, but strained, despite the old man’s welcoming words and shared comments about the 'bad situation'. Hana brings a tray of refreshments into the room, but hardly speaks to him beyond a quiet welcome. In an almost subliminal moment, we see a young woman, Hana’s daughter peering around the corner at the guest, shooed away rapidly by her brother – it is Zamira, from part one of the film. The young man, Ali, is called into the room by his grandfather and is ordered to welcome Aleksandar. Instead, he glares at the guest and asks, 'Why is he here?' When the old man insists that his grandson kiss the photographer’s hand, the young man instead says, ‘I’ll slit his throat.’ He is gruffly dismissed by his grandfather. As Aleksandar walks away from the house at the end of his visit, he stops and looks back, as if into his past – he sees Hana in a window watching him. After a poignant look is exchanged, she lets fall the sheer curtain she has held up in order to peer out, a visual reminder of the tangible veil that divides their two cultures – it seems so fragile, but it keeps them apart as if it were a brick wall.

It is during this part of the film that the incident that caused Alex to resign his position is revealed. Attached to a group of fighters in Bosnia, he had complained to their leader that he wasn’t ‘getting any action’. The soldier subsequently pulled a prisoner (in a semi-Hitchcokian twist, this prisoner was portrayed by Malcho Manchevski, the director, since the assigned extra did not show up for work that day) from a line of detainees and shot him in the head in front of Aleksandar, coldly asking, ‘Did you get that?’ The photographs were taken – and with that event, his life changed forever. His long-held vow not to ‘take sides’ had been shattered in the space of a few seconds – if he had not killed the man directly, with his own hand, he felt responsible for the man’s death, and it was too much for him to bear. He writes a letter to Anne, explaining, 'My camera killed a man. I took sides.' He tells her that the photos, copies of which he has left with her, belong to her now, not to him. He wants no more part of them, but he still bears the guilt, which hangs around his neck like an invisible millstone.
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The path down the road to greater violence opens wider when Mitre’s brother Bojan is attacked with a pitchfork – Alex arrives at the victim’s house just in time to watch him die, surrounded by his grieving family. As the photographer stands in the doorway to the death room, watching Bojan’s life literally slip from him, his blood dripping over the edge of the bed and onto the floor, he raises one hand to his face, in an unconscious gesture that is unmistakably that of snapping a picture – complete with the click of the shutter from the absent camera. Afterward, as he and the doctor walk away, mulling the situation as it exists in the country, they encounter a party of the dead man’s relatives and friends on their way to mete out their own brand of vigilante justice on a young Albanian girl who has been accused by local children after seeing her with Bojan prior to the attack. Whether the girl was even involved, or whether the attack was done in self-defense, perhaps in the face of an attempted sexual assault, is never considered. The seething prejudices cloud the air and narrow rational sight, removing any hope of objective assessment of cause and guilt, in effect pouring gasoline on smouldering embers. Aleksandar and the doctor sit to have a smoke (even though Alex has given up the habit) and ponder the situation. Hearing the medical man express his thoughts on the inevitability of the cycle of violence, Aleksandar declares, ‘You’re as crazy as the rest of them’ – the doctor nods and replies, ‘I’m still here…in this asylum.’

That night, in a visual reprise of Kiril’s dream from part one, Aleksandar is seen in his bed with rain shadows on his face – he is awakened by a noise and sits up to see Hana in the room. Just as in the earlier scene, when he rubs his eyes and looks again, she is gone. A few minutes – or hours – later, he is awakened again. This time she is really there, and tells him that her daughter is missing – the very girl that the vigilantes are out to capture. She asks Alex, ‘Don’t you see what is happening here?’ He replies, ‘I see.’ She counters with ‘No – you just watch.’ When he asks what he can do, she says, ‘Help me. As if she were your own.’ Hana does not go so far as to tell Alex that he is Zamira’s father – but the unvoiced possibility is left hanging in the air like a scent that won’t go away. The weight of its implication is in his eyes.
The next day, he goes to the sheepfold where he suspects the group is holding the girl. The same man who was seen asleep at his ‘post’ outside the monastery in part one is slumbering again, with an automatic weapon in his lap, at the door. Aleksandar strides in – this shot looking very much like something John Ford might have composed – and finds her. His cousin Zdrave tries half-heartedly to stop him – Alex admonishes him for his part in this dangerous game, saying, ‘Shame on you. She’s a child. A child.’ He wraps a cloak around her and begins to walk her away, with the intent of returning her to her family. As the others come to the realization that their prisoner is being taken from them, that their 'justice' is in danger of being denied, Mitre begins goading Zdrave to stop them, calling him a coward – and yet another confrontation between neighbours and relatives is set up. As the climax plays out, the ‘Möbius timeline’ connects and becomes clearer – but as the director says, it is ‘a circle with a kink’, containing elements that are deliberately left in an ‘impossible-to-connect’ state – more aspects for the viewer to consider.

This film is marvellous and a wonder to behold – with all of the beauty of its photography viscerally opposed to the violence that occurs or is implied, it’s a clear portrait of the dialectical nature of humanity’s aspiration to end war and violence and its seeming inability to break the chain of death and destruction. Instead of leaving one with a mood of despair, however, it gives cause for reflection on the causes of ethnic and religious hatred, as well as consideration of ways to stop the cycle. After all, one broken link can destroy a chain. Milcho Manchevski has brought forth a true masterwork here in his first feature film. It cannot fail to move the viewer both emotionally and intellectually; it is intelligently conceived and brilliantly executed by all concerned, yet it is not so ‘lofty’ a film that its message and theme are beyond the grasp of anyone. This is the first feature film shot in Macedonia after the break-up of Yugoslavia – many obstacles were encountered during production, including the sudden loss of one of the principal investors, and the project almost didn’t make it to completion. It went on to win the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, as well as garnering a nomination as ‘Best foreign language film’ at the Oscars that year. (Manchevski's latest film, Shadows, has been nominated for the 2008 Oscars in this same category.) The budget for Before the rain was comparatively small by contemporary standards – under $3 million – and several times during filming the crew had to scramble to find a way to accomplish the director’s aims – but after seeing it several times, I have to say that it’s an unqualified success. Additionally, Criterion’s treatment of the DVD release is predictably laudable. This is a superb, stunningly beautiful restored digital transfer, accompanied by several special features including an informative interview with the director, as well as a revelatory second-channel commentary by him along with film critic Annette Insdorf that runs the length of the film.

This is a film that I am very pleased to have in my collection – I’m sure I will return to it again and again through the years to come, with new discoveries and subtleties revealed with each viewing. It is one of the most moving works of cinema I have ever experienced – I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’ll end with a trailer – but keep in mind as you watch that this is a decidedly low-resolution embed from YouTube, and that it doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the beauty of this film…

16 August 2008

Monsieur Hire
the fine line between love and obsessionMonsieur Hire -- DVD cover
directed by Patrice Leconte
1989 / France / 79 minutes / colour
in French, with English subtitles

Patrice Leconte’s 1989 film Monsieur Hire, which was just released on DVD last year in the US by Kino, is a small masterpiece of a thriller that has stood the passage of time very well indeed. By allowing the characters to reveal themselves with subtlety and patience, and stressing their struggles (inner and outer) and their attempts to live with and liberate themselves from these struggles, rather than relying on setting and artifice, the director has removed the stifling effects of chronological and spatial imprisonment that mar so many otherwise well-made films. Monsieur Hire is thus a film with a contemporary feel, but the foundations of the story and the humans who populate it could easily be transplanted into any era – love, loneliness, insecurity, the suspicion of anything / anyone different, desperation, guilt, erotic obsession, scheming and betrayal are all present here, manipulating, infecting and challenging their mortal carriers, driving them to actions that lead to consequences none of them could foresee.

Leconte wrote his script based on a Georges Simenon novel (Les fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933) which had been filmed once before, as Panique, in 1947, by Julien Duvivier – in fact, it was Leconte’s viewing of the older version on television that first interested him in the project. Rather than attempting a ‘remake’ of Duvivier’s film, the director explains (in a short 1991 interview included on the DVD) that his intention was rather to create ‘a new adaptation’ which, while remaining respectful to Simenon’s story, became ‘…a more personal work, expressing my own ideas, also to express something that’s very interesting to me, and troubling, which is erotic desire.’ The film lives and breathes with the success of Leconte’s intentions, but in a way that stops far short of being erotically explicit or exploitive, relying instead on the stunning performances of the two leads (Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire and Sandrine Bonnaire as Alice) to convey rich feelings with a dark gentleness that belies the powerful emotions seething beneath the surfaces of their characters’ external façades. Leconte and his principals accomplish this without resorting to any visceral sex scenes – the single short flash of nudity that occurs when Hire is depicted in a sauna at a high-class brothel is over almost before it begins.
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The film opens with natural ambient sounds over the credits, which roll on a solid black background (the end credits are presented in a similar manner, effectively framing the film itself and thereby audibly ‘placing’ it in everyday reality). Music begins only with a fade to a scene that presages the voyeuristic aspects that will be developed more fully later on – the pale body of a young woman lies on the ground, almost in an attitude of peaceful sleep, the camera viewing her from a level very near the ground. A man – revealed as a police detective, who is never identified by name – looks down on her, then with a nod instructs his assistants to cover her with a sheet. We next see him sitting in her apartment, and hear his thoughts in a voiceover: ‘Pierrette died on her 22nd birthday. That’s no age to die, people say, as though there were a right age.’ He wonders about why she had to die, and who might have killed her, as he goes through the things in her apartment – a type of post-mortem voyeurism in itself – and muses that ‘…no one will hold her in their arms again...’, giving voice to the importance of touch, which will also be repeated throughout the course of the film. The scene shifts to the morgue, with her corpse on a table covered to the shoulders with a sheet, her hands folded in false repose in front of her. He kneels beside her, obviously moved, and places both of his hands over hers, leaning in for a closer look at her face before standing and, in a more procedural but still touching gesture, snaps a photo of her lifeless face.

Monsieur Hire is a lonely man in the deepest, most painful and desperate sense – he occupies a small, neat, sparsely furnished apartment. His job as a tailor allows him to manifest his talent and creativity, but only to a certain extent – the work he does seems professional and proficient, elegant in a simple way, but it is a solitary pursuit, done in a small shop that is inhabited only by him, the occasional customer, and a small cage of white mice he keeps as pets. The depths of his feelings are never displayed overtly by Michel Blanc – his portrayal, however, is rich in the subtlety with which he allows the viewer to know Hire more intimately and effectively than if he were writing his own biography, or pouring out his soul to a therapist. Blanc manages to convey more with an almost imperceptible shift of his eyes than most actors express with blatantly obvious displays of emotion. The tenderness with which he removes a dead mouse from amongst the others in the cage, gently wrapping the body in a carefully chosen remnant left by his work, then dropping it, almost ceremoniously, into the river, is very moving.

Hire’s neighbours revile and distrust him. The children who live in his apartment building regularly make him the target of their taunts (he sits stoically at his rollup desk, eating a poached egg, hardly reacting at all when they pound on his door, then run away, laughing, down the stairs). Yet our first glimpse of him, in one of the film’s earliest scenes, shows him extending kindness to one of them, his hand on the head of a little girl, gently directing her gaze toward a doorway, having her count to 30, in an apparent attempt to cure her of a headache, or perhaps a fear, by distracting her in a relaxing manner. When she finishes counting, he removes his hand, bends slightly to address her, comfortingly saying, ‘See…? All gone now.’ He then walks away, headed to his tailor shop. She looks after him with a gaze that is so unaffectedly childlike that it could not possibly be coaxed from a performer, a mixture of gratitude and unease – the man who has been the butt of so many pranks has shown her a moment of honest compassion, and she doesn’t quite understand it.
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Monsieur Hire 004
His aching solitude finds an outlet in his furtive, frequent viewing of Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), a beautiful young woman who lives in the apartment building across the way. Rarely closing her curtains, she goes about her life unaware that she is being watched – for hours every day, apparently – by the solitary Hire from his darkened window. She casually dresses and undresses, bathes, does her chores, and conducts a love affair with her fiancé Emile (Luc Thuillier), all under Hire’s steady, unflinching gaze. It is only by a chance flash of lightning one night, illuming his face in an almost ghostlike manner, that she sees him in his window and realises that she is being watched. Shocked and frightened at first, she gradually becomes fascinated with this voyeuristic stranger, and sets up a situation through which – to Hire’s subtly revealed but obvious horror and discomfort – the two of them meet face to face.
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The detective investigating the murder of the young woman turns his attentions early to the reclusive, almost universally despised Hire, his instincts aroused by the fact that the man is a loner, neither liked nor trusted by those who live around him. He attempts to coerce a reaction by asking why he is disliked so much. Hire relates, ‘They don’t. It’s true. But then, I don’t like them.’ Pressed to explain, he adds, 'I’m not very sociable or friendly, and they don’t like that. Conversations stop when I approach and resume after I’ve passed by. It doesn’t bother me. I prefer silence. I don’t like to talk.’ The detective nods and observes, ‘You’re a strange guy.’ Hire responds, ‘I don’t agree. See? You’re just like the rest of them.’ He then discovers that he’s under suspicion – the detective mentions the murder and the fact that a cab driver saw a man in a dark overcoat running toward Hire’s apartment building. The tailor shows no emotion, merely commenting that ‘Life is horrible’. He then gets in a subtle jab of his own, saying, after the investigator has apparently faked sudden pain in order to elicit a reaction, ‘It can’t be easy to still be just a detective at your age.’ It hits home – the expression on the face of the policeman reveals this.

The detective continues to question Hire frequently, returning again and again, both to the shop and to the small apartment, sometimes almost brutally hounding and embarrassing him, in one instance forcing him, in the presence of several of his neighbours, who have gathered out of morbid curiosity, and very likely in the hope of seeing him squirm, to reenact the scene witnessed by the cab driver. One of his neighbours goes so far as to put out a foot to trip him, causing him to stumble and fall to the ground. When the cabbie admits that he cannot say with total certainty that Hire was the man he saw that night, the detective calls off the ‘show’ and the crowd disperses.
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The police investigation reveals that Hire has a record (just how long ago the offense occurred is not revealed) – casually showing up at a bowling alley where Hire has apparently been engaged to draw a crowd by exhibiting his skill at the game, the detective confronts him with it, ‘…six months for indecent assault. That’s not going to help your case.’ The tailor’s face is impassive, and the detective continues to attempt to pry information for him, questioning him about his name, which Hire freely admits was changed from Hirovitch by his father and grandfather. Continuing, believing that he is dealing with a ‘simple’ sexual predator, the policeman attempts to shock a reaction from Hire by asking, with a smile, ‘Tell me, Monsieur Hire…how long is it since you came inside a woman?’ The tailor makes no reply, his face revealing nothing beyond a brief sidelong glance.

The friendship that grows between Alice and her voyeur is a strange one – her feelings of shock and danger seem to disappear rather quickly, replaced by expressions of understanding, accompanied by a revelation that she actually finds herself enjoying being watched. The love that Hire has felt for her for some time grows even stronger – and while initially he attempts to remain emotionally aloof, he begins to let his feelings for her become known, a little at a time.
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At one point, he takes her to the brothel he has regularly visited, recounting the repeated scenes with various girls in detail – his emphasis on the subtle, tactile aspects of their contact illustrate that the sex act itself is not the ultimate goal for him. His life is such an isolated existence that he values simple, honest touch above other aspects of physical intimacy. He tells Alice that he has stopped coming to spend time with the prostitutes because he has fallen in love with her, and doesn’t need the attentions of these women any more. His detailed description of his experiences at the brothel shock and repulse her, but at the same time it’s easy to see that she’s touched by his honesty, and that she believes him when he professes his love for her. His narrative implies that events were almost exactly the same each time, and that the women with whom he spent time there were interchangeable to him because the services they offered were not felt on a deeper level, making this activity an easy thing for him to forego.

Emile, Alice's fiancé, is apparently involved, or has been involved, in some sort of activity that has caused him to be under the gaze of the police…yet another type of voyeurism. The tension he feels under this scrutiny begins to loom larger in their relationship, causing emotional cracks to appear. At one point, he assures Alice that he wants to marry her – when she reminds him of this later, telling him ‘…the time is now’, he hedges, citing his problems and uncertain future. As her relationship with Emile becomes less satisfying and more unpromising, we see Alice apparently begin to rely emotionally more on Hire. The lonely man finds himself beginning to believe that the two of them might share a future together, and to think more solidly along those lines as the film comes to its climax. Rather than reveal any more about the plot here, I’ll just state that like all well-made thrillers, there are twists and turns along the way that are quite skillfully and believably made real by the director and his cast.

More than simply presenting the story itself, the film gives the viewer plenty of cause to contemplate the fine line between love and obsession, along with all of the grey areas that surround these two states. Hire’s voyeurism of Alice, while inarguably disturbing, is pursued by him with a pure heart, with an almost meditative calmness and reflection. He is never seen engaging in physical self-gratification in relation to his voyeurism, nor is it ever implied. Just as the early scene with the little girl illustrates, I believe, that Hire is in not a sexual predator, per se, another, depicting him at work in his shop setting the hem of a dress for a young female customer, shows that him visibly undistracted by the legs of the young woman (the rest of whom is never shown) standing on the fitting stool just inches from his face. The consummate professional, he concentrates on his work, without an iota of lust in his eyes or in his expression, simply asking her to turn a bit now and then so he can continue to progress around the hem of the dress. This is an extremely complex character whose inner thoughts and feelings are not clumsily conveyed by over-emotive acting. The skill with which Michel Blanc fleshes out his part is immense, on a career-defining level, quietly and completely stepping into the shoes and soul of a man whose pain and loneliness have manifested themselves in facets that open slowly to the audience. It’s almost like watching a flower unfold – and the beauty, despite the darker sides of the character, is undeniable. Sandrine Bonnaire – who has given many standout performances in her career, including a veritable tour-de-force as the young vagrant in Agnès Varda’s 1985 masterpiece Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), is absolutely perfect here as well. Patrice Leconte has brought forth something very special in Monsieur Hire – a finely-crafted, intelligently written and well-acted thriller, to be sure…but a treasure of much deeper proportions that will reveal more and inspire more thought and contemplation with repeated viewings, even after the ending is known to an open-minded and appreciative audience.

trailer :