02 March 2009

Borah Bergman : of two minds
Borah Bergman
Borah Bergman’s genius is nothing short of staggering. Famous for his compositional, performing and improvising abilities, which are augmented immeasurably by his incredible cross-handed technique (it’s like listening to two players, or someone with two minds, as referenced above), he has long been a perfect foil for such free jazz envelope-pushers as Evan Parker, Andrew Cyrille, Lol Coxhill, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Peter Brötzmann…the list goes on and on. I’ve admired his work in these settings, but at least for my tastes, most of the time, they tend to be a little on the ‘heavy’ side, making my forays into them rare…in other words, I really have to be in the mood. By contrast, his last two releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label (through which Zorn is apparently out to redefine the term ‘prolific’, with admirable results) are two of my favorite piano-centered jazz recordings. There’s a beauty to each of them that is both transcendent and transporting – but in case anyone out there thinks that translates as ‘elevator music’ or some sort of smarmy ‘smooth jazz’, they should think again. Bergman’s influences come from classical music (Ives, Ravel, &c), as well as innovators from the world of jazz such as Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Fats Waller and Earl Hines. Everything we experience colors our perception, some things influencing us greatly and inspiring us to reach further, to dream – applied to the creative process, whether in music or some other art, these inspirations can be a springboard to creating something entirely new. Bergman’s has taken this direction – his work is unique, thoughtful and filled with a living, breathing beauty.

Meditations for piano
Tzadik, 2003

Meditations for piano is just that, in the purest sense of the word when applied to works of music. These are unaccompanied piano pieces, and whether they were composed ahead of time or improvised in the studio, there is a logic and structure to them that belies their seeming simplicity. It’s as if the listener is being given an opportunity to peer into Bergman’s creative processes – there’s a feeling of ‘newness’ to these pieces, the notes being released into the air for the very first time. He spins out some of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard, obviously giving great consideration to the construction of each and every track – a project like this always runs the risk of coming across as ‘noodling’, but never for a moment is that the case here. Each of his hands is equally adept at playing melody or support – his cross-handed work is never used as a gimmick, but as a means of extending a melodic run, or allowing one hand to switch tasks without breaking the melodic thought. Sometimes he lingers over a pair of notes, or a triad, before continuing to pursue the music’s path. There are moments when a theme or part of a melody from one piece appears briefly in another – a fragment of memory, the music revealing the mental processes behind it.

Luminescence
Tzadik, 2009

Luminescence places Bergman in a trio setting, accompanied by Greg Cohen on double-bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, with the addition of John Zorn's saxophone on one track. Even though this is a group session, with capable and thoughtful contributions from his partners, this is Bergman’s recording from start to finish – Cohen and Wollesen lay back so quietly in places that it’s easy to forget they’re there. When they do step up, the restraint and synchronization they exhibit is breathtakingly perfect – they never overwhelm. It’s as if Bergman’s playing is a visible work of art for which they’re providing the frame.

Anytime a musician pours forth creativity of such depth, it's inevitable that his / her cultural heritage comes into play – the nature of personal creativity, after all, precludes dishonesty, and it would be false to ignore the soul’s core in bringing works of art into fruition. Bergman’s Jewish roots (he dedicates Meditations for piano to his grandfather, Cantor Joseph Meir Pergamenick) can be heard throughout both of these discs – the plaintive minor melodies that almost convey audible words in their hearts – but it is on Luminescence that they’re more prominent. Does that make this ‘Jewish music’? I doubt that many listeners would categorize it as such – the beauty it carries is too universal in its appeal to be confined by such a definition, and neither Bergman, the music itself, nor the listener deserves to be burdened with such limitations.

One of Bergman’s poems graces the back of the insert to Meditations for piano
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A boy had sat there waiting for a touch on his shoulder,
from behind, someone to surprise him,
and turning, a greeting, words, a touch and a smile.

Smiles, he had a hunger for them.
Girl smiles, they shook him,
he wanted to put his hand onto one.

How could someone touch a smile?
When the hand went along the lips and part of the face,
although the shape remained, the feeling in the smile vanished.

He had asked her once to hold her smile still
finding about the feeling then.

He wondered if this feeling had to do with the smile
coming on without a plan
– just happening.
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The music on these recordings is filled with deep thought and contemplation, wrapped in the gentle, unforced beauty, the natural spontaneous grace of such a smile. It’s probably as close as one could ever come to actually touching one.

Tzadik Recordings

01 March 2009

Les temps du loup (Time of the wolf)
Time of the wolf DVD cover
written and directed by Michael Haneke
2002 / France / color / 111 minutes (+ bonus features)
French with optional English subtitles
DVD from Artificial Eye (UK – region 2, PAL)

The end of the world – up close and personal…

Austrian director Michael Haneke has never been one to make ‘easy’ films – critics and audiences alike have had difficulty with his work. He is quoted in an October 2003 interview in Britain’s The Independent as saying, ‘When I go to see a film, I don't want to leave the cinema in the same way I entered it, otherwise it's a waste of time. I assume the same of my viewers, I take them seriously…People are used to seeing things that are totally rounded off, consumable – films that say everything and are immediately forgotten. I want to destabilise the viewer, and teaching a lesson is the last thing I want to do. If someone doesn't get me, they don't get me. That's not my problem.’ Whereas most directors – particularly those at the commercial heart of the US film industry – would fill any work dealing with an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world theme with mind-numbing special effects, Haneke has taken a higher road, centering his story around the very human trials of a family faced with the sudden prospect of surviving in a shattered society, struggling at the most basic levels to find shelter and food, to maintain and retain some form of humanity.

Haneke draws on the immense talents of his cast, particularly Isabelle Huppert (who starred in his 2001 film La pianiste [The piano teacher]) and young Anaïs Demoustier, who portray Anne and her teenage daughter Eva, respectively. As the film opens, we see them (along with Georges, Anne’s husband, and Ben, their son, who seems to be around ten) arrive at a secluded cabin in a wooded area, which we learn is their property, a summer home perhaps. They are surprised to find, as they begin to bring their belongings inside, that the dwelling is occupied by an unknown family – they are not made welcome, to say the least, by the ensuing violent reaction. Anne and her children are forced to flee, leaving behind their car and most of their provisions – they set out on foot, and as they go from door to door in the nearby village seeking aid and sustenance, it becomes more and more apparent that the region (perhaps the world) has undergone a widespread catastrophe, the nature of which is never explained. Electricity is a thing of the past, and supplies of food, fuel, and other necessities are dwindling rapidly, guarded and hoarded by those who have them.
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At one stopover, as they take shelter in an abandoned haybarn, young Ben wanders off in the night, setting Anne and Eva into a panic. The mother’s instincts will not allow her to leave off searching for the boy until daylight – she gathers armfuls of hay as makeshift torches and sets out into the night to find him. Haneke’s filming is brilliant throught the film – and in everything I’ve seen by him – but it is especially effective in this work, with so much of the first half of the film taking place in darkness or deep fog. The torch that Anne bears, calling her son’s name, only serves to deepen the darkness around her, revealing nothing but her own isolation in a world gone mad. Eva attempts to keep a fire burning in the barn, but the fire and the proximity of the hay make a bad combination, and the structure burns to the ground. The next day, as they sit among the remains, having not found the boy and sinking into a deep despair, a young man about Eva’s age approaches with Ben in controlled tow – they are relieved to see Ben alive, but convincing the feral youth to free him takes some doing – he is wary of anyone and everyone he meets, and very reluctant to talk about either his personal situation or the prospects that face anyone who is still alive. Despite his attitude, Anne shows kindness to him by changing the dressing on his wounded hand – and as she and her children travel on, his path seems to paralle their own, as they continue to come into contact with him.
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Eventually they arrive at a rail station where other refugees have taken shelter, awaiting a train that may or may not arrive, placing their hopes in the possibility of forcing it to stop and take them away, to some unknown ‘better place’. They are led – ‘controlled’ or ‘bullied’ might be a more appropriate word – by a man named Koslowski (played by the great actor Olivier Gourmet, veteran of several features made by the Belgian Dardenne brothers). He imposes a sort of order on the group, much of which appears to be made up as he goes along, and which of course favors him remaining in control – one accuses him of being the leader by virtue of the gun in his pocket, and there is more than casual resentment of him. With objects of any value for trade becoming more and more scarce, several of the women apparently choose to sleep with him in return for special attention or favors. It is a picture of society robbed of its support structure, knocked down to its most basic levels. Religious beliefs have suddenly become twisted, tied up in knots with fables and made-up rumors – a group of beings called ‘The Just’ are described as ‘keeping the world turning’. Another group called ‘The Brothers of Fire’ is blamed for the current state of affairs – they have apparently not engaged in their practice of sacrificial self-immolation frequently enough to prevent the disaster from occurring.
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Haneke creates an incredible sense of tension in the film by focusing on the characters’ humanity and emotions, rather than relying on the aforementioned special effects to carry his story. He says in the accompanying bonus feature on the making of Time of the wolf, ‘I didn’t want to do a genre film, a disaster film. I wanted to do a very private film on interpersonal relationships. In every newscast you see on TV there is a mini-end-of-the-world, but it’s at a distance. It’s always other people experiencing this. I wanted to do a film for our superficial society: those who are doing well, who feel comfortable…and give them a taste of what it would be like if it happened to them.’ His filming and writing techniques, along with the manner in which he deals with his actors and extracts from them exactly what he wants for his work, bring the viewer into such close contact with the characters that it is almost impossible not to identify with them on the deepest level. These characters are completely human in the truest sense of the word. Haneke continues, ‘I always try in all my films to be humanist…because I think if you are truly and seriously interested in art, you can’t be otherwise. It’s a necessary condition. Art without humanism is a contradiction, it doesn’t exist. That’s the strongest reason to believe in what I do.’ At the same time, his films are devoid of any unnecessary sentimentality that might make the story easier for the viewer to bear – his work is incredibly rewarding to experience, but requires more work on the part of the audience than mass-produced multiplex cinematic fare.

In the same feature, Isabelle Huppert comments on Haneke’s directorial skills, comparing him to Hitchcock – and she says ‘I don’t use the name Hitchcock lightly.’ She notes his ability to create tension simply through the manner in which he films his characters and places them spatially onscreen. She also addresses the interpersonal relationships within Time of the wolf, the characters thrown together in a manner to which they are unaccustomed, the rules of society in tatters: ‘You can see within this group all the injustice, all the tension…You can see all the suffering. The suffering is created by the same circumstances under which they find themselves gathered in this way. But violence emerges within the group almost immediately. This microcosm is learning to live again. There’s a bit of hope as well, that comes from the children.’

The younger characters are indeed the greatest source of hope and optimism in the story. Eva discovers a pencil and a writing tablet in a desk drawer at the rail station and begins composing a letter to her dead father – when Anne later discovers it in her daughter’s coat pocket, it allows her a deeper understanding of the pain Eva is feeling, which has been difficult for her to discuss with her mother. Eva also shows a great deal of compassion for the young man who had kidnapped Ben, trying – mostly in vain – to get him to talk with her about his feelings, to open up to another human being. But it is Ben who, perhaps, in the film’s ultimate sequence, demonstrates the greatest urge to give of his very humanity in order to bring about the positive changes that are so desperately needed by the survivors of the still-unnamed disaster. The last scene is one that, I believe, will linger in the mind and heart of the viewer long after the film is over, compelling contemplation and reflection on the true meaning of our shared humanity, and on the nature of hope.
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There are brief episodes of shocking violence in the film – but when compared to other, more commercially distributed works, they are few and far between. They are there because they are part of the story that Haneke is telling, not because he feels any cheap need to titillate an audience. Neither is there any nudity to speak of, and any sex is either implied or glimpsed fleetingly, without visceral details – it’s relative to its place in the story. Everything in the film is there for a reason – and it’s the overall effect, the combination of all the elements drawn on by the writer / director (and of course the cast), that make the whole as effective as it is.
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I've written here about the UK release, from Artificial Eye – the film has also been released on DVD in the US by Palm Pictures, and should therefore be readily available for either purchase or rental (n. b. – be sure not to be confused by another film with the same title, directed by Rod Pridy and starring Burt Reynolds…!). I can also highly recommend La pianiste (The piano teacher) and especially Caché (Hidden) by Haneke – I’ve shared the latter with friends on a couple of occasions, and I’ve long thought that it was a film that Hitchcock would be proud to have made...and as Isabelle Huppert said, ‘I don’t use the name Hitchcock lightly.’