Speaking from on High: Bruno Ganz and ECM

We will never record it: the black
Choirs of water flowing on moss,
The black sun’s kisses opening,
Upon their blindness, like two eyes
Enormous, open in bed against one’s own.
–Lawrence Durrell

Swiss thespian Bruno Ganz will be familiar to any cinephile as angel Damiel, the veritable heartbeat of Wim Wenders’s 1987 classic Der Himmel über Berlin (a.k.a. Wings of Desire), one of his many iconic turns on the silver screen. Field any admirer about his acting, and his voice is sure to come up in the conversation. Ganz speaks as he moves, carefully yet not without an honest revelation of frailty.

ECM producer Manfred Eicher was already well aware of these vocal powers, and in 1984 and 1999 sought to strike them on a handful of poetic anvils to see where the sparks might fall. The results were two exemplary spoken word sessions which, though things of beauty, may alienate anyone without knowledge of the German language. It is a curious thing when this happens: a performer whose cinematic gifts are so easily shared through subtitles and international distribution, while his speech off screen is limited only to those who understand it sans technology. With no translations to hold our hands, we left to wander these worded landscapes alone.

Hölderlin – Gedichte gelesen von Bruno Ganz
 (ECM New Series 1285)
Recorded March 1984 in Berlin
Engineer: Bernhard Voss
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ganz walks the fingers of his diction across the many bridges between bodies heavenly and earthly to be found in the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin. He begins between the Gemini and ends bearing a torch of proper time, scratching the sky like fingers of St. Elmo’s fire from the masts of those final utterances.

And indeed, fire was a leitmotif for the deteriorating poet, who painted himself a sufferer of ephemeral things. He sometimes set his semantic jewels into hymns, like the laudatory “Der Ister,” in which he bids,

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day,
And when the trial
Has passed through our knees,
May someone sense the forest’s cry.

We can almost feel the leaves tickling us through Ganz’s breath, can almost smell the purge of fervent prayer that springs from its lines. He, Hölderlin, folds the pages of childhood into a book of spiritual recall who once bathed in the waters of “Der Neckar,” that river of yesterday which snakes outside the window of his tower. It draws him like no other place, its grip stronger than mythology’s most resilient scars:

Perhaps someday my guardian deity will bring me
To these islands, but even then my thoughts
Would remain loyal to the Neckar
With its lovely meadows and pastoral shores.

Even as he holds a sure ticket in his written life, a ticket that might take him anywhere, he would rather tear it into a thousand snowflakes and powder the craggy peaks of “Ihr sicher gebaueten Alpen” (“You solidly built Alps”). This fragment of stillness, this flicker of oneness with Nature, is no more than the shadow of an avalanche deflected by a palette knife.


Gentle slumbers and wistful years pass like light through gauze in “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), morphing into the outstretched hand of Diotima, her omnipresent heart refolded into a dialogue with Mnemosyne:

The fruits are ripe, dipped in fire,
Cooked and sampled on earth.

That same heart has become the hearth, seasoning lies until they smell like truths. Ganz carries over this sustenance as he emotes the subtle horror of “Rückkehr in die Heimat” (Return Home). Like a bed sheet that can never be completely smoothed out, every fiber of his being raises interest elsewhere, so that by the time he turns back to “Da ich ein Knabe war” (When I was a boy), there is only the spoken word to show for his passing. Hölderlin shapes the text like a stairway into the very bosom of his proto-family:

When I was a boy
  a god would often rescue me
    from the shouting and violence of humans.

A later verse seems to turn in on itself:

The euphony of the rustling
meadow was my education;
among flowers I learned to love.

This, like many, was or grew out of, a fragment, the spore of a grander evening song that sprouted wings but chose to walk instead. In it thrives the search for purity where there can be none, except through the letters that shape its concept. Yet Hölderlin has no place on the battlefield of sign and message. The poet’s cause is by definition laced with deception, for the one who utters it cannot remain on the page.

Hölderlin’s is a world of meditation, where the vagaries of the flesh are quashed by the beauty thereof; a place of cosmic pulses and tears of starlight.

In closing, René Char’s Prometheus brings the sun to earth, laying it in the veined hands of Paul Celan, whose varicose words react like leaves on a dead tree—which is to say they sing for as long as they fall.

<< David Torn: Best Laid Plans (ECM 1284)
>> Shankar: Song For Everyone (ECM 1286)

… . …

Wenn Wasser Wäre
 (ECM New Series 1723)
Recorded 1999 in Zürich and Basel
Engineer: Fabian Lehmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title here means “If there were water,” and buries us alive in “The Waste Land” before we even delve into the album proper. The booklet is far more informative this time around, and in a beautifully realized essay Steve Lake threads the spatial and temporal divide between T. S. Eliot’s masterwork and the poetry of fellow Nobel Prize laureate Giorgos Seferis. Through an intimate awareness of these texts and sounds, he notes, we are bound to neither.

While Ganz was working on the set of Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day, the Greek auteur handed him a volume of Seferis’s poetry. Enthralled, he responded to Eicher’s gentle nudges to record this follow-up session. This time, selections from composers György Kurtág, Giya Kancheli, and Nikos Xydakis shuffle the deck of his recitation into an even darker eclipse.

What was fire to Hölderlin is now water to Seferis, who casts his sentiments, and us along with them, in “Flasche im Meer” (Bottle in the Sea):

Here we moored the ship to splice the broken oars,
to drink water and to sleep.
The sea that embittered us is deep and unexplored
and unfolds a boundless calm.

Gone is the majesty of sunset, the strangers’ footprints in the sand. In their place, a shoreline of broken chairs and ammunition: a sister landscape to Eliot’s.


Yet it is Seferis’s “Thrush” that is the anchor of this vessel. Its unabashed interweaving of the erotic and the unsettling evens the scales:

Light, angelic and black,
laughter of waves on the sea’s highways,
tear-stained laughter,
the old suppliant sees you
as he moves to cross the invisible fields.

Water has a voice. It is wordless, but more emotional than anyone who listens. Powerful or not, you cannot overcome it. Years may go by before the lamps flicker again. You touch your hand to the first door you can find. You turn the knob…

            …and you find yourself
in a large house with many windows open

running from room to room, not knowing from where to
    look out first,
because the pine-trees will vanish, and the mirrored
    mountains, and the chirping of birds
the sea will drain dry, shattered glass, from north
    and south
your eyes will empty of daylight
the way the cicadas suddenly, all together, fall silent.

Not unlike the words he reads, Ganz is the feather-light sledgehammer of pathos. He crushes without hiding, hides without running. At his lips the word is holy because it communicates without image. It is the tightening of a chest when joy and fear alike reveal themselves to be as far from language as one can get. It rains from the sky in music, and tells us who we are.

But it is the sea
That takes and gives memory.

2 thoughts on “Speaking from on High: Bruno Ganz and ECM

  1. ….and yet another of those mysteriously scarce and obscure releases I’ve neither seen nor heard. It is great to read of Bruno Ganz…..he is just wonderful in one of our favorite movies, Bread and Tulips. If you’ve not seen it, make every effort to do so – he is unforgettable (as is the movie).

  2. I love Bread and Tulips! I rented it for the first time three summers ago, not knowing that Ganz was even in it. What a powerfully understated performance he gave. He’s one of the greats, for sure.

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