On The Cinematic Beauty of Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

Fragments: Nuit et Jour (Chantal Akerman, 1991)

A young couple living in Paris in the 1990s. He drives a cab at night. She wanders the streets until he comes home at dawn. His name is Jack. Her name is Julie.

What is more romantic than Paris in the summertime?

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This recurring idea in the film of sleep being a kind of death. They want to be awake, alive. I remember being young and not wanting to go to sleep at night because I wanted to write and read and listen to music and watch old black and white films. I wanted to live and I never wanted the morning to come.

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She sings to herself. She is in love. Exuberant. I’ve never felt this way. This film makes me long to feel that way.

They lay in bed, naked. They only want to be together.

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Joseph comes along. He is also a cab driver.

Julie and Joseph walk the streets of Paris while Jack works at night. Her solitary walks now have a companion.

A lovely scene of Joseph listing what he loves about Paris. Perhaps this is the moment Julie falls in love with him. Julie and Joseph make love that night and she returns to Jack in the morning.

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This film is like a love letter to Paris.

When Jack is at work, he thinks of Julie. Julie thinks of him. They hate that they must be apart at all. They want their time consumed by one another, by love and sex. Real life intervenes, the need for money in order to survive. We see how these outside forces structure our lives.

How the economy separates people, takes us away from who and what we love. This aspect of work is rarely mentioned. We’re supposed to find dignity in working, but what about loss of time and loss of emotional connection to the people in our lives?

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Night and Day 14

They spend the day in each other’s arms, but then dusk wrenches them apart.

Julie wanders Paris with a book in her hand.

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Night and Day 4

I love the light of dusk, how it saturates the film, how it hits buildings, transforms the streets. I’d like to be in Paris at dusk. I imagine the light would be soft, otherworldly. The most beautiful light comes just before darkness.

One night, she falls asleep with Joseph and gets home to Jack late, close to dawn. This shakes her up, the sense that her world might not be perfect, that it could fall apart.

Joseph struggles. He loves only Julie but Julie loves both him and Jack. Love is so simple and complicated at the same time.

Just as it is hard for her to separate from Jack when the night comes, so is it hard for her to separate from Joseph when the morning comes. She does not want to leave either one, but there is only one of her, torn between two men.

One night, while driving his cab, Jack sees her walking the streets. He watches her. She seems “elsewhere” as the narrator puts it. He sees a side of her that is new to him. We are so unknowable to each other.

Jack starts to feel dread. Things change between them. Perhaps he has some sense that she is with someone else but he can’t articulate it. Seeing her from afar, knowing that she is a person separate from him with her own thoughts and secrets, sparks a change in him and their relationship.

 

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Jack asks her to accompany him in his cab. She goes. I wonder if this is an attempt to control her? To keep her away from the streets where she is free to roam and wander without him.

She finally tells Jack about her affair with Joseph

She takes a suitcase and leaves both Jack and Joseph. If she can’t love both, she’ll love neither.

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Fragments: Vers Mathilde (Claire Denis, 2005)

Whenever you make an incursion into a space, that space is altered. I like this idea of leaving a scratch because that space is altered by that scratch after. It’s like a piece of paper that has a mark on it and is no longer blank[…] In other words, the memory leaves a mark. The mark is always there. And the memory […] So this mark leaves a mark on the body. On mine, in any case.

–Mathilde Monnier

Vers Mathilde is a documentary directed by Claire Denis about French choreographer Mathilde Monnier as she rehearses for a production of “Déroutes.”

Dance fascinates me, as it centers the body but also seems to transcend it. I have always wanted to escape my body.

A body writhing on a hardwood floor, the shadow of a hand.

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The connection and camaraderie of dance rehearsals. The social aspect of dance, bodies coming into contact (makes me think of my own failed attempt at dance, my own physical isolation.)

You can visibly see how a dance production is put together, unlike, for instance, how a book is put together, since it exists only in the mind of the writer.

We’re so alone in our bodies, but dance seems to be a way for us to share our bodies, to convey the inside through the outside.

Mathilde dancing spasmodically to PJ Harvey’s “A Place Called Home” and other songs on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. I go to youtube and watch the music video. PJ in a glittery dress, her own body moving to the rhythms of the song. This is something I like about watching movies on my laptop–I can pause, go explore, make associations and connections.

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One day
I know
We’ll find
A place of hope
Just hold on to me
Just hold on to me

I end up saving the album on spotify to listen to later. I find a documentary about Mathilde on Medici TV, but it’s only available to subscribers. I end up registering on the site even though I don’t subscribe.

I’ve become gloriously side-tracked, pulled into the magic vortex of the internet.

A scene of dancers rehearsing. A man and woman intertwined, arms wrapped around each other, legs entangled, hands making indentations in flesh. I think about touch often, how my life is defined by a lack of touch, a distance from people, how unloved and undesired I feel. Dance is so intimate, particularly when you are dancing with a partner. I don’t know what that’s like.

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The delicacy and violence of touch, the act of invading a body, colliding with it, like the scratch Mathilde mentions at the beginning of the movie, how we leave marks on one another.

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The only other documentary I’ve seen about a choreographer is Wim Wenders’s Pina, a tribute to Pina Bausch. Denis’s film is not an homage. It’s a documentation of a living artist’s creative process.

The labor of dance, the physical exertion of it. The labor of art. We don’t talk enough about that–how the body works and toils to create.

I respect dancers in the same way I respect actors, how they use their bodies and faces to convey abstract emotions. Dancers are free of words completely, free of language. They bypass it. They seem more pure, alive inside of rhythms.

Denis records private whisperings, moments of Mathildes’s doubts and insecurities.

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It’s astounding how open the dancer is to scrutiny and criticism, how they conform themselves to the choreographer’s vision. They lose themselves, must discard their ego. They are the choreographer’s creation.

The strangeness of dancing, how we move our bodies in odd ways. It’s liberating to dance alone and not care how strange you look, only needing the music to engulf you. Mathilde dances alone, doing arm exercises. She looks manic and possessed, the way I imagine Lucia Joyce or Zelda Fitzgerald danced.

I pause the film and start reading about Lucia and Zelda. Both were overshadowed by the more famous male writers in their lives. Lucia’s father was James Joyce; she also dated Samuel Beckett at one time. Zelda married F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even now, the men preoccupy us while the women fade into the background. Biographies try to remedy this injustice. In The New Yorker, I find a review of the biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss. I read this part with interest:

When Lucia was fifteen, she began taking dance lessons, mostly of the new, anti-balletic, “aesthetic” variety, and this became her main interest during her teens and early twenties. She started at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, then moved on to study with the toga-clad Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s older brother. Eventually, she hooked up with a commune of young women who performed now and then, in Paris and elsewhere, as Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. However briefly, Lucia was a professional dancer. She is said to have excelled in sauvage roles. But eventually she left this group, as she left every group. (I count nine dance schools in seven years.) In part, that may have been due to lack of encouragement from her family. Nora reportedly nagged Lucia to give up dancing. According to members of the family, she was jealous of the attention the girl received. As for Joyce, Brenda Maddox says he felt “it was unseemly for women to get on the stage and wave their arms about.”

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Dance, for women especially, can be a way to access freedom that is denied them in other parts of their lives. Perhaps Lucia found something liberating in movement. She was forced to move often in her youth to many different countries. She was never settled until, of course, she ended up at a mental institution for the last thirty years of her life. Maybe dancing gave her an outlet for the rage, the emotion, the strangeness of her self.

I go on reading and come across this:

Finally, after seven years’ training in the left wing of dance, Lucia bolted to the right wing, and embarked on a backbreaking course of ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg. This was a terrible idea. Professional ballet dancers begin their training at around the age of eight. Lucia was twenty-two. She worked six hours a day, but of course she couldn’t catch up, and, in her discouragement, she concluded that she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind—a decision, Joyce wrote to a friend, that cost her “a month’s tears.”

A story all too similar to Zelda Fitzgerald, who also took up ballet in her 20s and relentlessly pushed her body to become a world-class dancer that it could not be. On a PBS website, I find this paragraph:

In 1928, she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a professional ballerina, and began taking lessons in Paris from a famous dancer. At the late age of 27, three years of intense ballet work (eight hours a day) damaged her health, and prompted her first mental breakdown, diagnosed as “nervous exhaustion”, in 1930. Zelda was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, and would reside in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life.

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It’s easy to focus on the tragedy of Lucia and Zelda but maybe what’s more important is to realize that both women tried to pursue their passions. They flung themselves into dance with all their obsession and manic energy and, at rare moments, they must have felt a deep, overwhelming transcendence, that sense of losing and finding the self all at once within art.

Denis often focuses on the hands of Mathilde and the dancers.

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At one point, a girl violently dances. Her bare feet pound the floor. It’s glorious, this controlled frenzy. I wonder what it’s like to be that girl, to feel that kind of power in my own body, to be so raw and strong and intense. She crosses some unseen boundary where the dancing dissolves and there is only life. Life as it is revealed by art.

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