Turning Tarkovsky into music: Nuit blanche

A confession: while I recognise the cinematic importance of the late Andrei Tarkovsky – his influence on certain filmmakers, and the high regard in which his work is widely held – I myself have never been a great admirer of his films. I like Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Roublev well enough, but I have always felt somewhat alienated by the later films’ glum mysticism, their tendency towards laboured allegory and symbolism, and their religiose loftiness of tone. I’m aware that this response leaves me in a minority as far as ‘serious’ critics and historians of the cinema are concerned, but so be it. Anyway, I’m not entirely alone in considering Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris superior to the earlier version by the esteemed Russian.

Andrei-Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky

Still, as I said Tarkovsky’s reputation and influence are undeniable, and many of my favourite filmmakers rate or rated him highly. And not just filmmakers, of course, which brings me to the reason for my writing now. Some years ago, at a music festival in Belgium, I found myself sitting through a quietly dazzling set by a quartet comprised of three Frenchmen – pianist and leader François Couturier, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché – and the German cellist Anja Lechner. I was familiar with each of them through their work with the likes of Anouar Brahem and Dino Saluzzi, but this was the first time I’d heard them play together, and I was bowled over by their music, which felt as if it was situated in a strange, haunting no-man’s-land somewhere between classical, jazz, experimental and – well, let’s just say it was impossible to categorise.

I later tracked down the music I heard that day on a CD released under Couturier’s name (he had composed most of the numbers on it) entitled Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky (2006). And while I, as a non-believer in the Russian’s celebrated visionary greatness, couldn’t care less that many of the numbers were named after Tarkovsky movies, that didn’t stop me sensing a fundamental connection between the music and his films in terms of mood; nor did it stop me liking the album so much that I ended up giving it to a filmmaker friend who did admire Tarkovsky’s work – and did, I was happy to learn, enjoy the album as much as I had.

Since then, Couturier has made three more albums inspired to some degree by Tarkovsky: a very engaging outing on solo piano entitled Un jour si blanc (2010) which does feel a little jazzier in places, and two further quartet sessions. Sadly, the first, simply entitled Tarkovsky Quartet (2011), struck me as a touch disappointing. Where the compositions on Nostalghia had been tightly structured and consistently imaginative, the quartet’s second release felt a little lazy; notwithstanding the allusions to Bach, Shostakovich and Pergolesi, the writing was generally less impressive, while a number of pieces evidently improvised around a fairly basic chord progression felt like uninspired noodling. Still, as you can see in the live version of A celui a vu l’ange below, even this album contained music that was far from negligible.

Happily, the new album, Nuit blanche, marks an impressive return to form, as rewarding as the quartet’s fine debut. As before, the connection with Tarkovsky’s work seems to be one of mood – contemplative, sober, lyrical – and form – a beguiling combination of classicism and experimentation – rather than of specific allusions. That said, a comment made about the Russian by Ingmar Bergman – ‘He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams’ – appears to have inspired Couturier and co to venture further into the realm of improvisation with around 9 brief vignettes that include ‘dream’ (or the word’s French or German equivalent) in the title. The improvisations here, however, are far more satisfying than on the 2011 release: ditching rhythm and chord progressions altogether, they are simply short atmospheric explorations of different sound worlds, and they sit very pleasingly indeed among the lengthier written pieces, which are also a good deal more interesting than those on the quartet’s second album.

Difficult to describe – ‘partly improvised chamber music’ might suffice, though that still fails to evoke the wide but surprisingly coherent variety of styles touched on and combined, from baroque and classical through romantic and neo-classical to folk and jazz – the quartet’s creations are especially fascinating for the rich, intriguing textures of their ensemble playing. Though Larché’s bracingly glacial soprano saxophone sometimes seems to stand out as a defining characteristic of the band’s sound, you’re just as often left wondering which instrument or mix of instruments a particular sound is made by. Couturier’s piano ranges from unassertive rhythmic and chordal underpinnings to scintillating chromatic ornamentation; Lechner’s cello from percussive pizzicato to mournful laments and unexpected glissandos; while Matinier makes subtle and inventive use of the countless sounds the versatile accordion can produce. Here is the title track.

A couple of minor points. First, I am a little mystified as to why what is by far the longest track on the album – the 11-minute Urga – bears the same title as a 1991 movie by Nikita Mikhalkov, a filmmaker who could hardly have been more different from Tarkovsky. Second, though I’ve now come to like it more, on first hearing I was not entirely convinced by an arrangement of a piece by Vivaldi, apparently included because the Russian was listening to a lot of music by that composer around the time he made Stalker. (Rather more satisfying are Dakus, based by Couturier on a piece by Takemitsu entitled – wait for it – Nostalghia, and Quant ien congneu a ma pensee; no, that’s not a series of typos caused by predictive text, but the title of an anonymous 15th century piece, presumably from the south of France, adapted by Lechner and Couturier.) However, all the numbers – whether written by Couturier or by members of the quartet, or based on music by dead composers, or wholly improvised – do hang together very well indeed, united in their bright, limpid beauty. And by the fact that you certainly don’t need to like or even be familiar with Tarkovsky’s films to appreciate such musical expertise as that displayed – with pleasingly quiet confidence – by the Tarkovsky Quartet.

Nuit blanche by the Tarkovsky Quartet is, like the other albums mentioned above, released by ECM. You can listen to some brief snippets and learn more here. The photograph on the album cover was taken by Tarkovsky.

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