Ramòn Giger: Karma Shadub

Karma Shadub Poster

My first encounter with the music of Paul Giger was on his ECM debut, Chartres. Guided only by the album’s cover, which at first seemed an ancient petroglyph before I knew it to be the map of the eponymous cathedral’s labyrinth, my teenage brain swam with visions of some worldly phantom trekking with his violin across oceans and continents, drawing out music from the living rock. It was only when ECM released a follow-up solo album, Schattenwelt, that I knew Giger to be flesh and blood, as the booklet revealed a photo of him at last. And yet, cloaked in the shadows of his music, it was easy to nourish my young impressions of what and who he was. How rare it is, then, that we get to see the hearts behind the skins of those we think we know through their art. Paul’s son Ramòn enables just such a glimpse in his 2013 documentary, Karma Shadub.

On surface, the film walks us through a mounting of its title piece (which first appeared on Alpstein) at Switzerland’s Abbey of Saint Gall. But this veneer bends the light to reveal a motive of emotional healing and conversation, becoming as it does a catalyst for sometimes-painful excavations of childhood, abandonment, and creation. This is not a film about music, but about where music comes from and how its progenitors live and act on either side of their art.

Karma Shadub was written for Ramòn around the time he was born as a celebration of life. In the context of that same child’s documentary statement all these years later, it serves as a looking glass into an uncertain past. The performance itself involves dancers, who under the choreographic direction of Marco Santi realize the corporeality of Paul’s music. The dancers also sing, mirroring the dialogic searching of the son, whose wondering and wandering of what might have been bleeds into the yet to be. Ramòn himself experiences a range of emotions when hearing the piece now: a binary star of pain and passion.

“When he asked me to make a film about this performance and the piece he had written for me,” says the filmmaker early on, “that was the moment I realized that I no longer know who he is.”

Ramòn, who calls Paul by his first name, seeks a relationship with this distant man—one who, much like the artist I’d imagined, takes pride in solitude. Ever his father’s son, Ramòn has taken on an artistic worldview. Yet where his father paints in sound, as director Ramòn does so in light. Before this he made made two documentaries as cameraman, the first being the portrait of a young autistic man and his relationship with the social worker who has become something of a father figure. A sign of things to come.

As both creator and a subject of the present film, Ramòn must confront a unique sort of exhaustion. Accustomed to teasing out the inner lives of his subjects, he was less prepared than he realized to do the same for himself. “I felt somewhat cruel, always demanding and taking from other lives, using them as the foundation of my work,” he humbly admits to me in an interview. “It’s different from music, where you have to dig inside yourself to create something.”

And dig Paul certainly did throughout Ramòn’s formative years, during which the father was often away for private excavations, though not without sending tapes from his travels. One of these, recorded at Chartres and including violin and ambient sounds of the garden, depicts a father reaching for proximity in defiance of physical separation. A beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but one that sits complexly with its recipient. As a leitmotif of the film, the tape is at once an expression of paternal love and obfuscation of its lucidity. The process seems emblematic of Paul: speaking volumes by not being there, and leaving just as much open to interpretation when present. It’s a dynamic mirrored in Ramòn’s attempts to elicit information from his father about the unknowns of his upbringing, which tend to reveal themselves more through silence than obvious articulation.

Karma 1Karma 2

Where Ramòn wants this to be an honest and personal project, Paul fears being used for something that he cannot stand up to. In their constant state of negotiation, the two manage to tap out a fairly reflective surface from unrefined metal as they forge an alloy of their own. Just as the violin is at once a part of Paul and its own entity, so too does Ramòn resound through their interactions. The son feels he is not being understood by his father—left out, so to speak, of the latter’s creative equation—even as he becomes more aware than ever about his own character by way of not being acknowledged. None of which is to suggest that the film is a challenge or accusation. It raises uncertainties out of genuine hope for their resolution.

Because his conversations with Paul are touch and go, Ramòn turns to his biological mother for solace (Paul is remarried). Despite the separation, she recalls those early years with a certain fondness, and the smile that holds her face indicates the steadfastness of a mature heart that has no time to dwell on ifs. But her son, like the viewer, is still grappling with images versus realities.

Of both, the camera offers plenty by directing strict aesthetic attention to surroundings. Indeed, the film is not only about people, but also about places. Ramòn recalls a rural, almost utopian, upbringing, as confirmed by a visit to his childhood home. Such snippets of nature add to the feeling that both father and son have walked their own paths and are now seeking intersections.

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Camerawork and editing are significant enough to warrant symbolic interpretation. We get many shots, for instance, of Paul’s back, as if Ramòn were always trying to catch up to the man he follows. This yields another parallel, when Paul says, characterizing his struggles with the violin, “Where you try to undertake something real, that’s where life is happening.”

In this film, life is happening everywhere. In the music, both on and off the screen. In the solace of cathedral’s, both literal and metaphorical. And in the gift of seeing a world-class artist as a human being, knowing he is subject to the same complications as the rest of us.

Karma Shadub is available to watch on Vimeo demand here. Read on below for the rest of my interview with the director.

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Tyran Grillo: One of the greatest values of watching Karma Shadub was how it made me think of myself as a parent. It was a reminder to treat my son’s childhood with even greater importance.

Ramòn Giger: People have experienced this film in very personal ways. Despite being just a very small story between me and my father, the feedback I’ve gotten has been massively varied. Some perceive it as you do, while others feel offended by it, but it always connects to the personal experiences of viewers in one way or another.

TG: The first scene, featuring you and a reticent Paul at the kitchen table, sticks out in my mind. The tension is real and relatable.

RG: He was very scared at first. Just as you had an experience of Paul’s music before you had a picture, his profession and what he does feed off a strong, mystical image. I now understand what he was afraid of. Having dedicated his entire life to achieving a perfect sound on this little instrument, he felt threatened by the mistakes I might expose.

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TG: What was it like watching the film together?

RG: We watched a rough cut at some point. He also attended a few premieres with me. It was quite an emotional re-confrontation, which wasn’t easy for us.

TG: Have things changed in any significant way since the film?

RG: The changes weren’t as I expected them to be. I had more expectations of revealing secrets or having this total opening of my father toward me. After 50 hours of just talking about things in front of a camera, I realized in the end that I was the one creating distance in the relationship. I needed to act but not expect him to do something about it.

TG: You still have those cassette tapes he made for you. Do you remember how you felt at the time when you received them?

RG: I know that I loved them, and that I listened to them a lot. I can’t really tell how I felt back then; only as I perceive them today. I feel a lot of effort from his side, a need of being close to me and trying to give me a piece of himself while being away, but also a strangeness in how he talks to me. I also have the feeling that he doesn’t really take me seriously. So I guess, just as with the music, it’s different things at the same time. Being a father myself now, I’m more relaxed about it, because I know it’s okay to make mistakes and not be perfect about everything. My experience with Paul was not that he was away, but that he couldn’t admit that not everything was perfect, which used to confuse me as a child. I’ve grown up believing it’s important to make mistakes as a parent.

TG: Do you feel more empathy for Paul, now that you are a father yourself?

RG: It was my decision to leave this point open in the film, but in life we certainly got to a point where we feel much closer to each other than before.

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Ramòn concludes our interview by telling me that Paul is someone who “lives fully in this world,” but we can also see the world living fully in him—which is to say, as an internal storm of contradictions. And maybe that’s all human beings, even at their best, can be.

Karma Shadub is available to either rent or download on Vimeo here.

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The Unruly Mystic: Saint Hildegard of Bingen

In her lucid biography of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), author Fiona Maddocks calls the 12th-century German abbess not a, but the woman of her age. Assertion of the definite article would seem to mirror transformations undergone by so many of Hildegard’s followers, who in becoming aware of the sheer breadth of her insights have found themselves crawling out of indefinite shows and into affirmative light. Such was the case with filmmaker Michael Conti, whose own existential crisis brought him into communion with Saint Hildegard’s calling, visions, and prescriptions. One of those prescriptions was music, the art by which so many first came to speak her name when a slew of recordings flooded the early music market in the mid-1990s. Yet her ear for sonic devotions was but one of many gifts, for not only did she immerse herself in divine liturgies and holy works, but also learned to read and paint, skills passed on to her by an anchoress at her abbey.

And what, you might ask, led a 21st-century American to the accomplishments of a 12th-century prophetess? Conti explains:

“My initial transformation occurred in 1983, when I first caught a whiff of the creative potential found in Barcelona at that time. Being there gave me confidence to pursue a life of creativity when I went to Hollywood after graduation. Little did I know that Hollywood would be kryptonite to my desire to be truly creative in my own way. When I encountered Saint Hildegard’s spirit during a retreat to Germany in 2013, I rediscovered that deep, sweet connection again and had an awakening to her as my Patron Saint of Creativity.”

Conti’s connection between, if not equation of, mysticism and creativity is a leitmotif throughout his documentary, The Unruly Mystic. Fueled by his overseas revival and addressing the lack of Hildegard depictions in film, The Unruly Mystic puts forward the notion that mysticism is one true path to awakening of religion and culture. It’s an idea that will be familiar to any Jungian, but also one echoed by the film’s many passionate figures, each of whom brings an idiosyncratic perspective to the Hildegard ethos. Actor and singer Linn Maxwell, who has created a one-woman show of Hildegard’s musical life, calls her the “saint of creativity” and stresses the demanding nature of her songs. Also featured is Dietburg Spohr, whose bold interpretation of Hildegard’s morality play, the Ordo Virtutum was released in 2013 on ECM Records. She stresses the fact that Hildegard’s music was largely ignored, and that we simply don’t know how or where it was performed. What we can surmise is that, as something heard and transcribed through the spirit, music was her worship. This, Spohr reminds us, is what gives value as a composer, beyond whose commercial image we must look beyond in order to see innovation and longevity of purpose.

That we still have Hildegard’s music with us at all is a miracle in and of itself, and something of a recent wonder, more known as she has been for her many books, written by way of dictation to a monk (its own form of musical transmission). Among their ranging topics, and most famously of all, she left record of her divine visions. If the music was an expression of what she heard, then the writing was an expression of what was shown to her. Whether for fear of not being believed, or simply due to the intimacy of these revelations, Hildegard chose to keep them to herself for years, openly sharing them only in her prime.

“To be a superstar in the Middle Ages meant to excel in holiness,” says Dr. Beverly Rienzle of the Harvard Divinity School, also interviewed by Conti, and a superstar Hildegard certainly was. In addition to her creative pursuits, she founded two monasteries and even had a healing ministry. Her interest in medicine was erudite and held authority by its connections to the energies of elements, animals, and nature at large. Although current medical science would likely dismiss many of Hildegard’s claims, their innovation and timely importance are undeniable. The creation of goodness—for her a God-given responsibility—was ongoing, and fed into a personal mission of hope. Dr. Wighard Strehlow, interviewed at great length, speaks highly of the health benefits predicted in her work, which through his efforts eight centuries later have entered a phase of rediscovery. Hildegard was one of the first true (western) practitioners of holistic healing on record and was an advocate for “greening” the world long before it was ecologically fashionable to be one.

It’s important to realize that, contrary to popular use, the word “mystic” isn’t used here to connote the esoteric supernaturalia of an impenetrable soul. In Conti’s words:

“I use the word to emphasize we are all open to the possibility of awakening. It is not something owned by a few but should be democratic in nature. We tend to ‘pedestalize’ our ‘actor’ heroes in movies, sports, and arts. This limits ourselves through comparison. If we accept that being a ‘mystic’ is available to everyone, I think we have a greater potential for good.”

The film makes it a point to stress that mystics are the keepers of humanity at its best and most authentic, and that Hildegard’s vision can empower us by dissociating us from our egos. Regarding Hildegard, Conti would like audiences to come away with whatever moves them about her legacy. Whether through creative potential or potential creation, Hildegard has gifted us with more than enough tools to build virtues from scratch. In the end, it’s about understanding our beginnings.

To learn more about The Unruly Mystic, please visit the official website here.

Prashant Bhargava & Vijay Iyer: Radhe Radhe – Rites of Holi (ECM 5507)

Radhe Radhe

Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi

Vijay Iyer composer
Prashant Bhargava film director, editor
Anna George actor
Craig Marsden director of photography
International Contemporary Ensemble
Eric LambLaura Jordan Cocks: flute, alto flute, piccolo
Joshua Rubin: clarinet, bass clarinet
Rebekah Heller: basoon, contrabasoon
Gareth FlowersAmir Elsaffar: trumpet
Jennifer Curtis: violin
Kyle Armbrust: viola
Kivie Cahn-Lipman: cello
Cory Smythe: piano
Ross Karre: percussion
Tyshawn Sorey: percussion, drum set
Adam Sliwinski: conductor
Vijay Iyer: piano, electronics
Soundtrack produced by Vijay Iyer and Manfred Eicher.
Recorded live at Memorial Hall, UNC Chapel Hill, March 26, 2013
Engineer: Frank Martin/Media Production Associates
Live concert sound engineer: Levy Lorenzo
Additional recording at The Bunker Studio, April 20, 2014
Engineer: John Davis
Mixed at Avatar Studios, NYC by James Farber, Vijay Iyer, and Manfred Eicher
Assistant: Aki Nishimura
Additional engineering, editing, and consultation: Liberty Ellman

Bird

Ron Fricke’s 1992 classic Baraka endures as one of the most consummate examples of non-narrative cinema. Its montage of images from around the world was even more eclectic than the soundtrack that went along with it. But despite the many ceremonies, creative arts, and labors that Fricke documented—including death pyres and ritual baths in the river Ganges—he never captured the Hindu religious festival known as Holi. Had he done so, it might have looked something like Radhe Radhe.

Opening Shot

Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava’s ode to this so-called “festival of colors” traces the eight-day celebration back to Mathura, mythic birthplace of the supreme deity Krishna and his lover (in the strongest sense) Radha. Hence the film’s title, a term of praise and greeting often exchanged in the streets of Mathura, where she is believed to be a gateway to true understanding of Krishna. Her power is a central theme, an explosion of devotion far more vivid than the human-made pigment sold on the streets in the weeks leading up to this cathartic event.

Given the film’s subtitle, “Rites of Holi,” and the fact that Holi is practiced in the spring may put one in mind of Igor Stravinsky. This is no coincidence. Although not a direct homage to Stravinsky, Radhe Radhe was the result of a commission for the 100th anniversary of the Russian composer’s Rite of Spring, and one of a dozen projects freshly created in its honor. It is still a ballet of sorts, not least of all for the dialogic contributions of Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. In a manner of speaking, he and Bhargava met halfway—the director boiling down over 30 hours of footage into a 35-minute film and the composer expanding molecular impressions into a fully integrated score—so that the finished product was a narrative duly rendered. Iyer’s task was to match Bhargava’s rhythms, taking the listener through what he calls a “series of energies.”

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Bhargava first gained international attention with his debut feature Patang (The Kite) in 2011. That his roots grabbed their soil in hip-hop and graffiti art should come as no surprise, for his gifts of rhythm, poetry, and color were likeminded in their urban respect. But with Radhe Radhe he went further underground, mining deeper traditions of those same creative registers. The film is, then, as much a musical as it is a visual tour de force, building like a raga to near-ecstatic heights. Indeed, before a single image graces our retinas, Iyer’s pianism sets the stage over a dark title screen. Slight dissonances therein betray something of the chaos about to unfold, but obscure enough of it so that we might experience it anew, even in multiple viewings. Along with the young musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Iyer creates a mood that is beautifully unsettling, and all the more organic for it.

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The film’s first part, “Adoration,” builds its intimacies one stratum at a time. The stage is set in a misty landscape. We see only details: boatmen preparing for the days’ revelry, a bare back, a glimpse of braided hair. The streets then come to life as food vendors ready their meals and women wash their garments in the river. The soundtrack is restless, anticipatory. A cargo train passes by, as if to underscore the film’s narrative drive. More fragments: a face half-reflected in a mirror, candles burning on an altar, a gossamer veil. As crowds thicken and the dance begins, Iyer’s pianism brightens. Even the birds in the field seem to join in. Flute and brass contrast one another with purpose. Their notes flower and wither, changing focus like the lens that guides them. Strings and percussion add color streamers of their own as the iconic powder hits the air.

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Part 2, “Transcendence,” puts further emphasis on Bhargava’s footage of an imaginary Radha played by actress Anna George. He spins from these scenes, shot in the US and woven throughout the film, a primal and sexual interplay that signals the true emergence of spring. It’s a bold move, as the director himself is first to admit in the DVD’s “Making Of” segment, but he wanted to bring that “everyday magic, that intimacy that we share as people to the narratives of the gods.” He believes that the push and pull of Radha and Krishna exists in all of us, as it does also in the increasingly inseparable relationship between sounds and scenarios. A trumpet, for example, works its melodic overlay during a long shot of Radha’s face, implying an environment far vaster than the immediate contrivance of the studio.

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As the cinematography becomes more contemplative, the music subdues itself in solidarity. In the same way that Bhargava seems to have eyes in many places at once and flits between them by changing cognitive channels, so too does Iyer’s complementary switching take every movement into account. A sensual flowering of street noise enters the mix, as if bleeding of its own volition, leaving us wanting to shed our inhibitions and dive into that sea of color.

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In May of 2015, Bhargava died at the age of 42 from cardiac arrest after a history of heart disease. But the tragedy of this death is so graciously balanced by the exuberance of his small yet vivid oeuvre that one can focus on the latter in a state of pure invigoration. In this respect, we do well to read Radhe Radhe in the spirit for which it was made. In a world where the rites of Holi have spread to unlikely corners (I witness its rainbowed aftereffects on my American university campus every year), it’s nice to know that one artist’s vision can bring us anytime to the source with just the press of a PLAY button.

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(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher

Sounds and Silence

If every film has a soundtrack, does it not stand to reason that every soundtrack has a film? This would seem to be the guiding question behind Sounds and Silence. In this unprecedented DVD release, documentarians Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer set out to capture ECM Records as a living entity in which human labor and ingenuity are the dual heart of musical life. Although billed as a “road movie” and patterned by footage of label founder and producer Manfred Eicher in various states of transport, it is equally concerned with the non-literal paths that have led to the creation, sustenance, and influence of the German imprint and its ongoing permutations. They keyword here is “ongoing,” because Eicher and his trust have only intensified their productivity since 1969, when it all began, to the point of releasing, on average, an album per week.

It is almost inevitable that the film’s opening montage and credit sequence should be accompanied by a recording of Keith Jarrett. The pianist is one of ECM’s brightest stars, but is also committed to the power of simplicity, as demonstrated in his rendition of Georges I. Gurdjieff’s “Reading of Sacred Books.” It is an apt description of the filmmakers’ and their process, tasked as they are with interpreting an archive of such magnitude that not even a collective documentary on each album could hope to articulate it. Rather, they must choose to concentrate on specific times, places, and moods in the hope of tapping into something essential to them all. That being said, when Eicher talks of seeking the luminosity of music, which like a comet’s tail leaves behind a pure trace of its being, and philosophizes that music “has no fixed abode,” we begin to realize that such technology of capture as the camera is forever limited in its relationship to the audio realm. For while images suggest associations by their very existence, sounds thrive on the nourishment of our wildest interpretations. Consequently, this film is not so much a behind-the-scenes manifesto of artistic creation as it is a gentle visualization of ECM’s inner heart and its ripple effect across oceans.

Pärt and Eicher
(Manfred Eicher and Arvo Pärt)

Rehearsals with Estonian composer and New Series darling Arvo Pärt at St. Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn yield the documentary’s first proper footage and serve as touchstones for its narrative arc. They offer a strangely profound glimpse into the countless intangibles that go into any ECM recording, but particularly those in which the composer is present, at once presiding over and deferential to the equally intangible magic of a committed performance. Pärt is every bit the contemplative human being one might expect. He feels music with every fiber of his being, and it’s a gift to witness, if only briefly, his childlike sagacity. His face is a veritable gallery of expressions, each attuned to a change in the score and the possibility of making it grow even further toward an unattainable perfection.

Pärt
(Pärt listens intently as conductor Tõnu Kaljuste’s right hand threads the proverbial needle)

During one such scene, a most touching development occurs when, in mutual happiness, Pärt engages Eicher in a dance. This single gesture reveals something perhaps unexpected in both men: in the composer a feeling of bliss that many of us lose in the name of adulthood, in the producer a love for the simple pleasure of forces aligning in exactly the way he wants. Eicher is indeed a guide of uncompromising integrity, and his smile reveals far more about why he does what he does than the iconic and relatively frequent photos of him hunched over yet another mixing board. True dedication to one’s craft, these images suggest, requires not only a seriousness of heart but also a frivolity of spirit.

Dance
(Eicher and Pärt share a dance to the tune of the latter’s Estonian Lullaby)

Between these signposts, we encounter a train of faces and voices, many perhaps for the first time. Interviews with Pärt and his delightfully honest wife Nora, Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou, Tunisian oudist and composer Anouar Brahem, Italian multi-reedist Gianluigi Trovesi and accordionist Gianni Coscia, Argentine bandoneón master Dino Saluzzi, and Eicher himself help us better understand the inconceivable alignments of fate that sometimes must occur just to bring the right people together, much less allow them the space to create whatever they will create. The bellows of Saluzzi’s lungs, for example, prove just as eloquent as those between his fingers when he shares his history as a musician who shunned the academy in favor of raw expression. In him is revealed an educator’s heart, one that seeks to learn as much as enhance learning in others. Brahem is likewise an articulate soul possessed of a subtle wit. His sensitivity toward political matters only serves to enhance appreciation of his sonic endeavors, which in light of his worldview take on new valences of awareness and pacifism. It’s a joy to watch him alone in his home studio, building his tunes, element by element.

Trees
(Only light may part shadow)

As we navigate environmental flashes of Eicher’s travels, we follow the producer to Athens for a monumental performance of Karaindrou’s music (of which he shadows a rehearsal with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and violist Kim Kashkashian), a recording session at Studios La Buissonne in southeastern France with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (and the intuition needed to bring out just one muted string hit in post-production), another at Copenhagen’s Sun Studio with Marilyn Mazur, a concert featuring Brahem with pianist François Couturier and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, and mixing Trovesi’s explosive reconstructions of operatic favorites in Bergamo, Italy. Other highlights include footage of said concerts, a brief sojourn to Argentina with Saluzzi and Lechner, some candid moments with the ever-animated Trovesi and his confederate Coscia, and even a peek into ECM’s Munich headquarters, where we see everyday logistics in action, including the meticulous process of selecting album covers.

Cover selection
(Reading between the covers)

In the same way that Eicher seeks to put the listener inside the music, so do the filmmakers try to put us in ECM’s world, and in that spirit we end where we began: with Pärt. Experiencing the consummation of every above-mentioned force is one of the most gratifying passages of the film. The music is the message, because the message exists to be sung.

Pärt rehearsal
(Icons before icons)

ECM’s music has always approached the level of cinema, and so it was only natural that it should be honored in moving pictures. And yet, the end result seems more like the realization of a fantasy than a picture of reality. Throughout the 87-minute duration, the filmmakers make as much as they can out of what little they have. Case in point: Saluzzi and Lechner’s Argentine sojourn. Aside from a hint of social awkwardness, the footage overlaps with another film by co-director Wiedmer (see El Encuentro, also released on an ECM-edition DVD) and is perhaps better saved for that portrait. Its inclusion here feels like recycling and not in the documentary’s best interest.

Another dividing point may be the lack of attention paid to certain other production aspects. Early on in the film, Pärt speaks sagaciously of the recording session as an organism, of which musicians, engineers, and producers are vital organs. And yet, what of those unsung engineers? While of course ECM has none under its employ (they are independent artists working for independent studios), Martin Wieland, Jan Erik Kongshaug, Stephan Schellmann, Peter Laenger, James A. Farber, and, more recently, Stefano Amerio, among others, have all been of vital importance in shaping the label’s distinctive identity. The reality, of course, is that such a film, regardless of maker, can at best only be supplementary and will be of far more interest to the ECM fan than to someone unfamiliar with the label. Nothing can replace the listener. And is that not what Eicher is, above all? Why else would we first encounter him on screen as a man alone with his thoughts, as if listening to the world?

Seated Eicher

And so, it is in the name of listening that I direct your regard to the film’s soundtrack.

ECM_2250_CD

A cover that brings to mind Iro Haarla’s Vespers situates us in a cloud-break with only a snatch of landscape below to indicate the separation of worlds. The composition is emblematic of a label that has always charted indefinable borders between civilization and emptiness, and in so doing has made music seemingly aware of its own mortality. Keith Jarrett’s “Reading of Sacred Books,” written by Georges I. Gurdjieff, asserts nothing but its own lack of assertion. It is instead an expression of transcendence, a confirmation of the energies all around and within us, by which we are able to produce this wonder called music in the first place.

If anything can be said to define ECM’s output, it is memory. Charting that which has already passed in order to open our eyes to that which has yet to come, these musicians have all primed us for the opening of newer doors. This is the spirit of the label: to take the musical moment and craft it into self. Few tracks on this compilation embody this spirit more creatively than “Modul 42” from Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. After gaining access to the recording process in the film, it’s wonderful to encounter the music on its own terms, to look deep into its eyes and know it’s looking back at (and through) us. The sparkling middle passage ushers us into a world hitherto unknown yet undeniably familiar. Anouar Brahem’s “Sur Le Fleuve” is another slice of magic. Featuring the same trio combination of piano, accordion, and oud as recorded in the film, its marriage of instrumental signatures is nothing short of breathtaking. We can take great comfort in this music, for it is our partner.

Dino Saluzzi’s “Tango a mi padre” played as close to breathing as possible by him and Anja Lechner, speaks to another facet of that fascination with memory, which in this piece is so alive that it weeps for itself. We might, then, hear Vicente Greco’s “Ojos Negros” at the same duo’s hands with renewed sense of purpose. That these two bodies traveling through space and time have found themselves somehow joined at the soul, sharing with one another the details of their upbringing and the unknowns of their future, is a miracle. Also miraculous are two selections from Eleni Karaindrou, whose compositional fabric is spun from her “Farewell Theme,” which floats Jan Garbarek’s soulful tone across an ocean’s wave of strings, as Kim Kashkashian’s aquatic tail leaves its marks in the water, and “To Vals Tou Gamou,” in which piano, accordion, and violin dance like pens across paper. We may listen to this music either poignantly or through the lens of a joy that remains somehow clear in the mists of its origin.

The “Arpeggiata addio” by Giovanni G. Kapsberger, as heard on Rolf Lislevan’s Nuove musiche, likewise speaks of the past in the present. In it we can feel the propulsion of life experience by the power of desire. A voice carries us across the threshold of then and now, cradled in hands chapped like old parchment. Fresher inkwells spill their contents across Marilyn Mazur’s whimsical “Creature Walk,” a piece which as we know from the documentary brings a smile even to her face, and Gianluigi Trovesi’s blistering take on “Così, Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini. Although lit by a canonical match, Trovesi’s candle burns like an instrument of restless beauty in the macabre waltz funneling around him.

Arvo Pärt is also represented twice. His Für Lennart in memoriam is an undeniably dense molecule of emotional transfixion, while the postludinal Da Pacem Domine, after a reprise of Jarrett’s Gurjdieff “Reading,” carries us on its feathered back to the edges of sunset, where awaits the discovery of discovery.

How does one sum up ECM Records? Thankfully this is the purpose of neither the documentary nor its soundtrack. Rather, they exist to give us glimpses into the ever-shifting structure of the label’s skeleton. Following Manfred Eicher on these journeys, whether through eyes or ears, you might just find yourself wondering how so much external architecture could arise from music that is immaterial, only to realize that it’s the other way around.

(To hear samples of the soundtrack, click here.)

Fifty Shades of Prey

Fifty Shades

On Valentine’s Day, Fifty Shades of Grey hit major theaters like a riding crop. Despite being among the many who abhor the premise of E. L. James’s bestselling novel of abusive male dominance, far be it from me to deny its fans’ fulfillments. But whether you see Shades the book as an abomination to women everywhere or a worthy instruction manual for couples wanting to spice the tepid gumbo of their sex lives, Shades the movie should frighten you. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s anticipated drama draws faithfully enough from its source text, following the sexual awakening of Anastasia “Ana” Steele at the hands of Christian Grey, a billionaire Adonis with a tragic past. Yet where the book is a fantasy crafted by a woman with women in mind, the film has only men and men’s standards in its crosshairs. In confronting viewers with explicit visual suggestions of how one should consume the exploits of characters better left to private imaginations, the film undermines any therapeutic potential they might have held.

For proof, one need only look at the film’s technical grammar. From its overwhelmingly gray palette (how many brain cells got freaky to make that cinematographic decision?) and overt phallic symbols (to wit: Christian’s towering office building and the monogrammed pencils on his desk, subject to the occasional suggestive close-up) to Ana’s incessant lip-biting (I stopped counting at 30 instances) and painless loss of virginity, the film’s pathos lends itself to effortless critique. Shades was filled with laughs—its makers didn’t take the film too seriously—but I’m willing to bet this was a calculated strategy to divert gazes away from the injurious messages at its core. It’s right there in the opening credits, over which Annie Lennox’s retread of “I Put a Spell on You” lays down the line: I put a spell on you because you’re mine. You better stop the things that you do. Christian may not be equipped with magic, but he has the next best thing: capital. During their first interview, Ana is as much attracted to his wealth and power—not to mention the rockin’ bod that seems to hug the skeleton of anyone in Hollywood with a few Benjamins to rub together—as to the broken child cowering beneath it all. Were it not for his rare combination of material assets, Ana would have no interest in Christian. His wealth “justifies” his abusive behavior.

Whatever the reason, a connection is born that neither of them is able to fight. Such is the film’s ridiculous attempt to justify all that follows: both are imperfect souls in a world brimming with them, and it’s all they can do to keep from trying to perfect each other. I get that. But as their relationship develops and the scent of their pheromones becomes too concentrated to sneeze out, a morbid game of give and take begins. Christian bids Ana to sign a detailed sexual contract that outlines his dominance and her submission in kind, while ensuring that love never enters the equation. Beyond the fact that even BDSM advocates have balked at this unrealistic premise (theirs, in fact, has been the most cogent denouncement so far), more troubling symptoms of gender bias lurk within.

Shades is a master class in heterosexism. This is obvious as early as the fateful interview, when Ana asks Christian if he is gay for the sole reason that he never goes out in public with a woman on his arm. In addition to confirming the stereotype that men and women think differently by sheer virtue of their biological divergence and that both must fit into predetermined roles, the question of Christian’s sexuality reinforces the notion that men—straight men—are insensitive by design. This double standard is clearest in the film’s treatment of the body at play. We can set aside the camera’s over-emphasis on Ana’s bare breasts and concealment of Christian’s penis—this is in keeping with the already sexist standards of what is permissible by the MPAA’s R rating. We can even ignore that only the exploits of the film’s most “beautiful” people matter—this despite the fact that on the page Ana’s roommate is described as “gamine and gorgeous,” while Ana struggles with her plain self-image.

What does deserve our attention is that Christian’s feelings matter far more than Ana’s in the film. Regardless of the intensity of any given sex scene, Ana never reaches orgasm on screen. While this might seem a clever way to avoid turning each of their encounters into a money shot, it puts a question mark above the goals of the characters involved. Furthermore, this downplaying of Ana’s pleasure has two unforgivable side effects. First, it brightens the spotlight on Christian’s needs. It’s no coincidence that he obtains the greatest and most obvious pleasure from Ana’s pain, as when he whips her with his belt in response to her demand that he dole out the most extreme punishment of which he’s capable. This incident moves Christian’s infatuation for Ana outside acceptable BDSM terms and into the realm of sexual sadism. Second, it proves that the fantasies put forth by the novel would crumble were they to be fully realized on screen. When he tells Ana, for example, “I don’t make love. I f**k. Hard,” one has to wonder how such a statement could be in any way alluring.

Whatever we may think of Christian’s physical attempts at capturing her for his prey, they’re nothing compared to the verbal tactics fed him by screenwriter Kelly Marcel. By its third iteration, his “It’s the way I am” mantra loses all effectiveness and imbues the proceedings with cheap desperation. The only function of that statement is to pave Ana’s submission as a path to his devotion. Yet the film supports a greater hypocrisy when their conversations turn to a family friend who made Christian his submissive from age 15 to 21. Christian reveals that this relationship was a healthy one for him, insofar as it freed him from the burden of responsibility at an impressionable age, and that they continue to be in regular contact. Ana grows jealous and condemns his “teacher” as a “child abuser,” even as she continues to pine for his increasingly violent affections. In contrast to the young Christian, Ana is inundated with responsibility, as he requires her to follow his every word, down to what she eats and drinks.

Though Shades the book has—affectionately, I might add—been called “mommy porn,” the film is more dangerous than pornography. In no uncertain terms, Hollywood’s capitalization on the book’s film potential is a mirror of the story’s gross sexual politics: a patriarchal moneymaking machine dominating a global market of feminized submissives without consent. Some would point out that, because the film was written and directed by women (even if Marcel’s script was tweaked by action veteran Mark Bomback, best known for The Wolverine), it’s somehow okay. Such an argument, however, smacks of reverse sexism and puts me in mind of Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted but rarely heeded prophecy: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In this case, the master’s tools—be they signs of wealth or the instruments of torture arrayed in Christian’s infamous “Red Room of Pain”—only intensify the questionable nature of his reformation.

None of the above criticism is about me being too cool for the story (and in case you’re wondering, I’ve read it). It’s about the ongoing sickness of equating male domination with female empowerment. Let it be known that at the end of the trilogy Christian admits to Ana holding all the power in their relationship, but that it requires him to speak said power into being before she can claim it for her own. He is the one who defines it. And if self-empowerment can only be had through abusive trust, at what point does real abuse begin? It’s a vague proposition, and one that recalls the kind of rhetoric recently spouted by Utah State Representative Brian Greene, who questioned whether or not sex with an unconscious person counts as rape. As any BDSM practitioner will tell you, trust grows not through blind submission, but in active and mutual participation. It’s about offering, not sacrifice. And if the end result of apparent love is self-gratification through the reinforcement of a dominant male fantasy, then we might as well throw away the last century of feminist progress along with one of Christian’s spent condoms.

All told, my biggest worry is neither that men will think this is what women want nor that women will think this is what they need. It’s that those who identify with neither Christian nor Ana will feel left out of the conversation, and that those who witness this homophobic nightmare will never think to question the outdated gender dichotomy on which its story depends.

If this is what love looks like, then I shudder to think what hate might look like.

Louis Sclavis: Dans la nuit (ECM 1805)

Dans la nuit

Louis Sclavis
Dans la nuit
Music for the Silent Movie by Charles Vanel

Louis Sclavis clarinets
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Louis Sclavis violin
Vincent Courtois cello
François Merville percussion, marimba
Recorded October 2000, Studios La Buissonne
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Louis Sclavis

Louis Sclavis, who had by this point already left indelible footprints in the ECM trail with such memorable recordings as Acoustic Quartet and Les Violences de Rameau, surely surprised many with the release of Dans la nuit. The album foregrounds the French multi-reedist’s visionary composing via incidental music commissioned for a new print of Charles Vanel’s tragic 1929 silent film of the same name. One of France’s last silent pictures, Dans la nuit needed a soundtrack. Says Sclavis of the task, “I had to compose music that takes into account the period, the atmosphere of each sequence and their cinematic aesthetic. The music, at times, should have an angle on the action, an attitude, especially during the dramatic passages, should be almost as it were out of synch, giving it a distance that allows the tempo and the light to play their part. On the other hand there should also be a play of simple proximity to the characters and their feelings, realist or expressionist passages; all of this without too many sudden breaks.” In addition to his meticulously timed score, he included improvised passages in response to the images, thereby underscoring the Vanel’s spontaneous mise-en-scène.

The film itself is an almost forgotten gem of silent cinema, as attested by the intensity of its acting, the expressionism of its lighting, the creativity of its camera work, the brutality of its storyline, and the confrontational ploy of its denouement.[*] Its opening shots introduce us to an unnamed French mining village, a place rife with the very brand of contrast borne out by the protagonists. Scenes of industry clash with the gaiety of a rural wedding party.

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Friends and family drink and are merry, their revelry buoyed by the obvious happiness of the newlyweds in whose honor they have gathered.

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Meanwhile…

Recurring shots of an accordion player give Sclavis an easy clue into the album’s instrumental spread, from which Jean-Louis Matinier’s bellows stand out for their fluid narrative power.

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A dramatic cut sequence, however, upsets the certainty of the couple’s outlook as shots jump between a dolly pan of the wedding party and a crowd of miners headed for the local carnival. It is in the latter’s confines—the cacophony of which is palpable despite the lack of ambient noise—that these two worlds collide, and gives first indication that the husband is, in fact, a miner himself and is enjoying a rare reprieve from his toil. The happy couple rides into town by carriage, throwing bride (Sandra Milovanoff) and groom (played by the director) into a storm of activity. The ensuing whirlwind is expertly and descriptively captured by Vanel. Frantic overheads of swings and other amusements frame the bride in a blur of flesh and flowers, further unsettling her chances at happiness.

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Before the newlyweds consummate their marriage, their faces are singled out by the camera in a montage of longing gazes, each a placeholder for the twist of resolution to be dropped like a lemon peel into the film’s martini glass in the final act.

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Time passes, and wedded bliss has pervaded the wife’s daily routine. Viscous liquid flows down a sheet of glass placed before the lens, reverting us to the mine, where workers are preparing to dynamite the rock.

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“Fire in the hole!”

Children play in a nearby field, reinforcing Vanel’s penchant for contrast and painfully letting us in on the inevitable: the husband is buried by rocks dislodged from the blast.

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He returns home, a disfigured man.

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He bids his wife to fetch a mask from his belongings, which he wears to give his appearance at least semblance of normalcy. Life wanders on, but so do the wife’s passions, landing her in the arms of an illicit lover. The latter finds another mask (presumably a spare) in her husband’s likeness and puts it on. When the husband comes home unexpectedly early, the two men tussle for her hand. Vanel’s choreography makes it seem as if the husband has been killed. The wife and who she believes to be her lover dump the body, but when they return home, the man reveals himself to be her husband.

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“Yes, it’s me!”

Even as she feels her entire world crumbling around her, she wakes up to find it was all a dream.

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One could hardly dream of a more fitting score for this melodrama. Sclavis has forged no mere accompaniment, but rather a living entity that balances the film’s morbid undertones with a harmonious sheen. Two recurring motifs, “Dia Dia” and the title theme, lend the album a narrative arc all its own. Together, the former’s pairing of bellow (Matinier) and cello (Vincent Courtois) and the latter’s Yann Tiersen-like breezes lend a feeling of symmetry.

The descriptiveness of each tune speaks in the language of cinema, so that François Merville’s light percussive appliqué in “Le travail” gives just a hint of the labor it names. (The stark textures here recall Philip Glass—and indeed, one may wish to explore the American composer’s own scoring for silent films for more in this vein.) “Fête foraine” (Fairgrounds) lays tightly wound strings over martial snare, shifting midway through to mallets before returning to the procession. Such changes beguile throughout. The full import of the wife’s “Mauvais rêve” (Bad dream), for example, finds perfect introduction in the clarinet and cello duet (“Retour de noce”) that precedes it. Fantasy (“Amour et beauté”) changes hands with reality (“Le miroir,” in which violinist Dominique Pifarély sounds for all like a ghost), excitement (“La fuite”) with comeuppance (“Les 2 visages”).

Two of the album’s finest moments occur in “La peur du noir” (Fear of the dark), which expresses itself through a nervous heart murmur of solo accordion, and in “L’accident,” a two-part fragmentation of the film’s underlying tensions that works its corkscrew into a bottle long emptied of its hope.

Meticulously composed, arranged, and performed, Dans la nuit stands tall in the Louis Sclavis lineup—not because it is relatively “accessible” (which it is), but because its storytelling is so enmeshed with its source. It’s brittle continuity maintains shape even in the emotional push and pull in which it finds itself caught. Like the nameless wife’s nightmare, the music carries in its breast a hint of its own anxieties, reliving them for as long as there are mirrors, smoke, and light…

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[*] I regret that I was only able to obtain an untranslated VHS library copy of the film, from which I could only extract stills by photographing the screen with my iPhone.

Eleni Karaindrou: Dust of Time (ECM New Series 2070)

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The Dust of Time is the last film of Theo Angelopoulos, a status it attained only after the Greek filmmaker unexpectedly disappeared from the mortal landscape in 2012. This film was the second in a trilogy begun with The Weeping Meadow and set to be completed by The Other Sea, in production at the time of his passing. It is at once his most complex and simplest film. Because it is his last, we may feel tempted to see it as the capstone to his oeuvre, a summary and reflection of things past. We might also experience it as an inception, a regression into birth.

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“Nothing ended. Nothing ever ends.” The voice of our protagonist. As in Ulysses’ Gaze, his name is A (Willem Dafoe), this time a director making a film about his parents’ perseverance in the post-Stalinist era. Sweeping through Italy, Germany, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and the US, its manifold narratives take shape through soft address. A for anonymous. A for atrophy. A for apotheosis.

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The film works on multiple levels. One finds A in the backwash of the tense politics that so fascinate him. His own film faces logistical difficulties, the weight of which, when combined with that of personal demons, seeks to break him. His anxieties shuffle into level two: his parents’ tale. Here the reality of cinema comes to life, indistinguishable from A’s own.

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A clandestine exchange on a train introduces us to his father, Spyros (Michel Piccoli), whose twisting of the system has earned him an identity and the chance to see his beloved again.

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A man hands him a fake passport: “From now on, you’re playing with time.” Words to live by for A in the present, and a clue into the film’s title. Like the coating on old stock, dust plays with the imagery of our experiences in microscopic dances of light and shadow, holds those experiences like a bottle holds wine. As A watches archival footage of communist propaganda, a patch of light covers his eyes like a protective mask.

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As in so many moments of what follows, he bleeds into the biography he imagines. Witness in that alternate time his mother, Eleni (Irène Jacob). See the many border crossings etched into her face, the force of her abandon in the arms of the only other human being on her radar.

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“It’s you. You’re here,” she says to Spyros, holding him at long last.

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At the station, a crowd gathers before a statue of Stalin, disperses, and leaves us dangling in A’s pragmatic concerns.

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He surveys the margins of a soundtrack rehearsal, thus enacting one of Angelopoulos’s deepest intertextual sequences. Dafoe cues a melody for a dance in the film (a dance that comes later, in the comfort of water).

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Although I hesitate to compare Angelopoulos to Tarkovsky, I cannot help but see the ringing phone that interrupts the rehearsal as an analogue to the unexpected call that startles the heart of the Zone in Stalker. Dafoe answers it, only to be confronted with voiceless street noise. He hopes it is his daughter, also named Eleni, and fills the studio with her name in vain. He returns home to find his daughter missing, and on her bed his mother’s lost letter to Spyros.

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Back in their story, Spyros and Eleni are captured in the wake of their lovemaking, leaving only tire tracks and brokenness to show for their catharsis.

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This inspires a series of letters that she knows will never reach him. She flees to Siberia with their son and puts him on a train to Moscow in the winter of 1956.

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Her heart allows room for Jacob (Bruno Ganz), a man whose head is a museum of broken statues: monuments whose bodies have dilapidated yet whose messages resound.

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A’s daughter’s room is the physical equivalent. She has plastered her walls with heads of popular culture, each a window into aural upheaval and antidisestablishmentarian politic.

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Like the soundscape that wafts in from the streets, they carry echoes of lost music, giving reason to a “strange anticipation” in A’s weary body. Together they are the song of a city greeting the new century. Later A stands before a movie theater, and in that moment realizes that his daughter’s collage is like the cinematic pantheon of which he is but a lost builder.

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“For me there is no return. My destiny takes me somewhere else,” says Eleni to Jacob. She tells him to let her go, that no matter what happened between them she is someone else’s. Yet Jacob yearns for that return and finds its simulacrum decades later when Eleni and Spyros surprise A with a homecoming. It rings strangely hollow, however, and Jacob arrives in the hopes of reigniting what once so fleetingly was. (In a brief encounter, A admits to him, “I’m constantly traveling. Sometimes I don’t even know where I am.”) Jacob bears his soul to Eleni, invites her to touch the images burned into his mind. The trauma wells up in him. He raises his voice, as if he were onstage. He makes of life a theatre, replays scenes like an obsessed director.

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Only with this emotional breach does A gain access to his mother’s youth, finding her in the mist in violent embrace. The camera revolves around them, as would a planet around a sun.

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The final blow for him comes when his daughter threatens to end her life. In the presence of vagabonds and police, she gives in to her grandmother’s pleading, unlike Jacob who thereafter implores an invisible God before throwing himself into a river.

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In the wake of these tribulations, A shares a ghostly moment, reflected on a passing car that bisects a line of eye contact with his ex-wife, Helga (Christiane Paul).

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As Eleni falls ill, her hand drips with water.

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At her deathbed, a great wind floods the room with the exhalations of an impending storm.

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“Eleni, wake up,” says Spyro. “I’m coming to get you.” He reaches for her.

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The girl takes his hand instead. It also drips.

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Here is where the film manifests a third level: the pliant corridor of death along which our feet will all someday tread. For as young Eleni and her grandfather step out of the window into the falling snow, we feel in their traversal of logical space an openness of reason. Hand in hand, they run through the streets, deserted like the universe.

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One can hardly discuss this film without noting Angelopoulos’s preference for back shots. Each portraits its respective character more insightfully than any close-up, and in the end shuffles our recollections until they unify.

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A particularly moving example, however, is mother Eleni’s hair floating in the mist of her impossible reunion with A.

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She is creation incarnate, the bringer of tears where only there is desert. But what is a desert without its sky? That is where the music comes in.

Dust of Time

Eleni Karaindrou
Dust of Time

Sergiu Nastasa violin
Renato Ripo violoncello
Maria Bildea harp
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Spyros Kazianis bassoon
Antonis Lagos french horn
Dinos Hadjiiordanou accordion
Eleni Karaindrou piano
Camerata – Friends of Music Orchestra
Natalia Michailidou piano
Hellenic Radio Television Orchestra
Alexandros Myrat conductor
Recorded January (tracks 9 and 15) & March 2008 at Megaron, Athens, Greece
Edited and mixed July 2008

Perhaps more than in any other film, Eleni Karaindrou’s score for Dust of Time wavers in the shadows. “To write the music I had to look for the film’s secret codes,” says Angelopoulos’s trusted composer, “I had to bring the essence of things to the surface and shed intense light on the sound colors underlining the timelessness of nostalgia.” This time the instrumental colors are most intimate, honed to evocative perfection by violinist Sergiu Nastasa, cellist Renato Ripo, and harpist Maria Bildea. Hailing from Romania and Albania, this trio brings its own traditions and nuances to a permeable set of motives. Of these, the “Dance Theme” and its variations figure centrally in both film and soundtrack. It is the music we hear in the pivotal rehearsal scene, homage to Karaindrou’s voicing and intuitive matching. “Waltz by the River” crystallizes the theme’s core values, adding accordionist Dinos Hadjiiordanou into the watercolor mix. As in so many of Angelopoulous’s films, dance animates the passage of time, the degradation of history, and the preservation of memory. Karaindrou’s attention to every movement wipes clean emotional dumping grounds for tragic pasts, purges war-ravaged biographies of their blood in single strokes.

Because the soundtrack’s 45 minutes were culled from over 100 minutes of music, what we encounter is a powerful skeleton. Between the harp and violin duet of “Le Temps Perdu” and the concluding oceanic currents of “Adieu,” Karaindrou figures the power of the melody with as much tact as her arrangements thereof. Along the way, threads unravel to reveal the tumult of wandering and exile in “Seeking,” while passages like “Solitude” speak in monosyllables of enchantment.
Dreams are not beyond us. They return. Like the old reels of A’s interest, they hold their images until the light of waking passes through them anew. Every picture, every note on a staff, is a voyage waiting to begin.

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