December 05, 2013
(+++) MUSIC ENVISIONED
Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston: Alcatraz—Eberbach. Starkland DVD. $18.99.
Gozaran: Time Passing. Directed by Frank Scheffer. EuroArts DVD. $19.99.
Bloody Daughter: A Film by Stéphanie Argerich. Idéale Audience. $29.99 (2 DVDs).
Sometimes the visual impact of films and DVDs with a classical-music connection is clear and undeniable, but the musical interest and value of the productions is less certain. That is the case with all these new releases. Alcatraz—Eberbach is a set of two works, running 30 and 18 minutes respectively, built around striking still photos by Jim Bengston and evocative music by Ingram Marshall. The two pieces are intended to provide atmospheric, interpretative tours of the former island prison in San Francisco Bay and a monastery in Germany’s Rhine Valley that Marshall and Bengston encountered in 1984 while they were touring with Alcatraz, their earlier work. Both these visual pieces use multimedia as it is currently understood (not as it was understood when its prime example was opera). The photos themselves highlight, showcase, play up and downplay specific visual elements of the two geographical locations, while the electronically processed sounds accentuate specific photographic elements or are used for scene-setting and emphases of various sorts – much as is done in film music. The result is not quite musical works, not quite performance pieces, not quite filmmaking in any traditional sense, but emotion-seeking visual displays that interpret, through Marshall’s and Bengston’s eyes and ears, the vistas, angles, solidity and airiness of two architectural creations. The concept is more conceptually interesting in Alcatraz, since the subject is scarcely a masterpiece but becomes quite intriguing when seen heard through these collaborators’ senses. But the actually more interesting work is Eberbach, because the monastery is just gorgeous inside and out, its curves, angles and overall structure simply fascinating. The environment within which Alcatraz and Eberbach sit is a big part of the works created here, so the pieces give a sense of place as well as one of structure. These are involving works, experimental in the sense that they bend and rearrange genres; and if they are not really “music” in any significant sense, they are not intended for listening so much as for immersion – they will be of most interest to those inclined to try out new forms of mixed media.
Gozaran: Time Passing has music at its core, but it is as much about music not being made as about its creation, and this is what renders it unusual. This 85-minute documentary focuses on Iranian composer Nader Mashayekhi, who in 2005 returned to Tehran from his studies in Vienna in response to an invitation to lead the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. The difficult geopolitical undercurrents of the Middle East and of Iran in particular are barely present here, but they are a decided factor in the outcome of Mashayekhi’s journey, which was at best a mixed success. Director Frank Scheffer emphasizes the personal elements of Mashayekhi’s attempts to bring some Western and contemporary music to his home country and to show young musicians how to play works with which they are thoroughly unfamiliar. Along the way, Mashayekhi seeks inspiration for his own compositions, and the documentary’s most beautiful scenes are the ones in which he wanders through desolation, both that of the desert and that of an empty village, seemingly gathering his thoughts. Indeed, Mashayekhi’s thoughts dominate the film from start to finish, as the work becomes an extended internal monologue in which the composer looks for things to write music about, tries to figure out how to bring the great music of the past to a land unfamiliar and uncomfortable with it, and contemplates in general philosophical terms the time-bound and societally constrained meanings of music and of poetry. Gozaran: Time Passing is an intellectual journey more than a musical one, for all that music lies at its center, and is of distinctly limited interest in light of its subject matter and its handling of the material. It is a rarefied documentary for those interested in modern cross-cultural aesthetic issues, as seen through the eyes of a composer with a foot in two worlds: his homeland, which he loves, and his working city, where he is much better able to function productively.
Bloody Daughter is, on the face of it, a far more traditional film, a kind of “bio-pic” with an emphasis on dysfunctional family relationships and what it is like to grow up in the shadow of celebrity. The fact that music is central to Stéphanie Argerich’s work is almost incidental – an accident of the director’s birth to internationally renowned pianists Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich. Of course, music is crucial to the narrative here, both in the 94-minute film and in the 54-minute bonus, in which Martha Argerich performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. But the main thrust of the movie – for which Stéphanie Argerich served as one camera operator as well as the director – is the relationship between two strong, artistic women, with the inevitable personality clashes and disagreements complemented by periodic instances of considerable insight and bonding. Like the careers of her virtuoso parents, Stéphanie Argerich’s film takes place around the world, in Warsaw and London, Japan and Belgium, Argentina and Switzerland. But it has little sense of place except for scene-setting, being far more focused on family intimacies than on where those interactions take place. Rehearsal and performance footage is intermingled with the domestic scenes and squabbles, and the movie nicely mixes matters of everyday life with ones involving the very high pressures of performance on the international concert scene. There is nothing particularly revelatory in Bloody Daughter, which despite its lurid title is a film about a family like many others – even artistic disagreements are simply fodder for exploring the different ways in which parents and daughter (primarily mother and daughter; Kovacevich is a much smaller presence) interact. A well-made film that is especially nicely photographed (Stéphanie Argerich is a professional photographer), Bloody Daughter is an “art house” production throughout, designed to showcase the pluses and perils of the artistic life both on stage and off. Fans of Martha Argerich and/or Kovacevich will be especially interested in it, but film and music aficionados in general will not have any particular reason to watch it except to see yet another interesting movie about the differences between life in and out of the public eye.