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.

Between One Embrace and the Next: Ulysses’ Gaze and the Pace of Discovery

And, if the soul is about to know itself, it must gaze into the soul.
–Plato, Alcibiades 133b

The film

In a quiet arthouse theater one night in May of 1997, a scene from Theo Angelopoulos’s 1995 masterwork Ulysses’ Gaze reached out and holds me still. In it the protagonist, A (Harvey Keitel), is relating a personal story to a curator from Skopje (Maia Morgenstern, who plays every woman Keitel encounters throughout the film’s nearly three-hour duration). As the latter runs alongside the train that threatens to vanquish their transient encounter, A’s story lures her into the clattering comforts of the car, and into the emptiness of his heart. He tells her of stumbling upon the birthplace of Apollo, of seeing there something so vivid that every Polaroid he attempted to take came out only blank, “as if my glance wasn’t working.” In those empty squares, those black holes made tangible, he sees both the past of which his body and mind were formed and the future into which he blindly walks.  Thus does Angelopoulos engage us, finding in this nameless figure an everyman whose quest for origins beyond his self leads only to a hollowing out of that self.

We see a film: Spinning Women by Yannakis and Miltos Manakias. It is perhaps the first film, speculates A’s voiceover. The first gaze. Yet once we are released from its black-and-white confines, the only gaze afforded us is of misty waters, indistinct and close to blanking out. Monochrome pales into color as we witness Yannakis’s last moments, and the single ship upon the sea that is his farewell.

The vessel looms like a face, fills the screen with its expressive pace, and breaks the seal on a filmic letter like no other.

“How many borders must we cross to reach home?”

Yannakis, we learn, left behind three reels of undeveloped film, and it is these A wants like a light bulb hungers for electricity that will one day pop its filament. We contemplate the ship and the three missing reels as A sets out on his personal journey. He hopes a film archivist from Athens may be able to help him, but is instead escorted through crowded streets in which A has not set for 35 years, and which echo with the controversies of his latest film beyond the theater doors it has closed.

A follows the trail into Albania, a land of snow and silence where refugees stare at the mountainous border as if it might speak on their behalf.

A woman who hasn’t seen her sister in 47 years since the civil war asks if A might take her along. His cab driver agrees and drops her off at Korytsa. Only she doesn’t recognize it as the place of her girlhood. She stands in the middle of the street, empty save for the agony of her shattered expectations. Part of us stays with her, knowing that all the comfort in the world will never alleviate the wounds she has endured to get here.

Haunted as much emotionally by the Manakias brothers’ film as we are visually by it, A maps a path of ruin through the Balkan Wars and the First Great War. The turmoil of the region is encoded in every frame of those missing reels. Yet the brothers were interested less in politics and more in people. They recorded “all the ambiguities,” A tells the woman from Skopje, who at first takes no interest in his obsession, which overtakes him to the point where he relives the brothers’ exile by the Bulgarian government as collaborators against the state, feels the confiscation of their archives like an artery ripped from his chest, smells the gunpowder of a mock execution. He wants to find his own first glance, long lost yet always tapping him on the shoulder, and his only way to know where it leads is to take on traumas of which he will never be a part.

His itinerary reads like a litany of destruction. He follows footsteps into a time where his mother can care for him, a substitute in memory for what eludes him in the present. Then again, in this film there is no “present” as such, bearing as it does an eternal trace of that which bore it. A shares a dance with his mother, and in the space of that dance a family is destroyed, dispossessed, and broken before posing for its final group portrait by an illusory photographer who may be the director himself, if not us in his place.

A awakens from that dream, shaken and silent. At the docks of an overcast morning, he bids farewell to Skopje, even as the head of an enormous statue of Lenin is craned onto a barge behind them.

The nameless woman questions his tears. “I’m crying because I can’t love you,” he tells her between sobs, and tears himself away from the only security he may ever know.

“The war’s so close it might as well be far away,” observes an old journalist friend in Belgrade, where the head of its Film Archives has agreed to meet. The man tells A he once had the reels, but after failing to devise the proper chemical formula to develop them, gave them to a colleague in Sarajevo with whom he lost touch during the war. Of course, A insists on going to Sarajevo. He rows a boat into dark waters (an allegory, perhaps, for the toughness of Balkan reality itself) and nearly falls into a double life with a widow in mourning.

“The first thing God created was the journey, then came doubt…and nostalgia.”

Upon arriving in the city, surrounded by bombs and crumbling edifices, he foolishly asks of those fleeing around him, “Is this Sarajevo?” as if his purpose in being there were more important than their demise. It is the deepest moment of denial, and therefore of weakness, in the film, and throws us into the soul of a man whose love for history has blinded him to the visceral impact of its making.

He finds who he is looking for: a film museum curator (the inimitable Erland Josephson) by the name of S. Even as the air explodes with dust and bloodshed, S commends A for his faith in having traveled this far for something believed to be lost.

S, we learn, has been searching for that magic formula for years, and A’s persistence emboldens him to finish his task.

“You have no right to keep it locked away. The gaze…it’s the war, the insanity, the death…”

It is in Sarajevo that we learn the true meaning of the fog, which creeps in like a protective force, a shroud in which one can live without fear, if only for a brief time. In its embrace neighbors can speak without words. In its diffuse glow a youth orchestra made of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, traveling from city to city during ceasefire, can play its song for all to hear.  But even this screen cannot keep them from harm, for behind its veil children are shot before their parents, thrown to the water from which they took shape. And so, the man who rescued a gaze from certain death now becomes a part of it, but not before leaving the successfully developed reels.

Yet we never see those reels, only their light flitting across A’s weary eyes. Whether or not he finds them is as immaterial as they legend they have grown to be. In those reels lies a dream, “a gaze struggling to emerge from the dark…a kind of birth.” And in birth there is no sight but the glare of strife, no sound but the wail of projection.

“What am I if not a collector of vanished gazes?”

And just what is all this gazing about? Beyond that of the camera, of the eye in reality (and of the soul in non), it is for me the slumber of the centuries, dismembered and left to drift like Lenin’s statue on river’s flow. It is the pathos of pathos, forever unrequited in the blink of a fettered eye.

As a teenager I used to have a recurring dream. In it I was younger still, perhaps 12, and clothed modestly in a tunic and brown leather sandals. I ran through a hilly landscape, dodging brush and fauna to the top of a rocky slope. And there I lay low beneath an olive tree, a quiver of arrows slung across my back, overlooking a landscape of ruins. I like to think that I was also gazing, like A, upon Apollo’s birthplace, of which I can remember nothing but the feeling: an unanswering abyss of rock and overgrowth into which I cast my questioning stones.

The more tangible it is, the more unrecoverable a past becomes, the more easily burned, the more easily dressed in the clothes of the dead.

The music

Among the many sonic cartographies it has innovated, ECM has redefined almost every genre it has touched. This includes the film soundtrack, which, through the work of Angelopoulos’s sonic partner, Eleni Karaindrou, has shown us music that stands alone before reaching toward the images it cradles.

Eleni Karaindrou
Ulysses’ Gaze
(ECM New Series 1570)

Kim Kashkashian viola soloist
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Andreas Tsekouras accordion
Sopcratis Anthis trumpet
Vangelis Skouras french horn
Christos Sfetsas cello
Georgia Voulvi voice
Lefteris Chalkiadakis conductor
Recorded December 1994 at Sound Studio, Athens
Engineer: Yannis Smirneos
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This soundtrack introduced me to the Angelopoulos’s cinematic world long before I saw a single frame. It would be two years before I had a chance to see the selfsame film, by which time I had heard the soundtrack and stared at the booklet stills so many times that I felt like I knew every ventricle of Ulysses’ pensively beating heart. Though set against a backdrop of primal discovery, it ends up becoming its own discovery, linking the personal to the political to the universal in one red thread, represented to its fullest by Kashkashian’s gut-wrenching playing. Though mainly driven by the soloist, there are splendid moments of conversation with oboe, as in “Ulysses’ Theme Variation II.” Yet what comes across as an intensely mournful theme can, with just an intensification of speed, turn into an exuberant dance.

Among the more touching moments in both film and soundtrack is “The River.” With its elegiac horn wafting out over the misty waters like a requiem for a fallen past never to be recaptured in the crumbling ruins of an age blinded by innovation, it breathes through our rib cages with voices of passage. The 17-minute spread of “Ulysses’ Gaze – Woman’s Theme, Ulysses’” is the album’s most enchanting encapsulation, the entire narrative telescoped into a single epic mosaic, drawn from the same ink as the tears of its characters. A lilting accordion carries us like a feather on wind into the inner portal of a traditional Byzantine Psalm, from which we emerge with that same thread in our grasp, sinking deeper with every reiteration until the seedlings of our plight become the stuff of myth and melted celluloid.

Ulysses’ Gaze bears dedication to the memory of the great Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté, whose role in the film was cut short by a fatal heart attack and recast to Josephson. In kind, I can only dedicate this review to the memory of Angelopoulos (1935-2012), a director in whose oeuvre everyone seems to find a ghostly double self, whispering at the fringe of conscious imagination.

May his gaze live on.

“I live my life in ever widening circles that rise above things.
I probably won’t come last, but I’ll try. I circle around God.”

Eleni Karaindrou: Elegy of the Uprooting (ECM New Series 5506 & 1952/53)

Eleni Karaindrou
Elegy of the Uprooting

Maria Farantouri voice
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Socratis Sinopoulos Constantinople lyra, laouto
Maria Bildea harp
Konstantinos Raptis bayan
Sergiu Nastasa violin
Renato Ripo violoncello
Stella Gadedi flute
Nikos Guinos clarinet
Sopcratis Anthis trumpet
Spyros Kazianis bassoon
Vangelis Skouras French horn
Aris Dimitriadis mandolin
Christos Tsiamoulis ney
Panos Dimitrakopoulos kanonaki
Andreas Katsiyiannis santouri
Andreas Papas bendir, daouli
Eleni Karaindrou piano
Hellenic Radio and Television Choir
Antonis Kontogeorgiou choirmaster
Camerata Orchestra
Alexandros Myrat conductor
Recorded live March 27, 2005 at Megaron (Hall of the Friends of Music), Athens
Engineers: Nikos Espialidis, Andreas Mandopoulos, and Bobby Blazoudakis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“What am I, if not a collector of vanished gazes?”
–Theo Angelopoulos, Ulysses’ Gaze

Elegy of the Uprooting condenses two decades of work by Eleni Karaindrou into what the Greek composer calls a “scenic cantata.” This is no mere retrospective, but a gravid musical statement in which the listener’s soul is carefully unfolded to reveal the sounds hidden within. Excerpting 13 scores for film and stage, this concert pulls out the red threads running through Karaindrou’s non-diegetic oeuvre with stunning video and audio clarity.

Of the 110 musicians seen in this live DVD—including an orchestra, chorus, and ensemble of traditional instruments—many of the soloists have been working with Karaindrou for many years, and their dedication shows. Of note are…

Vangelis Christopoulos on oboe:

Socratis Sinopoulos on the Constantinople lyra/Maria Bildea on harp:

Konstantinos Raptis on the bayan:

Vangelis Skouras on French horn:

Aris Dimitriadis on mandolin:

Panos Dimitrakopoulos on kanonaki/Christos Tsiamoulis on ney:

and the composer herself at the piano:

Much of the music will be familiar to ECM enthusiasts: Ulysses’ Gaze, The Suspended Step of the Stork, Eternity and a Day, The Weeping Meadow, and Euripedes Trojan Women feature heavily in this wide-ranging program, with the latter two in particular providing a larger thematic framework. Lesser known works such as the stunning Rosa’s Aria—from the film by Christoforos Christofis and reinterpreted here with total corporeal commitment by the legendary Maria Farantouri—should excite veteran and new listeners alike.

The staging was overseen by Manfred Eicher and is accordingly minimal. A large screen behind the musicians displays artfully arranged stills and clips from Angelopoulos’s films, as well as some computer generated imagery of swaying reeds, falling rain, and shooting flames.

It’s a joy and a privilege to see such a synergistic group of musicians banding together to share such doleful beauty, and to see the physical process of it all, the sheer assembly of talent and logistics required in putting together such a performance.

In all this rhetoric lately of carbon footprints and the detrimental impact of human activity on the physical environment, it’s easy to forget that our creativity often leaves the most “eco-friendly” impressions. Karaindrou has created for the world a statement without tangible shape, a visceral wave of melancholy into which we may project a semblance of ourselves. Like the water that figures so prominently in Angelopoulos’s films, her music ebbs and flows in spite of our foibles.

Elegy of the Uprooting is also available in this 2-CD set. I highly recommend both, for each is its own experience.