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.

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Eleni Karaindrou: The Weeping Meadow (ECM New Series 1885)

The Weeping Meadow

Eleni Karaindrou
The Weeping Meadow

Maria Bildea harp
Konstantinos Raptis accordion
Socratis Sinopoulos constantinople lyra
Vangelis Skouras french horn
Renato Ripo violoncello
Sergiu Nastasa violin
Angelos Repapis double-bass
String Orchestra La Camerata Athens
Eleni Karaindrou piano
Antonis Kontogeorgiou choirmaster
Recorded June 2003 at Studio Polysound, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“True sailing is dead.”
–Jim Morrison

Eleni Karainrou’s music for film is more than incidental; it is genetically enmeshed in celluloid. Melodies come to her before she sees a single frame, when migrations are still conceptual, dreamed of. This explains the rawness she elicits from Theo Angelopoulos’s swaths of mist, water, and dirt in The Weeping Meadow. “She speaks the same language that I am when making a film,” the late Greek director once said, for indeed her soundtrack is anything but paraphrase. It is as much the film as the film itself, as broad of sweep and as inward of emotion as the characters in whose skin the music resonates.

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The Weeping Meadow is Part I of Angelopoulos’s uncompleted trilogy on modern Greece and spans the years 1919 through 1949. It is the portrait of a pivotal century, a coroner’s report on the body of Greece.

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Behind the camera is a nation ravaged by the Bolshevik Revolution—a force of displacement that cuts the bonds of countless citizens and sets them flying into whatever currents they can catch toward safety. The Red Army’s march on Odessa looses our main characters from the rock and goads them onward.

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Like the hand-colored postcards in the title sequence, their beloved city exists only as it was, frozen at the height of its opulence by the touch of memory.

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Writhing on the other side of Angelopoulos’s lens is interwar America, which was for many refugees a Promised Land. People believed such things out of innocence, notes Angelopoulos in a related interview, looking as they were for a way out of their poverty. The Weeping Meadow thus unfolds as a threnody of discovery, an awakening to the mutually exclusive powers of earth and sky.

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It follows the coming of age of Eleni, an orphaned foundling who falls in love with her adoptive brother Alexis, with whom she elopes after marrying his widowed father, Spyros. In the years leading up to World War II, Alexis goes to America to pursue his dreams of becoming a renowned musician, leaving Eleni to wash her tired, solemn feet in the basin of fascist repression.

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As is de rigueur in Angelopoulos’s cinema, the way he tells his stories is just as significant as the stories themselves. This is nowhere truer than in the soundtrack.

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What Karaindrou has done is to treat the film’s events as births and nurture them into being. Thus animated, they take on new flesh and politics. In this regard, the titular main theme is among the most representative of all she has written. Its seesawing melodies and river-run exposition move like the eternal dance that is her spirit. In the accordion we can hear Alexis’s aspirations, can feel a lure that stretches across the Atlantic and into the heart of his as-yet-unrequited passage.

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“Theme of the uprooting” shines harp with cello through a prism of deeper hue. It is one of many intimate pairings throughout the program, each an expression of Eleni and Alexis splashed across the atlas of time to which they are ever subordinate.

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This sensation of helplessness turns visceral through the voiceover, which marks what we are about to see as choreography on a vast stage. “Scene 1,” the voice begins, establishing a self-aware, non-diegetic world in which we are but fleeting, curious spectators. Along the banks of Thessaloniki—“a wound that will not heal”—a mass of humanity approaches, torn yet regardful. Life as they once knew it is gone, as threadbare and uncertain as they are.

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“Waiting” holds true to this tension, wrapping its wings around Eleni’s unfathomable resolve, which liquefies in her arrest. As water drips from her hands like tears (an image that recurs in the trilogy’s second part, The Dust of Time), she becomes life itself, percolating through crack of stone and pocket of soil into the earth’s molten core.

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Eleni’s twin soul resides in “The tree,” another recurring melody that stands as the only reminder of community. Its lachrymose branches have shed their leaves long ago. In their place are strains of accordion, piano, and lyra…fish swimming in murky waters. The single tree is a living cipher, a leitmotif akin to the sapling in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Although more often looming in the distance of the refugees’ makeshift settlement…

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…up close it is ornamented with animal carcasses: not an omen of what will be, but of what might have been.

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When the settlement is flooded and puts those nomadic hearts back on the line, it weeps in their absence. For as democracy commits suicide all around them, its roots are the only ones left.

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“Young man’s theme” is another of the soundtrack’s more character-driven pieces. Its interlocking circles of accordion, lyra, and harp weave a thinly veiled portrait of the film’s love triangle, which like an all-seeing eye penetrates the viewer in return. That gaze is as prolific as it is omnipresent. From the long pan over riverbanks worn by wheel of cart and sole of shoe to the silent epidemic that offers Alexis’s mother to the talons of a bird of deathly shade, it watches until things drown. It reminds us that Alexis has already wounded Eleni with a family she can never have (when we encounter her as a teenager her twin boys, born in secret, have already been adopted out). Upon her return, Alexis goes to Eleni in the night and asks her, “Remember when we used to say we’d follow the river to the find the source?” He is too young to realize that Eleni has been that source all along. Although they have shared a moment through the window, separated by songs of men, being together means that some form of shattering is inevitable.

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That each of the above themes has its variations reminds us that constellations are never fixed. They are the changing of the guard from day into dusk, an enigmatic realization of that unflagging gaze. All of which makes the standalone pieces glow with their potency of message.

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Anchored by a violin solo that invokes Karaindrou’s theme for Ulysses’ Gaze, “Memories” caresses the garments of a loved one who has passed. Here we find pause and reflection for the wayfaring mind. The quiet tide of strings barely touches the shore before an emotional sponge dabs it away as if it were but a tear on the face of an immeasurable deity.

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“On the road” spins an even more reflective pathos, its wheels turning in search of traction and finding it only the choir of “Prayer.” Therein lies the film’s most abrasive benediction. It weeps neither for itself nor for us, but for those who do not know, those we can never know, those without name in places without time. It encompasses Eleni’s resilience tenfold: her spying on the twin boys, drawn into a web at conservatory; her flight with Alexis into the shelter of a sympathetic theater troupe, and Spyros’s vengeful shame at knowing his pride is lost; the final dance before Spyros collapses, never to breathe again; his watery pyre, floating somewhere between the fantasy he could never endure and the reality that substitutes his existence with sticks and decay.

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Simply calling Karaindrou’s sound-world “cinematic” is as misguided as calling the sky blue, for it too fades to black when the day is over. Despite its fictional ties, its shapes are as real as the musicians who bring it to life. It is, rather, an amorphous body of tears and gestures, the departing ship that pulls Alexis and Eleni apart.

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A red thread is all that connects, the unraveling of an unfinished garment.

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After it falls into the ocean, and with it the promise of balance, Eleni returns to the old house, ruined, in the water.

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Its voices have washed away. Eleni has been washed away. Everything has been washed away.

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Alternate covers:
Alternate Weeping 1

Alternate Weeping 2

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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Eleni Karaindrou: Eternity and a Day (ECM New Series 1692)

“Open always, always watching, the eyes of my soul.”
–Dyonisios Solomos

The Film
An ancient city, lost beneath the ocean. The stuff of history. Time, a young voice tells us, is “a child playing jacks on the beach.” A piano wafts through the image like a breeze carrying scents and sounds of retrospection—the film’s leitmotif. Here the past functions not as a repository for memory but as a palimpsest for a mind still practicing. It is the mind of Alexander (Bruno Ganz), an aging poet whose dark trench coat cuts a crow’s wing against director Theo Angelopoulos’s wintry palette. A slow approach to a window guides us to the film’s title by way of Alexander’s boyhood. The camera follows him as if through a ghost’s eyes.

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When we first encounter Alexander as he is now, he holds a taste of the sea in his mouth…

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…and clutches his throat as if breathing were a labor. This momentary inability to get words out is both curse and blessing: an obvious malady for a man of letters, but also a release from the world’s imploration to dress its dreariness in pretty semantics.

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The sea follows Alexander. It is the tail of the dying comet that is his life. His dog looks toward that same sea, a place where music and memory are engaged in dance. A terminal diagnosis looms over him (his constant pill-popping brings rhythm to the narrative), mist over a landscape of uneven hills. He feels silence encroaching and fills it with regrets of unfinished work, of “words scattered here and there.”

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Alexander welcomes a boy (Achileas Skevis)—an Albanian vagrant washing windows at stoplights for petty cash—into his car. His whim begins a final poem, a magnum opus borne of action and sacrifice that can never manifest as ink and paper but rather unspools across light and film. Yet while this charity saves the boy from capture by police and gives us the film’s first smile, it comes at the cost of ignoring the other boys into whose meager routine of survival he had fallen.

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Alexander knows the ripple effect of his actions. He feels the churning waters of time as a swallowing force. Its life-giving properties are so far removed from the here and now that it is all he can do to plunge his feet into the mud of recollection. After spending a lifetime waiting for progress, he will spend another waiting for regress. Angelopoulos’s title does not compare eternity and a day, but equates them.

As Alexander prepares to leave his everyday existence and spend his remaining days in convalescence, he brings the dog to his daughter, Katerina (Iris Chatziantoniou). The contrast between her upscale apartment and her utter yearning for a transparent ancestry are but surface to the inner sanctum of her father’s raw linguistic materials. She displays her anxieties among the art objects of her living room, where a wall catches the circumference of a projected clock. As the film’s symbol par excellence, it hovers like a dedication page torn from its binding and pasted where a window might be. In this manner Katerina turns her glitches into quantifiable space.

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During this visit we learn that Alexander is completing an unfinished 19th-century epic by Dyonisios Solomos. “The Free Beseiged,” as it is known, is mired in the Greek War of Independence, from which it draws blood to fill its pen. Alexander has been working on the project since the death of his wife, Anna (Isabelle Renauld), who comes to us in flashbacks. And while Katerina may not understand why her father would ever wish to graft his words onto another’s, she flows through him like the returning sea when he gives her letters written in her mother’s hand. Through her reading, Alexander is read anew, revitalized as if by the boy whose fate he has influenced.

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The sea is a trance, pillow of scent-filled houses. Sleep and silence cohabit its ever-changing shoreline. Through her daughter’s voice, a resurrected Anna links newfound maternity with love, safety, and breath. The vulnerability of her body engenders absolute trust in, and safety for, her blossoming child. For Katerina is indeed a flower, the center of a family gathering in the sunlit prime of a warmer era. Even in life, Anna was constantly on the verge of dissolving, a wanderer in love. Alexander is moved beyond comfort, for he knows that his dissolution will bring him closer.

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Like all reveries, this one is all the more poignant for its brevity and it is Katerina’s husband who breaks its spell. Put off by the presence of what in his eyes can be nothing more than a haggard vagabond, he tells Alexander he has sold the old house by the sea—the very house where Katerina tumbled into maturity—and that it will be demolished. He also takes unkindly to animals and questions any obligation to welcome the dog into his home.

The streets, paved in articulate indifference, keep Alexander in check. They are the insignia of a publisher far grander than anything he can contemplate with his ties to speech. In opening himself to a stranger, Alexander realizes he has found in the boy a beacon—not of hope, but of evenness. This balance is upset when he witnesses the boy being thrown into the back of a cargo truck.

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He follows the vehicle to a shady warehouse where other urchins have been plucked from their rocks and are being sold into an invisible market. The boys, however, are wise to this and make a run for it in a ballet of quick thinking and broken glass.

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In the ensuing chaos, Alexander saves the boy of his interest, giving all the money on his person in exchange. He puts the boy on a bus going toward the Albanian border, both in the hopes of losing him before he loses himself and in the hopes that there might be a home to return to.

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The boy comes back to Alexander, having found a home in presence of the bearded stranger. He sings a children’s song from his homeland, tells Alexander of crossing the border, thereby revealing a likeminded fixation on language. Alexander takes him to the border, but they run when the boy tells him he has no one.

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Alexander tells him the story of the poet Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), Greek but raised in Italy, who returned to his homeland when he heard the Greeks were rising against the Ottomans. He does not speak the language, and so he buys words from the locals. Across a night “sown with magic” he travels, reaching deep into his reservoir of sentiments to produce the “Hymn to Liberty.” It remains a significant verse for Alexander, a bid for freedom from language, through language.

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In the end, he entrusts the dog to his housekeeper, Urania (Helene Gerasimidou), interrupting her son’s wedding to do so. Spectators hanging from the gates mirror those at the border, each a living puppet frozen in the wake of a changing tide.

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This leaves the boy, Alexander’s only link, his only mirror. “You’re smiling, but I know you’re sad,” the boy tells him. Such contradictions—in the end, not really contradictions at all—are essential to Angelopoulos’s cinematic world, a world where light and dark are so permeable as to be unquestionable. For while Alexander’s cape is the shadow of his deteriorating self, of a body blurring into lifelessness, it is also a flag whose communication harnesses wind like a sail.

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He is a man devoid of contact, yet who is touched by humanity; a man in self-imposed exile, yet who knows the landscape as if it were his own; a man known for words, yet who pays for them with emotional currency. The boy wants to say goodbye, but Alexander convinces him to stay, will not accept that his hand may bring about another end.

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Thus the camera looks beyond the curtain into the reflecting pool of the human condition.

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His films are unfinished, stitched yet tattered. In allowing their seams the privilege of coming undone, he delivers messages devoid of hyperbole. The zoom, for example, sheds its derivative qualities in such a context, seeking not to focus our attention so much as to remind us of limitations. As in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the occasional close-up shocks with its candor, reaches into the pit of our complacency and stirs up the love we have forgotten. When Alexander turns his back on us, he turns his back on the world.

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The Soundtrack
Composer Eleni Karaindrou has her finger so firmly on the pulse of Angelopoulos’s ethos that her flesh has melded with his images. Yet there is something more than the combination of sight and sound going on in Eternity and a Day, for this more than any other film she has soundtracked is an ode also to time.

Eternity and a Day

Eleni Karaindrou
Eternity and a Day

Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Nikos Guinos clarinet
Manthos Halkias clarinet
Spyros Kazianis bassoon
Vangelis Skouras french horn
Aris Dimitriadis mandolin
Iraklis Vavatsikas accordion
Eleni Karaindrou piano
String Orchestra La Camerata Athens
Loukas Krytinos director
Recorded March and April 1998, Athens Concert Hall
Engineer: Andreas Mantopoulos and Christos Hadjistamou
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title of the first piece, “Hearing the Time,” would seem to say as much: just as Angelopoulos puts an eye to lens, so too Karaindrou puts an ear to history. She draws thick yet airy wool over our eyes, that we might view the world through the blur of fibrous experience. Over an expanse of archival strings we hear a distant relay between violin and accordion. These punctuations are not ruptures but voices from below. The composer at the keyboard elicits “By the Sea,” a humid snapshot that segues us into the mandolin accents and silken oboe line of the “Eternity Theme.” As Beethovenian cellos churn, we think back to its corresponding scene in the film, in which we find Alexander listening to this very music on the radio. He shuts off his mechanical translator and looks out across to the other apartment complex, where the same music flows from another window. “Lately” he muses, “my only contact with the world is this stranger opposite who answers me with the same music.” Perhaps true to character, he decides against pursuing this fascination: “It’s better not to know…and imagine.”

And imagine is all we can do when taking this soundtrack on its own terms. The theme echoes throughout its architecture, inflected differently by each soloist. A bassoon evokes tears colored by fate, while clarinets drip from the great beyond with tastes of once-forgotten joy. A traditional wedding dance fills the air with bright steps, contrasting almost painfully with the solitude of “Bus,” and lends relative sanctity to Ganz’s recitation in “The Poet.” Yet it is in a little piece called “Borders” that the fluidity of his embodiment is clearest. Through it we realize that harmony needs change.

Like the film itself, the score of Eternity and a Day creates a somewhere far removed from its content yet which is equally cinematic. It is a looking glass unto itself, a kaleidoscope named “then.”

Giya Kancheli: Themes from the Songbook (ECM 2188)

Themes

Giya Kancheli
Themes from the Songbook

Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Gidon Kremer violin
Andrei Pushkarev vibraphone
Recorded and mixed May 2010 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Additional recordings at Latvijas Radio, Riga
Engineer: Varis Kurmins
Final editing, mastering at MSM Studios by Christoph Stickel and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Giya Kancheli’s first album for ECM’s flagship label is a major event. The Georgian composer will be more than familiar to New Series aficionados, who’ve had ample opportunity to acquaint themselves with his uncompromising sonorities, rich dynamic spreads, and recurring themes. Yet few of us will ever have known that he also developed a sideline—as did other (former) Soviet Bloc composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Arvo Pärt, though none so prolifically—as scorer for theatre and cinema. One can see hear album as companion to the 2009 publication of Kancheli’s Simple Music for Piano: 33 Miniatures for Stage and Screen. The subtitle betrays little depth of his subsidy, which exceeds 100 unique productions. Although Kancheli humbly says in his preface of these songs, “Time will tell if they can survive outside their original context,” it is clear from this album that they already have. Their realization brings together an intimate cast, with producer Manfred Eicher as director. Bandoneón master Dino Saluzzi, violinist Gidon Kremer, and vibraphonist Andrei Pushkarev indeed move as if from behind a curtain, if not in front of a lens, bringing their sharp wit and live “editing” skills to an immediate yet highly polished sound-world. The inclusion of Pushkarev was a masterstroke, and his willingness to explore these themes is reflected in his collaborations with Saluzzi and Kremer in kind. Having recorded Themes as a surprise 75th birthday gift at Eicher’s suggestion, they bring lovingness to every motive and thus emphasize the preservation that flows by and within the art they share. And on that note, we have to thank, as does Kancheli’s son Sandro in his heartfelt liner notes, ECM for championing this music and its aftereffects, as might a cartographer love the land.

“Herio Bichebo” from Earth, This Is Your Son (1980, dir. Revaz Chkheidze) establishes a defining combination of vibraphone and bandoneón. The feeling is inevitably watery, its passage a boat adrift toward a mountain rife with ancestral longings. This atmosphere also sets the tone for the program’s careful use of pauses and suspensions. There is a forlorn quality, if not a sweet tenderness, to this introduction, wherein lurks the elegiac wave of Bear’s Kiss (2002, dir. Sergei Bodrov) and the grinding lows of When Almonds Blossomed (1972, dir. Lana Gogoberidze). Other cinematic highlights include the themes from Don Quixote (1988, dir. Chkheidze), which features an overdubbed Kremer and at once expresses the story’s inherent sadness and innocence, and the nostalgic disclosure of Mimino (1977, dir. Danelia and Gadriadze), for which Kremer joins Pushkarev. The latter draws out some of the deepest emotion in the main theme from Kin-Dza-Dza (1986, dir. Georgi Danelia and Revaz Gadriadze), shuffling characteristically Kanchelian bursts of exaltation into somber tiers.

All seven plays represented on Themes rose out of collaboration with renowned Georgian theatre director Robert Sturua, whose musicality marries well with Kancheli’s dramaturgy. The main theme from The Crucible (1965, play by Arthur Miller) marks Kremer’s first album entrance, his raspy bowing complementing the click of bandoneón keys to delectable effect. Saluzzi and Pushkarev reprise their chemistry in a carefree rendition of The Role for a Beginner (1979, play by Tamaz Chiladze), I daresay reaching subtle genius in As You Like It (1978). Memorable enough to be a jazz standard, it is a ballad that looks backward and forward as it spins in place to the rhythm of its heartbeat. And in fact, Shakespeare provides some of the deepest inspiration of the program, as in Saluzzi’s shadowy Hamlet (1992) and Pushkarev’s dynamic Twelfth Night (2001), which illustrates its story in flashes of light.

Jansug Khakidze, the late singer/conductor who was one of the composer’s closest friends, leads the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra in an archival encore. His “Herio Bichebo,” warmly engineered by Mikhail Kilosanidze, is so iconic that many believed him to have written it. Listening to it here, one can understand why. Jan Garbarek fans will recognize his inimitable voice as the same behind “The Moon Over Mtatsminda” on 1998’s RITES.

Interestingly enough, Kancheli’s pieces for the stage sound the most cinematic, and vice versa. Together they comprise a daydream paginated and bound for travel. It is sure to please Kancheli veterans and newcomers alike, and will, I hope, inspire the latter to explore further.

Raised by Silence: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return

Andrey Zvyagintsev
The Return

Andrey Dergatchev music
Recorded in Moscow
Mixing: Sergey Bolshakov at NGSU, Moscow

Sunday
Boys. Locked in a tower without walls. Only way out is to jump, trailing naïve ribbons into ocean. Ivan fears for his life before it has begun, cringes, holds himself like an idol of sadness. His mother, afraid, finds among the clouds. Ivan insists, I jump, but doesn’t move. Coward. Pig. These, the insults that follow him down the ladder.

Monday
Brothers. Ivan to Andrei, younger to older. Ivan’s friends have turned on their axes. Andrei chases him through a blur of stone and shame. The specter of toughness looms, foggy and ephemeral. Home awaits, harboring an unexpected guest. Their father has emerged from the past, haggard and silent. His photograph rests in a book of Christian violence, smiling a scythe of absence. The consuming patriarch eats first, drinks first, speaks last. Andrei fills his plate. Ivan leaves his dry. A promise, a trip, the car a horizontal escape. Andrei’s eyes widen at the man’s strength. In the mother’s heart, a diary. Her pen now still, she writes lies of valor onto her sons’ pages.

Tuesday
Desolation. Bent telephone poles. Endless road. Curiosity in Ivan’s eyes. This man is not “Dad,” only the skeleton of one. Armed with a camera, Andrei shoots his brother through with holes. In town, the food is as scarce as the people. Father takes refuge in his rearview mirror, where a onetime stare flicks its tongue against his stubble. Ivan will not touch his fork. A thief, an opportunity to prove themselves. “You’ve got no fists.” On the pier, he trades secrets and wind. They camp, fish the waters of their stoic reunion, dreaming of somewhere far away. This man is not real.

Wednesday
Drive. Splash of pastoral color bleeds like a wound. Ivan abandoned, alone with his rods and tackle in a downpour. “Why did you come back?” he cries. “You don’t need us.” Father is a survivor. He hits Andrei.

Thursday
Crossing. Tarred boat, passage of joy. Engine dies, elbows worked to the fulcrum. On the shore, by the fire, the man is downtrodden. Ivan: “If he touches me again, I’ll kill him.”

Friday
Anger. Ivan steals a knife, conceals it as they explore the terrain. Another tower. Father unearths a box, conceals it in their boat. Another hit to Andrei’s face. And another. Ivan wields the blade but cannot follow through. He climbs the tower, threatening to jump. Father falls to his death trying to reach him. They drag his body to the boat on a bed of branches. His body floats from shore, sinks along with the box into the blackness. Ivan’s obstinacy is Andrei’s fear. Ivan takes out the picture, from which the father is now absent. They drive off. Andrei’s camera gives up its ghosts.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has left us these pictures. With them, Andrey Dergatchev has left us their voices. More than incidental, his soundtrack relives the film as might a photograph relive a sunset. The mix is corroded as much as it is innocent, every image a feature of Ivan’s despair. It begins where the film ends: underwater. An old man sings, drawing threads of a past that only he may know, and weaves from them the very doll of memory that resides within the father’s box, a kiss lost to winds that blow like wicker brooms across a porch. Whispers of derision in sibling rivalry paint us along the hallway, catching sight of ghosts in the walls and ceiling shadows, for in the bedroom is where truths are spoken. Georgian folk songs glaze a thorn-patch of ambient sounds. These begin to surround us, as if we were locked inside a car flying through the trees. Ice and rain: each tells stories of its conversion into the other. We feel the swell of that forgotten childhood and the bond it was denied.

Sounds of insects. The title music opens its eyes half way. A tender enchantment, puff of dandelion through the inner ear, a place so deep that we hardly feel its electronic blips. Sons speak. Words create disturbances, reinforcing an absence whose return brings further silence. Arpeggios thread the cries of gulls that give them relief. Unlike them, Mozart’s Requiem spreads a wing in between acts, but never flies, melting instead behind a layer of silver water. Someone whispers and bids the cells to dance, finding that somewhere in the piano there may be hope stored like history. A skipping record, touched by the needle of the soul and swung around the filament of the credit roll, seeks familiar pathos in the final rainfall, rotting the boat that brought us here.

Eleni Karaindrou: The Suspended Step Of The Stork (ECM 1456)

Eleni Karaindrou
The Suspended Step Of The Stork

Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Nikos Spinoulas French horn
Andreas Tsekouras accordion
Dimitris Vraskos violin
Christos Sfetsas cello
Ada Rouva harp
Lefteris Chalkiadakis director String orchestra
Recorded April and August 1991, Polysound and Sound, Athens
Engineer: Yannis Smyrneos
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“How does one leave?”

This question haunts The Suspended Step Of The Stork, Part I of Theo Angelopoulos’s “Borders” trilogy. A film of subcutaneous power, it finds beauty where there is suffering, stark yet foggy, as if through tearful recollection. Peeling layers to the emotional center of Stork is composer Eleni Karaindrou, whose soundtracks were never so much inserted into as bled from the late Greek director’s canvases. Hers is the audio equivalent of a tracking shot, scrolling through face, space, and race with barest touch. “Refugee’s Theme” shrouds the credits like an overture to lives whose variations are leaves on a tree of displacement.

Of those lives we get only leitmotifs, each seeming far too short in the grander symphony of human suffering. Like the bodies floating in the opening shot, they bob at the whim of two rhythms: one natural, the other mechanical.

Helicopters and boats circle these transient martyrs, whose bodies huddle together still as they might have when still alive. Our protagonist, Alexandre (Gregory Patrikareas), a television reporter on his way from Athens to the Greek-Albanian border to do story, watches those same corpses—Asian stowaways refused political asylum by Greek authorities—and muses on the silence they represent amid all the commotion. The name of the ship from which those unfortunate souls would rather have leapt to certain death rings true: Oceanic Bird. Each has become exactly that, soaring far from the public eye on wings of salt spray and denial.

In a border town far from those waters, yet never from their ripples, a patrol Colonel (Ilias Logothetis) aids Alexandre in his search for information. Known by locals as the Waiting Room, said town plays host to refugees from Albania, Turkey, Kurdistan, among others. It is place with its own dimension, or so the Colonel asserts, a place where people lose themselves in the tide, forgetting that any such dimension is not inherent to the place, but forced upon it by politics and circumstance. It is, more to the point, a place of fear, where even the roar of the nearby river turns dreams into nightly prisons.

“Do you know what borders are?” the Colonel asks Alexandre in a key scene, as if the concept were in need of philosophical elaboration. This is the set piece he lives behind, the stage Alexandre so desperately, in his quiet way, hopes to transcend.

The Colonel lures the hapless reporter to that very line, threatening to cross it.


“If I take one more step, I’m ‘elsewhere’…or I die.”

What seems on the surface a fruitful bonding moment, a shedding of rank that leaves two men at the brink of something profound and indelible, proves just as arbitrary as the border of their shared interest. Ever ahead of his audience, Angelopoulos offsets this shadow play with an audio montage of firsthand refugee accounts. Says one, recounting the fear of being seen during his night passage, “I could never imagine that I’d ever want the moon to die.” These words cut the Colonel’s sentiments like Brie, revealing the vulnerable innards of his arrogance. We are duly reminded that the “elsewhere” of which he feigns knowledge has, for them, taken on mythical meaning. It is the asymptote to their path of travel, seen in every expression as the camera pans along a train filled with survivors. Here, Karaindrou’s “Train-Car Neighbourhood” draws a thread through each life like a bead on a necklace of hardship.

Yet perhaps no moment captures this separation of nomad and state power so heart-wrenchingly as when the Colonel berates a man for trading music across the river.

A cassette player spews popular lyrics of a better time on a small makeshift raft, which the man changes out before the player is pulled off screen.

Love is a full moon, croons Haris Alexiou from its weary speakers. It drives my body mad.

A rare close-up from Angelopoulos allies us with Alexandre, who believes he has spotted among the Waiting Room’s destitute a once-famous politician (Marcello Mastroianni). In Athens, he confronts the man’s ex-wife (Jeanne Moreau), who relates an abbreviated story of his mysterious 40-day disappearance—which indeed left him transformed upon his return—and subsequent vanishing act. She amends her brusqueness by coming to Alexandre’s home with a tape containing the last answering machine message her husband ever left, in which he admits, “I’m only a visitor.”

The woman tells Alexandre of a secret wound: “The thought that he wouldn’t share it with me was unbearable.” As the two move into the night, we realize that the cameras of reportage are now rolling, rendering her private confession into open testimony.

Alexandre searches the archives in the hopes of finding, somewhere in those tomb-like files of society’s forgotten, proof of the politician’s whereabouts. This chase leads him back to the border, and into the town’s only dance hall.

What begins as a chance to steep his thoughts in drink, however, soon funnels into a turned head, a stare from an enchanting girl (Dora Chrysikou), whose eyes now reverse the intense regard with which he has made his career back onto him.

Although he makes to leave, the girl approaches and follows him, silently, to his hotel room.

He recedes into shadow, able to touch her only as one might a rainbow.

This moment locks his resolve to get to the heart of this place, even as he (and the viewer) knows that such thinking is wishful at best. For although he does track down the politician (who we learn is the girl’s father), what he finds is the shell of a man who no longer is. Gone is the savvy figure of the spotlight. In its place is a storyteller who regales children with end time speculations.


“Forget me in the sea…”

Rather than leave this man to his own devices, Alexandre further reveals his own selfish interests when he arranges, and films, a reunion. The woman claims it is not him, retreating into the fantasy that her husband is long dead. The power of her statement resides in its duality: she is lying, but also not.

In the wake of this defeat, Alexandre suffers another when he discovers the girl of his refuge is to be married to a boy across the border. Only then does he admit to the Colonel, “The only thing I knew was to film other people without caring about their feelings.”

The ceremony must be conducted between patrols, even as that immutable river continues to roar and beckon between them.

Still, even after Alexandre’s epiphany, it falls under the watchful eye of his camera.


“We’re of the same race. I feel his hands holding me.”

It is obvious to us now, if not before, that he can never be anything more than a tourist, a refugee who can never step out of his skin. Before leaving, he pauses at the border, holding up his foot like the Colonel, a crane in contemplation.

If the ceremony is the peak of the film’s narrative mountain, then these steps at the border are its sloping sides.

Heavy on Alexandre’s mind, we can be sure, is the news that the politician has again fled across the border, blending into the trees Angelopoulos paints so artfully in our vision throughout. And it is from those trees that the telephone poles that end the film are born, rising into the heavens, their wires able to connect nations in ways that no flesh, or even love, is capable.

Even with these powerful scenes pulsing through us, the sweeping carriage of Karaindrou’s soundtrack (the 36-minute running time of which betrays a ghostly presence) digs even deeper. An affect-rich creation, it solders the stained glass window that filters the film’s fettered light. From its heaving strings to forlorn winds, the music recedes into, as quickly as it awakens from, a wavering memory. One can almost feel in slow motion the searing cords of strife robbing necks of their breath, and minds of their faith, to the pathos of governmental indifference. And while moments of hope, such as the endearing accordion of “Waltz Of The Bride,” do appear, it is the slow pall of mist and water that Angelopoulos so favors that leave the boldest impressions in our ears.

The words the politician once spoke at a parliamentary session haunt us still: “There are times when one has to be silent in order to be able to hear the music behind the sound of the rain.”

How one leaves, then, has become an empty question. In the end, all that matters is how one sounds.

Heiner Goebbels: Hörstücke (ECM 1452-54)

Heiner Goebbels
Hörstücke
based on texts by Heiner Müller and featuring the talents of:
David Bennent
Peter Brötzmann
Peter Hollinger
Kammerchor Horbach
Alexander Kluge
René Lussier
Megalomaniax
Heiner Müller
Walter Raffeiner
Otto Sander
Ernst Stötzner
We Wear The Crown
Die Befreiung des Prometheus recorded and edited by Walter Brüssow, Heiner Goebbels, Peter Jochum, Gisbert Lackner, Gerlind Raue, Rainer Schulz, and Martha Seeberger
Produced 1985 by Hessischer Rundfunk and Südwestfunk
Verkommenes Ufer edited by Peter Jochum, Martha Seeberger, and Heiner Goebbels
MAeLSTROMSÜDPOL recorded 1987/88 at F.T.F. and Unicorn Studios, Frankfurt/Main
Engineers: Peter Fey and Jürgen Hiller
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced 1984 by Hessischer Rundfunk
Wolokolamsker Chaussee recorded at Unicorn Studio, Frankfurt/Main and Südwestfunk Baden-Baden
Engineers: Thomas Krause and Alfred Habelitz
Mixing engineer: Alfred Habelitz
Produced 1989/90 by Südwestfunk, Hessischer Rundfunk and Bayerischer Rundfunk
Album produced by ECM

My respect for Heiner Goebbels only increases with each work I encounter. Yet while his art, not least through frequent collaborations with linguistic wizard Heiner Müller, has always had its heart in drama, from this collection of radio plays that drama emerges—in the wake of German reunification, no less—with a fresh, genuine voice.

The first of this massive collection’s four plays, Die Befreiung des Prometheus (The Liberation of Prometheus), will sound familiar to those who’ve followed Goebbels in chronological order, for its themes had already made an appearance on Herakles 2 two years before. Both are based on a chunk of text from Müller’s Cement, only here we actually come to know that text amid a filmic montage of others. This process of splicing places, spaces, and times for new mythology will be familiar to any Goebbels listener, but it rings more intensely than ever. From the opening nod to Laurie Andersen we feel right at home. Like her Superman, Müller’s Prometheus is deconstructed from the inside out. Rather than carrying the flame of knowledge, he roasts over that flame his own sustenance at the gods’ table, where he is doomed to eat himself in an eternal circle of hunger and release. Though freed by Heracles, he is plagued by a waning remembrance of godliness, chewed and spat by the rock of the earth. Where Goebbels excels is that, in setting all of this, he manages to evoke a wealth of environmental details that his mosaic of voices can only hint at. Through the bubbling crude of his electronic interventions, he unpacks intimations of the zeitgeist with enviable intelligibility. Incidental sounds turn and tumble, grasping at the enamel-hidden scraps of mastication in hopes of picking off a morsel, ending up instead with a fist full of weeds, and it is these we must weave into a basket if we are ever to catch a sense of things. Metallic edges, heavily serrated and rusted over with time, melt in our gaze. Goebbels marks these rhythms with clips and starts. Snatches of the everyday butt up against unpredictable and sometimes-confrontational turns, but always with a uniquely organic energy.

Verkommenes Ufer (Despoiled Shore) takes its seed from an early (1955) play by Müller. For this project, Thorsten Becker asked fifty strangers in Berlin to read the text in question, thus yielding the raw material for Goebbels’s subsequent mash-up. Because none of the readers were familiar with the text, their renderings bring out inner truths. What begins as a writhing and inarticulate being in the final product resolves itself into a landscape of hesitations, loops, and, above all, porous communication. The Argonaut’s promise kisses the face of chance too many times, leaving only the corpses of a onetime progeny swinging in the wind of manipulation. Poison seeps through the ground in reverse, seeking out those vials from which it was poured, but finding only the fullness of adolescent laughter wafting across the urban sprawl. A masterstroke in the Goebbels/Müller canon.

The album’s cover photo is taken from its third play, MAeLSTROMSÜDPOL (MAeLSTROMSOUTHPOLE). If its blood-red wash of solitude is any indication, we might easily know its fascination with reality and disconnect before a single word grabs us. The continuity of the text, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, is its own contradiction, carving out of those syllables a subterranean world. Speech stores hidden desires in its vowels, misted by white noise and the song of an open cataract: drones and queens, reeds and marshes, all blended into a smoothie only a ghost might drink. It is a photograph that grows blurrier the more it develops. The only way to discern it is to drink the vat of chemicals that brought it to visible life. Echoes turn into birds, the shimmering backdrop of an open mike emceed by the mistress of our deepest nightmares. “OH KEEP THE DOG,” she croons, as if to cut the running line that binds us to everything. She overwhelms us with the responsibilities of liberation.

Last is Wolokolamsker Chaussee (Volokolamsk Highway). Based largely on motives from writers Alexander Bek and Anna Seghers, this self-reflective look at social change in the DDR’s last gasps is vitriolic through and through. Part I, “Russian gambit,” introduces the voice of stage actor Ernst Stötzner and music by heavy metal band Megolomaniax. The combination is a fortuitous one, for the sheer theatricality of the language almost screams for these experienced thespians of two not-so-different stages (though, as Verkommenes shows, this needn’t be so across the board). Bloodshed and total recall dance with one another, spinning their way to “Forest near Moscow.” Stötzner continues his tirade, only now with gentler guitar accompaniment. Death still looms in every pregnant pause, given just enough room to spread a pair of wings which, though flightless, can at least move enough to remember flight. Some preparatory shuffling in Part III, “The Duel,” opens a 20-minute call and response between Stötzner and men’s choir, all of whom join lungs to blow the dust off the mood of German Arbeiterlieder. Behind the scenes, the musc underscores an important truth: namely, that no matter how robust we spin our sentiments regarding human existence on paper, they would all burst into ashen death at the touch of a match. Part IV, “Centaurs” (the title of which, a booklet note reminds us, comes from the Old Greek for “red tape”), recasts Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in a world ordered by totalitarianism, a theme finds blatant traction in a recycling of Shostakovich’s (in)famous Symphony No. 7. The narrative is even more localized in the mouth, which bites a desk in order to prevent its screams from tearing out the still-beating heart of resistance. The fifth and final part, “The Foundling” (after Kleist), is perhaps the most unusual, if only for being backed by hip-hop group We Wear The Crown. Stötzner’s “rapping” is a mélange of generic signatures that transcends its surroundings even as it relies wholly on them. In this prison of madmen speaking in “MARXANDENGELSTONGUES” there is only room for forgetting.

German speakers and/or those up on their German history (I can count myself among neither) will surely get the most out of this recording whose booklet forgoes translating every word (especially in Prometheus)—a real shame considering the parodic depths awaiting our swan dive of relish. The language is visceral in the deepest sense, at times vulgar but always self-aware. Completists wanting the most unfettered glimpse into the architecture of Goebbels’s craft would do well to track down this invaluable set. Though the sentiments throughout are as complex as their politics, certain common themes exploit the connections between songs and conflicts. Through songs we can hide in the foxholes of life and cover our heads against any aerial assault, but in the end all of their lyrics flow through us, be they of the enemy, of our mothers, or of ourselves.

Eleni Karaindrou: Music For Films (ECM 1429)

 

Eleni Karaindrou
Music For Films

Jan Garbarek tenor saxophone
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Eleni Karaindrou piano, vocal
Anthis Sokratis trumpet
Nikos Guinos clarinet
Tassos Diakoyiorgis santouri
Eleni Karaindrou director String Ensemble
Recorded August 1990, Polysound, Athens
Engineer: Yannis Symrneos
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Once we are aware that certain music has been written for film, it’s easy to wax poetic about said music’s visual associations. Yet I believe that one needn’t be aware of Greek composer Elenei Karaindrou’s filmic motivations in order to feel it in the same way, for hers imagines, recites, and sings the lament of a zeitgeist in decay.

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek is very much at home in the quiet throes of “Farewell Theme” and lends his focused energy to a nexus of strings and santouri that, in a short span, scales the heart’s deepest cliffs. This piece both begins and ends a disc comprised of Karaindrou’s best from the 1980s, and is also the longest. “Elegy For Rosa” and “The Journey” are among the briefer portals into the album’s blinding refractions, such as “The Scream” and “Return,” the latter something of an anthem in its present context. The chromatically inflected evocations of “Wandering In Alexandria” quiver with curiosities, as if lost in a land one has forgotten. The oboe of “Adagio” spins a rope of travel across the sky, sending down threads of hope into “Fairytale” and “Parade.” These recurring themes bow in deference to the cradle of “Rosa’s Song,” in which Karaindrou’s own voice rings like a slow-motion slingshot into the improvisation that follows. This collection pours its remaining jewels from a silken pouch, bringing us back through Alexandria and into the folds where we began.

Karaindrou’s themes are potent yet familiar, even (if not especially) to those who’ve never heard them before. Brimming with tragedy and triumph alike, this is music not only for the fictional, but also for real strangers crossing paths in a world of mist and shadows.