Playing Pärt

Playing Pärt

Playing Pärt

Directed and filmed by Dorian Supin
Release date: October 12, 2012

In 2011, the Old Town Music School of Collegium Educationis Revaliae and the International Arvo Pärt Centre put on a student concert of Pärt’s music at St Michael’s Church in Tallinn. Playing Pärt documents both this historic performance and the rehearsals leading up to it, supplemented by interviews with the composer and his wife, Nora.

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Said concert is a charming, in-depth survey of Pärt’s legacy, and of the beauty that gives it resonance. Many pieces on the program will be familiar to ECM listeners: organ works Trivium and Pari Intervallo (the latter arranged here for four guitars), Da Pacem Domine (arranged for four recorders), and the solemn Für Alina are standouts among them. Spiegel im Spiegel, for its balance of tension and prayer, is another. Throughout, a quiet respect prevails by way of a “local” feeling that cannot be replicated in the international concert hall. These melodies, however familiar, paint even more direct lines to the heart when so endearingly performed. Like fragrances in sound, they waft through the senses, following ancient channels of memory even while forging new ones.

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Delightful surprises abound. First and foremost are “The Cycle of Four Easy Dances,” from the 1959 collection Music for Children’s Theatre, including the rarely heard “Butterflies” and the evocative “Dance of the Ducklings,” replete with dissonant splashes of webbed feet. Just as alluring is “I’m Already Big,” a children’s song composed when Pärt was a student. The focus on youth feels as poignant as it does inevitable, and makes indelible impressions in such choral settings as Veni Creator (a 2006 commission from the German Bishops’ Conference), Bogoróditse Djévo (a 1990 commission from Cambridge King’s College Choir, based on a Church Slavonic hymn to the Virgin Mary), and Vater Unser (composed in 2005 and based on a German translation of the Lord’s Prayer), for which the composer at the piano accompanies a quartet of singers.

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Other highlights are Ukuaru Waltz, originally composed for the film Ukauru (1973, dir. Leid Laius) and performed on two chromatic kannels (plucked zithers), the aleatoric Diagramme (Pärt’s opus 11), and Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, a solo piano piece composed in 1977 while daughter Ariina was recovering from an appendix operation. Trepidations and hope of light breathe through every note.

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Yet it’s in the rehearsals where Pärt’s humilities come out in full attendance. More than providing insight into the mind of a world-renowned composer, they reveal the soul of a man whose entire concept of art is nothing without faith in eternity. He understands the quality of sound, and the beauty of it being played with heart. If anything, and for that very reason, he’s more demanding of the children’s pieces, which in all their etudinal simplicity allow the interpreter’s soul to resound. During a rehearsal of “Butterflies,” for instance, he says, “It’s essential for the music to have some kind of secret. That’s the case of the butterfly as well. It’s a mysterious creature.” For him, the rudiment is sacred.

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His music has materiality, and he treats it accordingly. Whether stressing the positions of a pianist’s hands while playing Für Alina or chiding himself for inclusion of inappropriate dynamics in the original score to “Dance of the Ducklings” (upon hearing which, he exclaims, “A beautiful piece. Did I compose it?”), he upholds the value of any given moment to shape something unexpected, personal, and true.

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We encounter echoes of this philosophy in his conversations with Nora. In these, the subject of the interpreter is a red thread, pulling at questions of authority versus idiosyncrasy, and concluding that one must be both strong and gentle in order to play music with genuine feeling. “It has to be born in the soul of the interpreter,” he says, for in the body thereof is something concrete and in the metaphysical thereof is something ineffable. “The composer,” he goes on to say, “can learn a lot from the interpreter.” Most musicians, Nora agrees, are unresponsive to this suggestion. It’s like trying to explain how the sun shines. Hardship, Pärt adds, helps people understand this. Children notice it, too. Hence, the concert. They are straightforward, avers Nora, whereas professionals are contending with “a thousand different traditions.” Innocence allows performers to take notes seriously. She further likens music to the optical effect of two binocular images merging into one, a simile I would extend to the listener’s relationship to what’s being heard. Countless motifs out there are waiting to blend into our own. Let this film be a reminder of our openness to the spiritually healthiest ones.

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Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity (ECM 5052)

Arrows Into Infinity

Charles Lloyd
Arrows Into Infinity

A film produced and directed by Dorothy Darr and Jeffery Morse
Appearances by Lewie Steinberg, original bassist for Booker T and the MGs; Buddy Collette, musician and mentor; John Densmore, drummer for the Doors; writer Stanley Crouch; Michael Cuscuna, producer at Mosaic Records; drummer Jim Keltner; Robbie Robertson, guitarist, the Band; pianist Herbie Hancock; Arthur Monroe, artist and chief curator of the Oakland Museum of Art; Manfred Eicher; Jack DeJohnette; Don Was, musician, president of Blue Note Records; pianist Jason Moran; educator Herman Bossett; Jessica Felix, founder of Healdsburg Jazz Festival; educator and historian Phil Schaap; Dizzy Gillespie; Ayuko Babu, founder of the Pan African Film Festival; wife Dorothy Darr; Ornette Coleman; John Gilbreath, artistic director of Earshot Jazz; Ustad Zakir Hussain; drummer Eric Harland; pianist Geri Allen; bassist Larry Grenadier; vocalist Alicia Hall Moran; bassist Reuben Rogers
Release date: July 18, 2014

Oh, Forest Flower tell me, do.
How can I become like you?
Indifferent to the sham
That always changes and rearranges who I am.

From the Mississippi to the Hudson, rivers have run their courses through the life of Charles Lloyd. Like the 1938 flood in Memphis, Tennessee during which he was born, those waters have broken the levees of his soul, loosening sediments of buried pasts. With archival care, filmmakers Dorothy Darr and Jeffery Morse dust off and piece together as many of these as they can into a narrative of interconnected branches. Grafting these to the same flowering tree, they offer us an unparalleled glimpse into one of jazz’s most shade-giving griots.

The trunk of this story roots itself in biographically rich soil. From under the wing of Phineas Newborn, Jr., Lloyd emerged holding the feathers of others who walked before him. Like rhythm in Charlie Parker’s purview, he was liberated to articulate the minutiae of jazz traditions with a voice that was more than personal: it was organic. From moving to New York City, where Booker Little peeled away the Big Apple’s skin for an easier bite, and where he jumped into the pond of Chico Hamilton’s band, to the path of illumination he now walks, there’s more than a lifetime’s worth of creative impulses to map along the canvas of our wonder. Here’s an artist who offered his future at the altar of what came before, treating character not as a calling card but as manifestation of inner life.

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Although typically associated with the tenor saxophone, Lloyd began as an altoist. He only switched to the deeper cousin at the urging of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, who understood its range and possibilities. The suggestion was well taken, and Lloyd found himself once again broadening his wingspan. On stage with guitarist Gábor Szabó, in whose band Lloyd’s own compositions took flight, he developed more than a sound but a presence. After a brief stint with Herbie Hancock at Slug’s, then recording the album Of Course Of Course for Columbia (a reunion with Gabor that included Carter and Tony Williams), he joined forces with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette. Hence, a creative explosion—if not also an implosion, as the sound was so introspective.

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Lloyd soon found himself on bills with Grateful Dead (who were big fans) and Steve Miller, among others, and consequently drew appeal from younger audiences, kicking off a period of international touring and recognition. Along the way, he marked his trail with the classic Forest Flower (recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966), stopping also in Tallinn, Leningrad, and Moscow to great fanfare (people applauded so long, DeJohnette recalls, they had to be stopped by authorities). In the face of a quick rise to notoriety, Lloyd was resolutely concerned with freedom, breaking racial, cultural, and artistic barriers at a time when Vietnam, social unrest, and the civil rights movement were swirling in the public imagination. He was on his way to becoming an artist without geographic or spiritual boundaries who played the note that should be played.

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And yet, after such adventuresome projects as his Moon Man opera and a recording with the Beach Boys (Warm Waters), he feared becoming a product in and of an industry that demanded of him a “boring retelling of the truth.” All the while, he was searching for a “holy grail” in the music that was to be his salvation and his light. Disenchanted by the false gospel of stimulants, and with the music business in which they proliferated, he felt he owed a “debt to the tradition” and exiled himself in Big Sur to recalibrate his spiritual compass. For someone who, as Hancock put it, was “brimming with love,” it came as a difficult but necessary decision.

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During this period of reflection, he often played music outside, in response to (and in conversation with) nature. He sometimes shared performance spaces with actors and poets in California, all the while “uninvited” to the jazz circuit. While the world was waiting for a comeback, artist Dorothy Darr was finding inspiration in his music for her painting. Having first met him in 1968, she saw in him an unrivaled depth of expression, a beauty without and within. In light of this, we may read this film also as a love story, of which music is but one leaf.

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Then came the historic ECM debut with Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christenson. Producer Manfred Eicher describes their encounter in the studio as an “innocent first meeting.”

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Thus began a period of rejuvenation, including travels to India and the formation of Sangam with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland, with whom he expanded his feel for the living flesh of improvisation. In the 1990s, Lloyd and Billy Higgins reconnected for the first time in four decades, first in their Acoustic Mastersrecording on Atlantic, later in their masterful Which Way is East. Higgins was adamant about putting his dear friend back into the public forum, never hesitating to remind Lloyd that he was a conduit in service of higher power.

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The band with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland (documented on Mirror) is another vital ECM touchpoint by which is articulated the importance of trust. To that end, Moran tells us that Lloyd represents something that is almost extinct. Whatever that something is may differ from one listener to the next, but to my ears it’s an underlying humility that burns like a pilot light in the depths of his horn.

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If life is a cycle, then it is made of endless others. As if to confirm that philosophy, Eicher calls Lloyd an “artist in progress,” Geri Allen a “free perfectionist,” and Ayuko Babu one who transmits energy and joy to understand pain. However we choose to characterize him, he is one who plays that which he alone cannot articulate. Hence the importance of us the on receiving end to absorb his melodies like the food they are.

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Of all the images in this film, an enthralling clip of Lloyd improvising with DeJohnette in a forest stands out for its unbridled expression. It emphasizes the destructive tendencies of nature, swallowing their music down a throat of wind and light. And yet, their expulsions linger in the heart long after the inevitable fade, for we carry them as echoes of unrepeatable moments. It’s a sobering reminder that our hearts are the most indelible archives of all, gateways into understandings without end. Perhaps, as Lloyd says, you can’t shoot an arrow into infinity if you’re always in motion, but his music shoots arrows into us until we are still.

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Heinz Bütler / Manfred Eicher: Holozän

Holozän

Heinz Bütler
Manfred Eicher
Holozän

Heinz Bütler and Manfred Eicher
With Erland Josephson as Herr Geiser, Sophie Duez as Corinne, and Elevezia Barzan as Eine alte Frau
Music by J. S. Bach, Béla Bartók, Jan Garbarek, Paul Hindemith, Keith Jarrett, and Dimitri Shostakovich
Premiered in August of 1992 at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize
Produced by filmedition suhrkamp
Release date: October 30, 2009

Man alone is familiar with disasters, should he survive these; nature knows no disasters.

Based on Max Frisch’s 1979 short story, “The Man in the Holocene,” Holozän is among the most poignant studies of solitude committed to celluloid. Manfred Eicher’s only foray into filmmaking put the ECM Records producer in collaboration with director Heinz Bütler. Eicher co-wrote script and compiled the music for this experience, the rewards of which are manifold.

It comes as no surprise that Bütler studied languages and has a degree in translation and interpreting, for his directorial style is a master class in inflections and retellings. We see it in the opening shot of water as strains of Bach waft through the air. The juxtaposition is more than coincidental; it’s inevitable, for the music of Bach is equally timeless, as much a repository for chronologies as the oceans themselves. We’re then faced with the Ticino mountains, their skin a yielding sponge for sunrays. It’s as if the landscape has been folded in half, the crease between them an uneven horizon.

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Such quietude makes for artful contrast, and expresses the balancing act of life between sinking and floating. The low strings that follow with their grave tone seem to dig a grave in and of themselves: a pit of darkness wherein all beginnings must end. Herr Geiser (Erland Josephson) walks into his house, as if the mist congregated and pinched him out of ether. The interior walls are a gallery of curios: fragments of text, pictures torn from natural and unnatural histories alike.

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Although his name connotes a geyser, nothing could be further from his temperament. He cuts up encyclopedias and history books, saving some and burning others in a fireplace, speaking more through the rasp of scissors on paper than the push of lips over esophageal air. He contemplates the emptiness of that which has been committed to external memory, piecing together a new narrative via pre-established ones. A thunder storm rumbles outside his window as he shifts through their psychological echoes.

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That very sound hints at one of the film’s leitmotifs: namely, water in various states of unrest. Whether hanging like a curtain, collected in stagnant pools, or covering roads and less manicured paths, it’s both comfort and threat. For indeed, while he has taken refuge from that storm, the deeper one raging inside has real power to thrash him.

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He is losing his memory, and collects things as if the words of others might be pieced together to mimic his own. He finds companionship in the vestigial, but seeks encounters insofar as he is able to from his melancholy perch.

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The landscape harbors quiet menace in the eyes of this man, who looks with binoculars to be closer to it without actually being so. Even when a salamander wanders in from the rain, Geiser puts a magnifying glass up to it. The limpid gaze of this animal is the film’s only direct regard of the viewer, and shows the rudiments of Geiser’s intermediary technologies in making sense of nature.

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He studies a map, knowing he’ll never place his feet along its paths, and at one point must open the balcony door and shout his name into the mist, lest he forget it. In response, the mist enters the room in confirmation of his flesh.

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Fatigued by the cold, damp air, and by the menial chores demanding his attention, he creates others of circular purpose. He builds a house out of crackers, even as he eats its raw materials, destroying while creating, as if turning away from God’s generative almightiness. His almost-perverse interest in the journals of Sir Robert Scott of the British Antarctic Expedition, who along with his men died close to a supply depot when insurmountable weather prevented them from reaching it, betrays a butter-knifed masochism. He falls to the floor as images of natural disaster flicker on his TV, aware that the world might tear him apart at any moment. He exerts himself, doing exercises and limber moves, proving he still has a flicker of youth, but this only depresses him more. Physical memory, it seems, isn’t the same as mental.

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That said, there are two other people in the film: an old woman who prays through her rosary, and Geiser’s daughter Corinne. We see the latter driving up the mountain with Keith Jarrett’s music as her fuel. The mountain looms in her window. Upon arrival, she sifts through his things in his absence, as he is climbing. She reads the words on his wall to glue his memory, and with it lights a shriveled torch in her own. She watches the mist. Meanwhile, her father is alone in the wilderness, alive with strains of Jan Garbarek. He wanders at night with a flashlight, seeing only the details of his focus as all else recesses into darkness.

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Corinne reads from the same expedition journal. The end cannot be far. She fears for him. He falls asleep in a dilapidated building, only to awake at daybreak to find it was an old stone church. With a Paul Hindemith solo viola sonata brushing under her feet, Corinne talks with the old woman to find out where he went. He starts to make his way back, but stays to ponder among the rocks.

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Eicher’s indebtedness to Andrei Tarkovsky is indelible in almost every frame of Holozän, and it’s by no coincidence that Josephson made The Sacrificewith the Russian director. And not only for the mist, cautious regard of faces, and slow pacing, but also for the ambience. One can almost hearthe mist, leaves, and air. The creak of footsteps, click of stone against stone, whispers of water in various collective states: these are a language of foley, of the interim. A space where space itself is a soul turned inside out.

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Jean-Luc Godard / Anne-Marie Miéville: Four Short Films (ECM Cinema)

Four Short Films

Jean-Luc Godard
Anne-Marie Miéville
Four Short Films

Produced and edited by Manfred Eicher
Editorial assistance: Sophie Schricker
Release date: April 24, 2006

“Culture is the rule, art is the exception.”

Jean-Luc Godard’s relationship with ECM Records and its producer, Manfred Eicher, seems as inevitable as the output of both artists is prolific. Eicher understands that the relationship between sound and image is at its most beautiful when contrapuntal, as proven by his own foray into filmmaking when he co-directed and -wrote the film Holozän with Heinz Bütler in 1992, to say little of his meticulous attention to album art and presentation. Godard, for his part, practically invented the cinematic language with which he is so often associated. Said language has always been as much about the ears as the eyes, and has intensified as his awareness of ECM has grown. Godard, on Eicher: “Every time he sends us music we have the impression this is somebody who is giving us something to listen to, sound from a place which comes from the same family as the place to which one should go. He is in a world which is not the same as ours but is on friendly terms with ours. And he says with his music: Carry on living, carry on working!”

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And carry on he does in this lovingly packaged DVD, for which Eicher has assembled a selection of Godard’s collaborations with Anne-Marie Miéville. The latter’s genius was already confirmed by her second film, 1985’s Le Livre de Marie (The Book of Mary), which served as prelude for Godard’s excoriating Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary) of the same year. In that pairing, Miéville’s laser focus on intersections of gender, space, and history found a kindred spirit in Godard. It was only a matter of time before the two would mesh their talents.

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De l’origine du XXIe siècle (On the Origin of the Twenty-First Century) was a commission for the opening of the 2000 Cannes Festival. It’s a veritable gymnasium for Godard’s wordplay. His linguistic splits out the ruptures of an intrusive capitalism. We encounter a man playing violin on a country path as Sarah Leonard sings Górecki’s O Domina Nostra, interrupted by a gun shot and a scream. “You don’t wage war against outlaws,” says Miéville. “You exterminate them.” The people are always playing by an instruction manual written on the bodies of those who came before. Images of hanging, death, and torture ensue—not as an extension of shock value but as a critique of the master’s tools.

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“The spirit borrows from matter the perceptions it draws its nourishment from,” our narrator soliloquizes, “and gives them back as movement stamped with freedom.” Indeed, this is the process of speech at work, as words and impulses are scrambled and reshuffled to the tune of editorial improvisation. On that note, there is a haunting sequence in which The Shining’s Danny Torrance rides his tricycle through hallway as Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge plays. The minimal leanings of this music ensure that the threat of death is a coercive tactic to bring about negations on a grander scale. It reminds us that the human is empty without the possibility of destruction. As if to underscore this point, shades of Vietnam, of whispered lives given credence by historical memory, are given a blood transfusion of sound and movement.

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The victory of war is necessarily predicated on defeat, and in these fan-leaves one understands that life is reducible to the spines connecting them. As a boy looks at the tanks outside his train window, on his face is written the enterprise of colonial interpretation, by which lands are divided on a first-come-first-served basis. “The state’s rationale,” we are told, “directly opposes the sovereign value of love,” and in that statement burns a world of understanding. In the boy’s countenance is a capacity for love clipped by passing trees until its edges are as frayed as mortality. The negative spaces between those tendrils is where the musk of reality develops its pungency. In tying the iconic images of cinema with those of history, as funneled through the atrocities of Nazi killings and other warmongerings, Godard and Miéville elucidate the cinematic tendencies of history and the historical tendencies of cinema. These connections are powerful enough to enliven mere numbers flashed on a screen, as intertitles flash years of significance: a dance chart between the frivolity of the West and the death of the East. By the end, Godard has proven that one cannot represent the 20th century without evil.

Or 4

“Society makes the body something more than it is, and the soul something less.”

Old 2

Like its predecessor, The Old Place examines the role of art in history, only this time in still rather than moving images. Says Michael Althen of this piece, commissioned by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1999, “[T]he aim is not to give an overview of art history but to cut a path through the forest by asking how art relates to reality and its horrors.” Throughout its mid-length duration, reflections on art and its traces cross swords with future-oriented impulses. The questions it poses are not meant to be answered, but taken as wholesale embodiments of cultural memory, which tends to account for reality via myths and legends. As in the opening image of a monkey dangling from a tree, it is dependent on the presence of gravity to give hierarchical sensibilities a grounding from which to suspend our inhibitions.

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Against a musical collage drawn from pigments mixed by Tomasz Stanko, David Darling/Ketil Bjørnstad, Keith Jarrett, Federico Mompou, Dimitri Shostakovich, and more, the role of text functions more greatly in this film than in its predecessor. Recognizing these snippets from the ECM catalogue provides a fleshly satisfaction, and lends new interpretations to their already-deep entrenchment in the bodies of those who create and consume them. In their usage is a coded message, which tells us that choosing materials is choosing mortalities. As if to say that agreement with the self is far more important than with the world, for only the self receives recognition in return for inviting interpretation, and touches upon the web of human activity by its remnants alone.

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Crimes against humanity cannot be art because they shed light on darkness. It is the same with cinema: both are speaking the same language of death. The will to flight is humanity’s default setting, yet impossible to achieve, because creation has its hold on us so much so that we can only mock its divinity with illusions of our own. Image-based mediums render escape impossible because they are the undeniable incarnation of our fixation with darkness. As Godard puts it, “Maybe we’re the ghosts of people taken away when everybody vanished.” In that thought experiment is expressed the vagueness of expression, despite the explicitness of its products. In this respect, art and cinema equally tread the border zones of silence.

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“Art is normally not something to be touched, but regarded at a respectable distance, protected by law.”

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Moments can only be objects in art: paintings, sculptures, film stills. And as Godard and Miéville peek through the cinematic portal, we are reminded that construction is sovereign in both realms. The problem of progress, then, is not a lack of paths but of homes to return to. A paucity of materials, if you will, resulting from a ban on exploration. To be consciously alive is to articulate one’s vibrations in some form of impulsive communication, and shifts of color may be defined only in a realm of light and movement. Movement is essential in the artist’s brush, in transporting the work and giving it illusory stasis on a museum wall. The religiosity of painting is a means of asserting that humanity has a right to continue.

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“In a plane, you never see the whole sky.”

Lib 1

Liberté et Patrie (Freedom and Fatherland), a commission for the 2002 Swiss Expo, was rarely seen until its release here on DVD. Something of a companion piece to the previous, it’s yet another dance between content and form, where liberty isn’t so much an illusion as it is hope for illusion. In this instance, the string quartets of Beethoven figure heavily, and with good reason: for the stereotypically tortured composer’s soul was swimming in contradictions. In this combination, we find that the boldest art can live without the rest of us to validate it. As war and technology flicker across the eyes like fire slashing through celluloid, we find ourselves as spectators making pathological errors of liberty in order to parse shadow from freedom. Whereas liberty is stationary, the film seems to claim, freedom is itinerant. This casts a fishing line back to the idea of movement as expressed in the previous film, and puts a finger on the pulse that animates these filmmakers in their walk with life.

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“Representations depend on will.”

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Je vous salue, Sarajevo (Hail Sarajevo) is a morsel of history in and of itself. Made in 1993, when the Bosnian War was at its apex, it compresses untold hours of action into two minutes. Arvo Pärt’s Silhouans Song lends it urgency, a feeling of searching and never finding a clue toward uncovering the heart of atrocity. “In a sense, fear is the daughter of God,” says Godard, “redeemed on Good Friday night.” With that theme, he personifies fear as an intercessor between reality and fantasy. By looking at a single photograph of the war, building it organ by organ, he shows that the purpose of art is to express the death of exception, the organizing principle behind torture and rule. Flesh can never be a canvas when its display is only for the wickedness of ephemeral violence.

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“I’ve seen so many people live so badly, and so many die so well.”

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In addition to musical allusions, these films include quotations from Godard’s own films, including À bout de souffle (Breathless), Passion, and others. And Miéville’s own Le Livre de Marie gets a nod as a reflection of a brush poised before an already-bloodied canvas. Another layer is added by the fact that certain ECM covers have also been drawn from these films. The result is a multisensory conversation. And while these are non-narrative pieces, they are heavy with stories. Cinema is the knife that cuts through reality with fantasy, and fantasy with reality.

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These films comprise a haunting yawn into the great goodnight, each the crater of a meteor falling in slow motion before the dawn of an era comes to a close as extinction squeezes the land dry of its most formidable juices. A cup brimming with blood in our own image.

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Fred Hersch review for The NYC Jazz Record

the-ballad-of-fred-hersch

An intimate portrait of a pianist and composer at the height of his career, produced and directed by Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano, this documentary polishes facets of Hersch’s life that may be less obvious to casual fans. Viewers are introduced to Hersch as he descends the stairs of New York’s Jazz Standard to set up for a performance. From a web of starts, stops and stolen glances, the sound of a musician who now stands among the giants of jazz piano takes shape.

In the words of music critic David Hadju, one of a handful of advocates interviewed, “Fred’s music is borderless” and the film shows that characterization extending further to his personality. As one who embodies the art of improvisation outside the cage of performance, Hersch is invested in the outcomes of jazz beyond boundaries. It’s there in his organic mosaic of traditions and influences, in his willingness to work with a variety of musicians and in his activism as an HIV-positive gay man. The latter point, largely yet respectfully stressed throughout, is vital to understanding his music’s river-like qualities, which constitute nothing less than an ode-in-progress to life itself.

Nowhere is this so boldly expressed than in his My Coma Dreams, the preparations for and premiere of which dominate this documentary’s second half. Inspired by a series of vivid dreams Hersch experienced after an infection forced him into a coma in 2008, this multimedia work employs speech, video projection and live musicians to tell the story of his recovery. As pianist Jason Moran points out, however, more important than Hersch’s brush with death are the ways in which this magnum opus underscores his historical importance as a torchbearer of jazz’ reckoning with hardship. It’s a message underscored by his biography, which the filmmakers uncover through interviews with his mother Florette Hoffheimer and partner Scott Morgan, but also by his tireless mission to treat music as reality over fantasy. Hersch is keen on acknowledging the specificity of any given performance as an event and hopes that listeners may do the same in return.

((This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Eberhard Weber review for The NYC Jazz Record

The Jubilee Concert

At the summit of a prosperous career on stage and, following a decades-long stint with ECM Records, German bassist Eberhard Weber suffered a stroke and has not played since 2007. In October of 2015 (a year in which he also received the Landesjazzpreis Baden-Württemberg, a lifetime achievement award), jubilee concerts were held at the Theaterhaus in Weber’s hometown of Stuttgart to honor his 75th birthday and contributions to jazz.

This DVD of that same event features the SWR Big Band conducted in turns by Helge Sunde and Michael Gibbs, along with guests Jan Garbarek (saxophone), Gary Burton (vibraphone), Paul McCandless (reeds) and, returning to the fold, Pat Metheny (guitar). The latter’s “Hommage” is the centerpiece—a sprawling 30-minute composition built around archival video footage of Weber from the 1980s. More than any other musician on the roster, Metheny bottles the Weber-ian spirit like the lightning that it is.

In contrast to the sprightly figure on screen, the first image of the concert is of an aged Weber hobbling to his seat of honor by aid of a cane. Following this, his “Résumé” finds Garbarek improvising over a more recent audio recording. It’s a fitting way to start, given that Weber was such a fixture of Garbarek’s quartet. Much of what follows reflects almost somberly on a touching career. Arrangements by Ralf Schmid and Rainer Tempel of classic tunes from Weber’s golden age are showcases for Burton and McCandless while those by Gibbs rejuvenate “Maurizius” (from the 1982 album Later that Evening) and Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.” But it’s the jovial energies of Libor Šíma, who reimagines “Street Scenes” and “Notes After An Evening” (both from 1993’s Pendulum), which win the day.

In the liner notes for Hommage à Eberhard Weber, the 2016 ECM album culled from this same event, Metheny waxes indebtedly about Weber’s “sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” As this landmark performance shows, Weber continues to innovate, even without strings at his fingertips.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Márta and György Kurtág: In memoriam Haydée (ECM New Series 5508)

In memoriam Haydée

Márta and György Kurtág
In memoriam Haydée
Játékok – Games and Transcriptions for piano solo and four hands
Piano Recital
Cité de la musique, Paris
22 September 2012

Márta and György Kurtág piano
Filmed September 22, 2012 at Cité de la musique, Paris
Directed by Isabelle Foulard
An LGM Télévision production in association with Cité de la musique
Producer: Sabrina Iwanski
Executive producer: Pierre-Martin Juban

In September of 2012, Hungarian composer György Kurtág and his wife Márta gave a concert at Cité de la musique in Paris to honor the memory of a dear friend, musicologist Haydée Charbagi (1979-2008). Their program, as adventurous as it was delightful, combined piano transcriptions for two and four hands, exuding such intimacy that it’s a wonder the audience didn’t just melt away from all the love in the hall. For those not present, this DVD bears witness to the Kurtágs’ unbridled passion for each other and the music that passes between them. The program’s bulk is culled from György’s own Játékok (Games), an ever-growing miscellany of dedications to the living and dead alike. It’s also a tribute to classical roots on the whole, as indicated by the composer’s transcriptions of Bach chorales—each a towering trunk among his otherwise microscopic foliage.

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There’s something dark yet wondrous about the first dissonances that creep from the stage. Saying hello with a farewell, György approaches the score as if it were a poem (such philosophies were, in fact, the subject of Charbagi’s thesis). And perhaps nothing so omnipresent as poetry could express either the compactness or vigor of each brushstroke. As observer, Márta stands like an appreciative statue before joining him at the keyboard. At times, she caresses him on the shoulder after he finishes a solo, an unspoken signal to connect the dots.

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Those very points of light sparkle in pieces like Flowers we are…, which in conjunction with the pantheonic Baroque selections enables a poignant contradiction: namely, that Bach’s music eminently looks forward while György looks backward, leaving us in the middle like the binding of an open book. His own responsory is as much a reflection of the one to whom it is dedicated (Joannis Pilinszky) as the composer who vaulted the form.

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With most at or under a minute, these concert selections are rife with inflection. There are moments of staggering beauty, especially in the Hommages, such as the Hommage à Christian Wolff, with its tip-toed notecraft, the resonant Hommage à Stravinsky – Bells, and the Hommage à Farkas Ferenc in its multiple incarnations, each more nuanced than the last and ideally suited to the composer’s greatest interpreter, Márta.

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Campanule, as with so much of what transpires, expresses the pregnancy of emptiness, and the potential for healing amid broken motifs. This would seem to be the underlying message also of playful asides such as the fierce exchange of single notes that is Beatings – Quarelling and the kindred Furious Chorale. Another elliptical piece, Study to Pilinszky’s “Hölderlin, gives musical interpretation of a poem written for Mr. Kurtág and reinforces the concert’s overarching theme, while the dramatic (Palmstroke) and the programmatic (Stubbunny and Tumble-bunny) trip over one another in search of continuity.

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Director Isabelle Soulard focuses on these passages in close-cropped framings, allowing the tender lattice of Aus der Ferne, written for the 80th birthday of Alfred Schlee, and the confectionary first movement of Bach’s E-flat major Trio Sonata (BWV 525) to shine all the brighter among this crowd of lamentations. For if anything, György’s art is about remembrance—a point driven home by the three encores, all of which reiterate pieces featured in the main program: the Hommage à Stravinsky and two of the Bach arrangements. Were it not for programs and obsessive musical minds, we might not even notice the repetition, as life consists of nothing but.

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Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner: El Encuentro (ECM 5051)

El Encuentro (1)

Dino Saluzzi
Anja Lechner
El Encuentro: A film for bandoneon and violoncello
Directors: Norbert Wiedmer and Enrique Ros
Camera: Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer
Editing: Katharina Bhend
Sound, sound editing, and sound mix: Balthasar Jucker
Production: PS Film, Biograph Film
Co-produced by SRF
Post-production: Recycled TV

In Sounds and Silence, Norbert Wiedmer produced a rather fleeting portrait of ECM Records and its head Manfred Eicher, leaving viewers with, at best, vague sketches by trying to do too much in one go. But with El Encuentro, glimpses of which one might remember seeing in the former documentary, he has given us the film that should have been. Along with co-director Enrique Ros, Wiedmer touches more of the label’s ethos by following only two of its major artists than Sounds and Silence does in profiling many more besides. Despite being from opposite sides of the Atlantic, gentle giant of the bandoneón Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner have bridged waters of their own making since 1998, when they first collaborated in the Kultrum project that featured the Rosamunde Quartett, of which the cellist was founder.

What makes El Enceuntro such an insightful window is the relative clarity of its narrative glass. At its core is a trip taken by Dino and Anja—so one feels compelled to call them after getting to know them so well by the end credits—to Salta, Argentina, where the bandoneonista absorbed the tango that would become central to his life. It’s an art form that would become increasingly important for Anja, who cites her own deep knowledge of, and respect, for the tango as a motivation for forging this intergenerational partnership with Dino. She recalls learning these rhythms for the first time in Argentina, where signatures rendered cut and dry through classical training now blossomed at her fingertips, reinvigorated.

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Dino meanwhile looks back on memories of his father, who after working a long day at the factory would sing for their village. Dino took to his father’s love of song like a sunset to ocean and, as the film makes clear, has passed that spirit on to Anja in kind. Indeed, the cellist says that even though Dino is always more comfortable playing with his family, she feels she has become a part of it. Whether dancing with the locals or navigating a recording session with Dino and his brother Felix, she adapts with chameleonic precision—which is to say: unthinkingly.

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But Dino’s story is as much about leaving home as finding it. He regales us with stories of putting his home country behind him to support his family, and of finding an unexpected brother in the late George Gruntz, who in 1982, as president of the Berlin Jazz Festival, traveled to Latin America in search of musicians and recruited Dino on the spot. No one in Gruntz’s band had ever seen or heard a bandoneón before, and this opportunity would prove career-defining.

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The past, however, is never too far behind. As Dino admits, “I compose with memories and hopes,” and in so doing kneads the passage of time into desired shapes. In this respect, the film is as much a meeting of lives as of minds. Anja lets us in on her own past: playing with rock bands at age 12, among whom she learned to improvise in the heat of the moment; hearing Dino’s music for the first time in Munich, where she’d so dutifully immersed herself in classical music of the European masters, even while surrounding herself with the melodies and forms of other places. And for her that’s the key. You have to go to these places to experience the emotional core of their music. Location is vocation. It’s something that cannot be substituted or recreated.

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None of this is meant to suggest that Lechner has abandoned her classical foundations. Far from it, as evidenced in her interactions with composer Tigran Mansurian in Armenia, the country dearest to her after Argentina.

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The cameras are there again for conversations with Levon Eskenian, who explains to her the sacred music of Armenia, and how when playing folksongs on the duduk one must always convey a sense of improvisation. Anja thus characterizes life in Armenia as more immediate, whereas in Argentina people truly engage and look into you. Such is the balance of her traveling life.

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On Dino’s own travels, no companion has been more constant than his trusted bandoneón. “I can’t conceive of life without the bandoneón,” he says. “The instrument has spoken with modesty since its conception. It doesn’t raise its voice, it only speaks with calmness, simplicity, and directness. All of the words are written here. All of the thoughts are here. All of the difficult equations are here. You only have to serve to bandoneón and understand that you’re letting the human experience pass through other channels.” But he also believes that bandoneonists should explore beyond the tango and create new forms of music. As if his recordings weren’t already ample proof of this advice in action, excerpts from concerts with drummer U.T. Gandhi and singer Alessandra Franco, and with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam’s Musiekgebouw under the baton of Jules Buckley, show just how catalytic the instrument can be.

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But it is in combination with the cello where channels of communication open their hearts to the vastest possibilities. Just as Anja says, “Music is a world in which all emotions exist,” so are emotions a world in which all music exists. And at their center, we can feel these two souls creating a third for the listener to inhabit at will.

Saluzzi and Lechner
(Photo credit: Juan Hitters)

Early on in the film, Dino wonders how people can connect at all to his melancholic music, even as he recognizes something that meets the listener halfway. “For me,” he goes on, “doubt is driving force. It’s like gasoline. You use gasoline to run a car. And for us to work, we need doubt. Because if doubt is a driving force, then it can’t become a paralyzing problem. On the contrary, it’s a generator of ideas and desires, of searches and answers to the great questions we have.” And if we must be the electricity that powers this generator, how fortunate we are to be swept up in its current.

Keith Jarrett Trio: Live In Japan 93/96 (ECM 5504/05)

Live In Japan

Keith Jarrett Trio
Live In Japan 93/96

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
DVD 1
Recorded live in Tokyo, July 25, 1993 at Open Theater East
Director: Kaname Kawachi
Recorded by Toshio Yamanaka
Produced by Yasuhiko Sato
Executive producers: Hisao Ebine and Toshinari Koinuma
DVD 2
Recorded live in Tokyo, March 30, 1996 at Hitomi Memorial Hall
Director: Kaname Kawachi
Recorded by Toshio Yamanaka
Produced by Yasuhiko Sato
Executive producers: Hisao Ebine and Toshinari Koinuma
Concerts produced by Koinuma Music

It’s one thing to hear, but quite another to see, the Keith Jarrett Trio in action. For those unable to do so in a live setting, this two-DVD release is the next best thing. Like the Standards I/II set that precedes it, this one was recorded in Tokyo, but puts about a decade between those first Japan performances.

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A 1993 gig at Open Theater East takes place in the heart of a sweltering summer. The air shines both with the music and with the rain that forces a large and dedicated audience to listen from beneath ponchos, and the musicians to play from beneath a clear canopy. The video quality is much finer this time around, and despite a rocky start born of technical issues and the weather, captures one of the trio’s finest sets available on any medium.

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What separates this concert from the others available on DVD is the openness of the band’s aura. Jarrett more than ever plays for his appreciative listeners because he understands the bond into which nature has pushed them. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Jarrett’s The Köln Concert also famously began in the least ideal of conditions. Clearly, the pressure set him on an unprecedented creative path. And so, even as the trio struggles to feel out the climate in Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” (throughout which Jarrett must often wipe down the keyboard with a towel), all while latecomers snake to their seats, we can feel the groove emerging one muscle at a time. After the worldly touches of “Butch And Butch” and “Basin Street Blues,” we know that things have been set right.

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Whereas in the previous Japan documents Peacock proved himself the man of the hour (although, to be sure, the breadth of his architectures in “If I Were A Bell” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” are as masterful as they come), it’s DeJohnette who produces the deepest hues of this rainbow. His sticks make evergreens like Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” that much greener, and turn a 26-minute rendition of Miles Davis’s “Solar,” combined with Jarrett’s “Extension,” into a downright sacred space.

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As with the 1986 concert on Standards I/II, the trio ends on three encores: “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Jarrett’s “The Cure,” and “I Thought About You.” In all of this one can sense a quiet storm of commitment to the music that flows from within. Melodies breathe, reborn, requiring open hearts to know their graces.

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The year 1996 brings us to Hitomi Memorial Hall, where Jarrett and friends jump fully refreshed into “It Could Happen To You.” As always, Jarrett’s lyrical intro reveals little about the mosaics soon to follow. He takes the theme and its surrounding chords as a starting point down densely textured corridors. Which is, of course, what improvisation is all about: dungeon crawling without a map yet knowing that a destination will wrap its arms around you eventually. Jarrett seems to unravel every possible path into its fullest and on through the ballad “Never Let Me Go,” in which the pianist transcends the status of storyteller to that of myth keeper.

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“Billie’s Bounce” is a staple not only for its composer, Charlie Parker, but also for Jarrett. As one of his prime expressive spaces, it layers all the bread and butter that make his art so nourishing. But we mustn’t forget that each member of this unit is equally important. In “Summer Night,” Peacock’s gentility is Jarrett’s flame, shining like the moon with a song to sing, and DeJohnette’s opening to “I’ll Remember April” shows a drummer with just as much to say from the bedrock, even as Jarrett evolves in real time through every change in the rapids above.

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Other standbys such as “Mona Lisa” and crowd favorite “Autumn Leaves” open as many new avenues as they retread. With a crispness of feeling, Jarrett grabs the spotlight, while lively soloing from Peacock and fancy brushwork from DeJohnette make the picture whole. Even the familiar strains of “Last Night When We Were Young” become something new when they melt into Jarrett’s groovier “Carribean Sky.” It’s what one can always count on with this trio: playing as if for the first time.

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The Bud Powell tune “John’s Abbey” commands from the sidelines as Peacock and DeJohnette go from canter to gallop and sets off a rapid-fire succession of closing tunes. A touching rendition of “My Funny Valentine” falls like a tear of quiet joy into Jarrett’s “Song,” in which the musicians open a book you always meant, and at last have the chance, to read again. “All The Things You Are” and Ray Bryant’s lesser-heard “Tonk” end the set with a satiating balance of delights. Nothing added, nothing taken away.

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