16 November 2009

Valentin Silvestrov
Fleeting melodies

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

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

Valentin Silvestrov
Valentin Silvestrov

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

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

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

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

Fleeting memories at UMKA

09 November 2009

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

The Dardenne brothers
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

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

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

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

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