Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.
–Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks
This year, 2018, Deutsche Grammophon released a 15th anniversary edition of Max Richter’s album, The Blue Notebooks. I want to use the release as an opportunity to write about what the album means to me and how it changed my life. I also want to explore the cinematic quality of the music. What follows is a fragmentary excavation of the way this album is part of my inner life and my memories.
I recently made a major move. It’s the third move I’ve gone through in three years. I put The Blue Notebooks on as I organized my bookshelves in my new home. It was the middle of the night. I listened to the album and held my books in my hands, trying to feel a sense of hope that this is a new beginning, that I’ve found some peace for myself after so long. But can there ever be a new beginning? Isn’t everything an ending? I’m so tired of endings.
Most of the time, I don’t feel human. I am song or word or film. I am more than what can be seen or known.
I first fell in love with The Blue Notebooks in 2012. When I check my last.fm history, I see that I listened to it over 300 times. I was possessed, enraptured. After hearing the album, I also read Franz Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks, a collection of fragments and aphorisms, some of which are quoted in several songs on the album. I lost the book in a move. I remember a few phrases from it but have forgotten most of it. I long for that book. I have so many other books, but I only think about the one that is missing. That’s how I am: I only see loss, absence.
This album was the first time I realized that music could be cinematic, even literary, that you could take the songs and create a film in your mind. I felt the presence of a woman, as though she were writing the album or the album was writing her life. I created a story about her. I could see Tilda Swinton (the actress who supplies the voice narration throughout the album) at her typewriter. Tilda was a translator living in a small apartment in Europe. I imagined her working on a translation of some experimental text by an important writer. I saw the blueness of the dawn outside the window of her apartment, heard the hardwood floors that creaked under her feet, and smelled the stacks of ink-smeared paper beside a half-empty coffee cup. A woman thinking and dreaming. A woman writing. A woman alone and so alive. The woman I wanted to be.
Tilda the chameleon, sliding into skins that she sheds with ease. A multi-faceted woman, one minute filming John Berger, the next sleeping in a box as part of a museum exhibition. I’ve always wanted to be her. I remember her most from Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, a film that is so sensual and dreamy that I still think of it at random moments, like on hot days or when summer is close. I remember close-ups of Tilda’s face, the way the camera lingered on her skin and lips.
For a while, I didn’t know it was Tilda’s voice. I found out later. I didn’t put the voice with her face. I also found out that she brought cinema to rural Scotland by driving a film truck around to different villages. I’m so in love with that idea. I want that. I’ve always imagined some girl watching a film, like the little girl in The Spirit of the Beehive, and being haunted by it for the rest of her life.
The Blue Notebooks becomes an inner film, a film we create in our own minds. My translator in her empty apartment. I wonder what films other people see through these songs? What stories have they created?
I think often about Franz Kafka’s sisters. He died before World War II, but his Jewish sisters–Gabriele, Valerie, and Ottilie–were murdered in the Holocaust. The sisters of the singular genius of the 20th century were completely obliterated. What would have happened to Kafka? How would he have faced such horror? How did anyone face it?
It’s a miracle that anyone survived the 20th century. The trenches, the gas chambers, the atomic bombs. Will anyone survive the 21st?
This album feels like an elegy for lost souls.
In fact, the album was composed just before the Iraq War in 2003. Richter states that The Blue Notebooks is “an attempt for music to comment on society and specifically it’s an anti-violence record. It’s a subtle and peaceful protest against political, social, and personal brutality. Sadly it’s still very current today.”
This music should stop everyone. The beauty of it should paralyze us and then shock us back to life, utterly transformed, like Wiesler hearing “Sonata for a Good Man” in the 2006 film The Lives of Others. The way he hears the music and reads Brecht and seems to become a better person. If only it were that simple. If only art really could change the world and reverse all the horror
Hearing this album was a revelation, like when I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc for the first time, or read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Once you taste this kind of transcendence, you’re always searching for it again and always thinking back to the rare moments when you experienced it. I will never again be like I was in my teens and early 20s, watching films and reading books with such hunger. I was so open, so tender. Everything sent an electrical charge through my body. Everything reached me, touched me like I can never be touched again.
As I get older, I want to keep my heart open to revelation. I must.
I can’t let go of certain songs and films and books. They explain me to myself.
Just give me a dark night and this album playing as I stare up at the stars.