François Couturier: Tarkovsky Quartet



Tarkovsky Quartet is the final part in a trilogy of works inspired by the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86). François Couturier first came to international attention in 2001 with Anouar Brahem on the Tunisian oudist’s delightfully elegant Le Pas du Chat Noir and its successor, Le Voyage de Sahar. Couturier initiated his Tarkovsky trilogy in 2006 with Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky, a collection of twelve compositions recorded by a quartet. Nostalghia was followed last year by the solo piano Un Jour Si Blanc.

If Andrei Tarkovsky is less familiar a cultural figure now than during his lifetime and for the decade or so afterwards, that lamentable fact may be attributed to the loss of repertory cinema and the fading of the era of the art movie. Most of the great auteurs are now either dead or in their dotage. Despite this, the Russian director’s small oeuvre of seven films continues to present the engaged viewer with an unforgettable breviary of poetic visions. Describe the bare architecture of Tarkovsky’s films and they may disappear like motes of dust dancing in the sunlight. In contrast, the films’ subjects, their length and pace and their earth-borne magical realities speak of the cruelty of history, the desire for redemption, of suffering, loss and faith. All of these elements and much more were woven by the director into poetics unique to cinema.

It’s entirely fitting that Tarkovsky’s example should serve as inspiration for François Couturier’s dark, lyrical and immaculately judged music. Both film and music are mediums that, consciously or otherwise, engage with and reflect upon time. Tarkovsky was acutely conscious of this. His films do not attempt to pressure or manipulate his audience, instead they address time as a flexible, malleable material within which the viewer may find their own position. Similarly, Couturier avoids percussive elements that might limit or regulate the sense of time. As a result, the rhythms of the music overlap and merge with each other, their articulation free to be negotiated by the listener. The same can be claimed of any music, but Couturier’s trilogy is inspired by, and benefits from being considered in relation to Tarkovsky’s own exploration of time.

Throughout the trilogy Couturier concerns himself with the spirit, not the letter, of Tarkovsky’s art. The director’s son Andrei A. Tarkovsky writes in the liner notes:

“I have always believed that an approach to my father’s films should be an emotional involvement, an empathy with the author’s feelings, rather than intellectual analysis of the contents.”

Feeling in both the musician’s and the director’s work shouldn’t be confused with sentimentality. The distinction between the anglicised form of nostalgia and the Italian/Russian nostalghia serves as an example. The English word denotes a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past while Tarkovsky’s version is much closer to pain and relates directly to the desire to return home.

Where the first part of Couturier’s trilogy directly explored facets of the director’s films (Solaris I and II, Ivan, Stalker, etc.), Tarkovsky Quartet shifts the focus somewhat and uses the merged sensibility of the director, composer and musicians as a prism to look outward upon subjects including Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Robert Bresson’s Mouchette. There’s no hint here of Edward Nicolay Artemyev’s original, brilliant electronic soundtracks. The quartet is entirely acoustic, arranged in an unusual configuration that comprises piano, cello, accordion and soprano saxophone.

“A Celui Qui A Vu L’Ange (To He Who Saw The Angel)” begins with Couturier’s measured chords that increase in intensity before being joined by the accordion of Jean-Louis Matinier and then Anja Lechner’s beautiful cello. Jean-Marc Larché’s soprano saxophone articulates the melody reaching a pitch that demands attention against the swelling backdrop of accordion and cello before the musicians pause to allow Couturier space to return. There’s a heightened understanding of space here and throughout – in multiple senses: of suspension, breath taking and allowing room for each musician to listen intently to the others.

“San Galgano”, named for the ruined abbey in Nostalghia, is the first in a sequence of compositions which seem almost literally haunted. The music hovers in the upper registers, tentative and spectral creating a space that’s full of dread. “Mychkin” begins in the same space, but gradually descends earthwards like a kite circling on outstretched wings, gradually achieving a certain groundedness that’s unexpectedly undermined by an eery epilogue of tinkling piano. “Mouchette” continues, stalked by Couturier’s ominous chords around which Larché flutters like a frightened sparrow and “Lechner” and “Matinier” rumble in brooding disquiet. After this, comes the pensive and deeply romantic “La Passion Selon Andrei” and the music explores other avenues.

It’s possible to recognise music that will reward repeated and concentrated attention. It’s also possible to intimate a sense of a work’s depth that will ultimately refuse to render its secrets in any way that might be easily expressed, summarised or imparted to others without their making a journey similar (or perhaps significantly different) to one’s own. There’s an echo here of Andrei A. Tarkovsky’s observation of empathy and emotion, that journey to be made.

There’s a sense throughout Tarkovsky Quartet that the music exists in the physical world, achieved in no small part by Manfred Eicher’s characteristically exquisite recording, but that it reaches for and coalesces into the spiritual. It is by this measure that comparison may be made with Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and that François Couturier’s project may be deemed a resounding success.

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Note: two luminous images grace the cover of Tarkovsky Quartet. They’re Polaroid photographs taken by the director in Russia at his dacha the year before his departure for Italy. A selection of Tarkovsky’s Polaroids were first assembled in Bright, Bright Day, but it’s out of print and sells for astronomical sums. However, there is a different, paperback edition available for a very reasonable price, it’s called Instant Light (Thames & Hudson) and is highly recommended.

This review was published at The Liminal.


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