American Record Guide
, March 2009
The Dutch film maker Frank Scheffer assembled this compilation of intimate documentaries devoted to five very different composers. Scheffer himself directed the films on Boulez and Carter. The others—Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes for a Fugue (directed by Dorian Supan), Philip Glass: Looking Glass (directed by Eric Darmon), and Olivier Messiaen: The Liturgy of Crystal (directed by Olivier Mille)—have all been discussed in ARG previously. Ian Quinn was generally positive about the Pärt documentary (Mar/Apr 2006); he commented favorably on the extraordinarily long (three-year) period that allowed composer and family to become comfortable with the camera and director to record scenes both professional and domestic—but he also lamented the inconsistent quality of the video. I loved the Glass video (Mar/Apr 2006), which captured the febrile intensity of the composer’s busy professional life better than almost any film I’d seen. I also enjoyed viewing scenes from his recent opera, The Sound of a Voice—Glass’s long work list for the stage might well count as the most important aspect of his legacy. Allen Gimbel admired the skillful depiction of Messiaen (Mar/Apr 2008), but found the extra interview footage impossible to retrieve. (I’m happy to report that I experience no such problems.)
That leaves the two Scheffer films, which are available separately. First I would be remiss not to mention the supreme skill and sensitivity of Frank Scheffer. I encountered his work in his film about John Cage, From Zero (Mode). He seems to have the singular ability to translate the sonic world view of a composer into imagery. Being visual, the translation has an effect more immediate than sound, which depends on more exposure to absorb. Scheffer’s film of Eclat follows the experience of a group of performers (The Nieuw Ensemble conducted by Ed Spanjaard) preparing to perform the work; the pianist has one of the most impressive page-turners imaginable: Boulez himself, who later offers some wonderful comments on the piece and very interesting remarks on its interpretation. Scheffer selects some other images that I think work quite well with Boulez’s music: one of the best is an image of water, slightly out of focus: the reflections of light twinkle on the water’s surface the way Boulez’s music glitters. Other scenes—cities, flashing lights—seem quite unrelated, but I enjoy them nevertheless. I come away with a feeling of confirmation that my reactions to Boulez complement (at least in part) some of his own concerns: his music depends heavily on gesture, complex sounds and timbres, and an approach to performance that is sometimes deliberately brutal. The Boulez disc also includes two films by Andy Sommer: one is Boulez’s pre-concert lecture on Sur Incises with examples from the work played expertly by members of the renowned Ensemble Intercontemporain. Once more, Boulez explains clearly how musical decoration, resonance, and gesture underlie (at least on a basic level) his music. This sort of introduction to his music is perfect for general music lovers.
The Carter film is, in a word, fabulous. Scheffer follows Carter in New York, where the composer remarks how the bustle of the city suggests the chaotic but gloriously humanistic individuality of his music. In Paris, a choir is assembled to perform one of his contrapuntal exercises for Boulanger—an exercise that impressed her so much that she asked to keep a copy to show later students. The performers build the piece up one layer at a time, and Carter—looking very much like a kind of slimmer and more erudite Burl Ives—somewhat comically observes how much better the piece begins to sound when all the layers are in place. Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet perform excerpts from the Piano Quintet, which, like so many of Carter’s works, celebrates the possibility of a composed, dramatic work where the various instruments seem like separate individuals who converse, exhort, suggest, unite, sometimes argue—but in the most humane way possible. Of course, this description of the music is nothing new. Yet there’s something about Scheffer’s images, about Carter’s own words, that make it possible for me to hear this music better than I ever have before. I’ve come to Carter’s music very slowly over the last 20 years: the first time I heard it, I was only 13 or 14, and completely lost. Now, at the end of my 40s, I think I’m finally beginning to hear it and I’m thrilled that it’s getting an ever-wider audience. Anyone who has wondered more about what Carter does and how his music speaks must buy this film.