A while ago I saw a Godard film, one of his later ones, Soigne ta droite from 1986, which like all Godard’s later films isn’t easy to understand. It’s even hard to say what it’s about, which doubtless means the question doesn’t apply, or at least doesn’t apply in any normal way. The film shows itself to you; it draws you in; the people in it speak and move, or so it seems, in something like a dream (a very intellectual dream). The sounds and words and images don’t tell you anything you could readily explain, but they echo in your memory.
Toward the end, I realized that I’d missed the core of what I’d watched because I don’t know French well enough to follow all the dialogue. I had to read the movie, pondering the subtitles. I couldn’t give in to the sound of the voices, to the words as sounds and to the sounds of life (like wind or footsteps) threading through the words. The soundtrack, I began to guess (but only near the end), wasn’t meant to give me information, as most soundtracks are (the bell is ringing; he says he lost the secret formula). It seemed to be its own world, evolving next to the images, blending with them, but alive all by itself. And I’d missed that, because I’d worried too much about what the words meant.
So I was deeply thrilled when I learned that ECM had released the entire soundtrack of Godard’s 1990 film Nouvelle Vague on two CDs. Now I could taste the kind of pleasure that I’d missed. This isn’t a new recording; it came out in 1997. But it’s timeless. It’s also music (or, if you insist, sound art, though I think the distinction that implies gives far too limited an idea of what music is). I doubt many people think of Godard as a composer, but in this soundtrack (and in Soigne ta droite), that’s exactly what he is. He’s even said so, in an interview:
I start at the cutting table by looking at the pictures with no sound. Then I play the sound without the pictures. Only then do I try them together, the way they were recorded. Sometimes I have a feeling there’s something wrong with a scene—and maybe different sound will fix it. Then I might replace a bit of dialogue with dog barks, say. Or I put in a sonata. I experiment with things until I’m happy.
It’s no different from being a composer, really…An artistic discipline. I have the whole soundtrack in my head as I’m cutting. And once I’ve decided on the sound, I cut the scene, and throw the rest in the bin.
The first sound in Nouvelle Vague is music, tentative music, from a bandoneon, just one soft, hesitant, repeated note. Then a man’s voice: “This is a story I want to tell.” (Though of course in French.) The coming of the voice is a new event; the bandoneon finds a second note, a minor third above the first. Not that I analyzed all that when I first listened; now I have to play the opening repeatedly, to understand what’s going on. The voice and music move ahead. To mark the end of his first phrase, the speaker pauses for a moment; the bandoneon plays a major chord, the climax of its phrase, and everything the voice says after that feels like a coda. (Or a microcoda; we’re just 30 seconds into the film.)
The bandoneon starts again, this time with something more decisive and a little sad. In the background, there’s a raucous bird. In the foreground, a dog barks. It barks again. The music swells, then dies, and as it ebbs away, we hear a motor (a lawnmower or a car?). Then thunder. Then again the motor (an essay in the CD booklet says that it’s a vacuum cleaner) shutting down, somehow echoing the music. (The essay, appropriately, is by somebody blind, who has read about the film, but can experience it only through the soundtrack.)
Then voices. A man, a woman. Rhythmic: “Cecile! Cecile!” (I think that’s what she says.) By this time I’ve heard these two minutes of movie sound so many times that they’ve taken on the profile of a familiar symphony. I hear how everything connects. I wait for parts I like: A car door slamming, a woman saying “Poum!” A ringing telephone, footsteps hurrying to answer it. A woman with a subdued voice, speaking French: “It’s New York, Mr. Dorfmann. What should I tell him?” A car, more footsteps. Another woman, in Italian: “Domani, domani.” A car departs, its engine disappearing in the distance. Then music: high, soft strings.
A little later: Music, louder; car horns joining it, harmonizing; car horns screaming now, hurtling by, as if on a highway; a shriek of brakes. As I listened more, I started hearing layers. Before the telephone, there’s the swish of someone sweeping with a broom, though as I hadn’t noticed, it started earlier, underneath some voices. Almost everything is layered. There’s a car behind the voices and the sweeping; footsteps after the telephone as well as before; footsteps and the crunch of gravel while the car starts; quiet, busy, rustling before the high, soft strings. And distant car horns after them, in what otherwise would be a pause.
These car horns anticipate the horn explosion a few seconds later. So the soundtrack (like a piece of music) is organized. The barking dog is a motif. So is the bandoneon. So are the broom, the raucous birds, the cars. All of them keep coming back. Long sections of the film, stretches of 10 minutes or more, are stitched together with recurring music, or, more precisely, with the recurrence of music; similarity proves more important than exact repetition, though some of the motifs, like the dog, seem to be the same every time.
I started cataloguing these motifs and timing their recurrences. Then I realized I’d misunderstood. I was looking for musical structure; Nouvelle Vague doesn’t have that. Instead, it has coherence. The difference lies in the motifs, in how they work. You can’t track them as you’d track themes in a symphony, or characters in Shakespeare, or ideas in philosophy. They have no meaning I could name. They come and go; I hear them changing, or else they stay the same, but they don’t mark anything I can identify, and most of all, they don’t develop. I can’t track changes in the music, from beginning to conclusion; I can’t tell you the relationship between the moments when I hear the barking dog. There might be relationships, but I don’t think about them when I listen to the film, any more than I try to follow its plot, which in any case was impossible for me, even if the movie has a plot, because the dialogue is in quickly-moving French. Later, from the liner notes and elsewhere, I learned the outline of the story; it helps me understand the sections of the film and gives the music even more coherence, but doesn’t give the structure any bones I can appreciate.
Maybe if I listened obsessively I’d find something. But what I care about right now is how eagerly I listen. Everything sounds fresh, newborn, lively, curious. I come back to the layering I talked about. Everything stands in relationship to something else, a relationship that lives in both time (the order things come in, the way events support each other) and space (some sounds front, some back, some to the right, some to the left, many often moving). I don’t need to define the kind of music these sounds make, but I listened for 80 minutes without fades in my attention. ECM has also released, on five CDs, the sounds from Godard’s long video Histoire(s) du CinÈma, this time giving us a transcript (in four solid books) of all the words we hear. Sometime, maybe soon, the perfect long and rainy day for hearing it will come, and I’ll savor it.
Second delight: A concert by Eve Beglarian, December 16 on Patrick Grant‘s cheerful series of Sunday afternoons at Egizio’s Project, a tiny gallery on Broadway near Prince Street. If you saw the space without the musicians, or the chairs for the audience, you might never think of giving concerts there; it might seem too small and too irregular, with an angle in the middle that keeps some people from seeing all of the performers. But this only makes the concerts fun. I don’t know many other spaces that transform the audience into a community, but this one goes even further, and makes me feel as if I’m part of a happy clump of friends.
Eve (whom I’d met just a week or so earlier, in the tony lobby of the Metropolitan Opera) did ten excerpts from A Book of Days, her ongoing project which eventually will give her a piece—text, visuals, and music—for each day of the year. There are two models, as she says: medieval books of hours (which compiled prayers and meditations suitable for particular days of the year, or times of day), and commonplace books, in which, generations ago, people used to write down passages they’d read that they wanted to remember. Each of these pieces might be a meditation, music made for words and images Eve found that she likes.
Some of the texts were profound, like this one (from a zen source):
What has been long neglected cannot be restored immediately.
Ills that have been accumulating for a long time cannot be cleared away immediately.
One cannot enjoy oneself forever.
Human emotions cannot be just.
Calamity cannot be avoided by trying to run away from it.
Anyone who has realized these five things can be in the world without misery.
And all of the music was joyful. Eve is, among many other things, an unabashed performer. The music for one of the pieces was an organ work. Eve stood in front of a keyboard, joining a recording in performing it. She looked like she danced as she played, but she wasn’t really dancing. She had the rhythm in her body; she was focused on it, darting her fingers out to touch the notes, feeling the music so completely that her physical being had to show it. Some of the organ lines she played were snarling domesticated dissonances; she really seemed to savor those.
She also sings, and while I wouldn’t call her a studied, practiced singer, she’s something even better; she’s inspired. She launches her voice at her music, and lands precisely where she wants to be, for the same reason that she’s moving while she plays the keyboard: Her soul is full. You could say she improvises her vocal technique, but that shouldn’t be a criticism. Her singing has a perfect Eve-ness. I couldn’t say any such thing about many famous singers. Kiri Te Kanawa is a refined opera star; her singing might be perfect, but her Kiri-ness got lost on the way to her career.
Eve’s music doesn’t have a wasted note. And yet it doesn’t sounds chiseled or hammered into inevitability; it feels as if it grew, and found its own shape. It’s wonderfully varied. The organ piece was brawny; another one, for toy piano, was light and playful, almost teasing, constrained to just a few useful notes. “Good Deal Easier,” which finished the concert, was dance-pop, simultaneously (at least as I heard it) the real thing and a friendly parody. It worked almost perfectly, though I’d venture one thought about the way it ended. It subsided into a skeletal rhythm, executed (if my ear is right) by samplers, using human voices. But it lost momentum, because, I’d guess, an ending like that either has to pick up the pace, so everything gets tighter as the sound lightens, or else it needs to relax. This just moved forward doggedly, creating what struck me as an anticlimax, sounding mechanical.
But that was just one moment in a concert that was much more than terrific music; it made me glad to be alive. It and the Godard soundtrack were the last music I heard for professional purposes last year; as I cast the auspices, that’s a good omen for 2002.