Music albums as fellows – 1 – The Blue Nile

Some music albums, songs, compositions become a part of you. They hit you the first time you listen to them, they invade you the following listening sessions, and finally you integrate them into your body and soul.

Some music will always be associated with a specific time, period and/or place. As many people, I have discs that are connected to friends who recommended them to me, with whom I attended a specific concert or because they handed me over a certain disc / lp / cassette (yes, cassette…). Travelling by car is also a perfect way to turn a disc into one that will always be connected with a certain trip. Or you connect the music with a certain mood or phase you were in. Afraid to always connect it to a certain mood, I waited several weeks to listen to Radiohead’s King of Limbs because the special “newspaper” edition arrived at my doorstep in a personally difficult period. Of course, trying to postpone it, did not erase the connection I had already made. And listening to Radiohead’s brand new A New Shaped Pool even reflects that fruitless attempt of five years ago… You can’t manipulate music’s echoes, nor play tricks on your own mind… Much other music  luckily has positive connections…

I am planning to expand different examples in future posts. As a start, I want to share an example how sometimes these musical fellows pop up at unexpected times and places. Finishing the first paragraph of this post with the words ‘body and soul’ imediately made me think of a marvellous album of The Blue Nile, Peace at Last.

The short description of the band on Allmusic reads as follows:

Scottish trio whose spare, sophisticated pop and plaintive vocals made for compelling listening, despite an infrequent release schedule. 

I couldn’t do any better – I would only leave out the remark of the infrequent release schedule because I prefer quality over quantity. Four albums in twenty years is of course commercial suicide, but that does not make me love their music less… The album Peace at Last came out in 1996 when I was a student – and those times were mostly pre-internet. You had to buy the album to hear it – or copy it (on tape, of course) from a friend.

It is sonically their most relaxed record, and the songs sound like a glimpse into the soul of Paul Buchanan, the singer. The song Body and Soul is a nice example of restrained hope. The damped strumming of the chords, the strings that do not accomplish the height they are reaching for, their long notes replaced at other moments with short nearly staccato ones. But at the end of the song, the riff gets its own hopeful voice on electric guitar.

I also remember that, to be aware of concerts in other cities, you had to scroll every month through a calendar in a free music magazine (RifRaf, still alive today! Thank you for giving me so many hints in my early music-loving years!). Being printed in very small fonts, you were never sure if you missed something or not. But The Blue Nile nearly never played any concerts, so my hopes were not very high – and destroyed one morning when reading a positive review of a concert. They had played the evening before at Botanique in Brussels, 30 km from where I studied… Damn. I never got the occasion again… I’ll have to settle with some live fragments on Youtube, like this performance in ‘Later with Jools Holland’.


Kieslowski’s Decalogue: the Gaze as Encounter 

The central characters in Kieslowski’s Decalogue are mostly lonely people. Most of them suffer a deprivation of identity, since identity is mostly formed in relation to the other. Their isolation creates a relatively silent film series in which dialogues are sparse. One of the key elements Kieslowski uses to symbolise the attempts for contact with someone else, is the gaze.

This can be the gaze towards something, or the gaze towards someone. In the Decalogue, as in other films by Kieslowski, objects are frequently presented in close-ups to symbolize key moments. Moments in which the characters recognise that something has an impact on them – an impact that can be both good or bad.

In Decalogue 2 for example, water dripping from a pipe is used two times.


In the first half of the film, we see and hear dripping water on a metal pipe or the frame of a bed, and suppose it is in the hospital room of Andrzej, the sick man whose wife is pregnant from another lover. There is no clear location defined for the dripping water – even if the film cuts to Andrzej in bed, fighting against fever, feverish sweat on his head, we are not sure it is in one and the same room. He directs his gaze in a certain direction, but we don’t get a confirmation that he is actually looking at the dripping water.

Because we are not sure if both Andrej and the dripping water are in one and the same room, we are stimulated to read the dripping water not (or not merely) as a sign of decay of the hospital, but as a sign of decay of Andrej.

The same effect applies when after a close-up of Andrej’s face, the film cuts to water dripping over crackled plaster on a wall. The third time we see the water dripping on or close to the leaves of a plant – which is the only spatial link: these are supposed to be the leaves that his wife peeled off a plant. However, this plant was standing on the window-sill at their apartment, not in the hospital room. We could read this as a sign that potential loss is not only threatening Andrej, but his wife too, since she plans on aborting the child she carries if her man is expected to survive.

The same dripping water is used another time near the end of the film.


This time however his wife is present, and the location is revealed to be the hospital room. However, there are two important changes. Andrej is not alone in the room, fighting against his fever, but his wife is caressing his head, trying to help him. And this time the flow of the water is not presented as something infiltrating the walls, but it is collected in a reservoir. Since the location is now clear to us, the close up of the drops in the socket also make us think of intravenous therapy, where liquid substances with medication are brought into the veins. Are we looking at a partial cure?


This kind of symbolic objects, often connected to characters by their gaze, are abundant in the Decalogue. They not only often symbolize a change or a potential shift, but because their role is not always explicit, they also enforce implicit interpretation – which encouraged other people to say that these objects in Kieslowski’s films often have the tendency to “look back” at the character. These objects often resonate and change perspective, in themselves, as well as for the characters. In the words of Vivan Sobchack: these are “key moments of reflexive awareness”.


In a lecture at Cinema Zuid  in Antwerp this Friday, I will also focus on the gaze between people in the Decalogue, how Kieslowski often shows us the gaze of people through reflections and framings, and how direct gazes between people are also used to show the evolution these people go through.



Parajanov art collages in Brussels

Marvel continues. The remembrance of the Armenian genocide (1915) inspired the Boghossian Foundation to bring a selection of collages by Sergei Parajanov to Brussels. Parajanov is most known for his exceptional films Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), a personal blend of folklore, color and vision, and the stunning Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates, 1969), a tableau-like celebration of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova.


Sayat Nova

The films being too experimental for the social-realist paradigm of the USSR, and Parajanov expressing a critical voice as well as being openly gay resulted de facto in a ban on filming for about 15 years, and years of imprisonment in a labor camp. In this period, Parajanov started to work on paper collages, to create ‘mini-films’. He also made lots of three-dimensional cabinets and boxes. His film shots already often combined several layers into one image, but his collages thicken this multiplying effect and combining of several influences, spheres, colors or significations. James Steffen, who published the first English-language study on Parajanov’s films, wrote a nice introduction for the catalogue of a similar exhibition in 2014 in New York.

The exhibition, with a selection of artworks from the Parajanov-museum in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, takes place  in the magnificent Art Deco villa Empain from September 24 to January 24 2016.

Villa Empain


Pelechian’s films in Brussels

In September, the filmmaker Artavazd Pelechian is coming to the Centre for Fine Arts BOZAR  in Brussels, for an introduction, masterclass and screening of his films. The Armenian filmmaker only made eleven films, most of them short films. These films, primarily experimental documentary films, are most known for their distinctive montage. Pelechian himself calls it ‘distant montage’. One could describe it as organic montage instead of logical montage. Shots are often linked not by a direct, but by an indirect connection. Hordes of running animals can be followed by a mass of people moving in the same direction, stressing parallels and differences between them. Furthermore, in Pelechian’s films, associations are not predominatnly made between juxtaposed shots, but also between remote shots, between sequences and single shots, or by interrelated sequences. Sometimes singular images come back at several moments throughout the film, slowly developing more nuance in their possible interpretation.

Another characteristic of Pelechian’s films, is the use of sound as a key element. Not only in the montage, where the music can enhance or alter the interpretation of the images, but as he stated himself,

I can not conceive my films without music. When I write the scenarios, I must preview the musical structure of the film, the musical accents, the emotional and rhythmic character of this music, which is necessary, indispensable for each scene. (citation taken from Senses of Cinema that features an elaborate article on Pelechian)

These things become clear when watching his first film after graduating from the Russian films school VGIK, The Beginning (1967).

Commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, the nine minute film, mainly consisting of archival newsreel material, offers a fast forwarded glimpse of 50 years of (Soviet) history. No voice-over, no text cards, no diegetic sound at all. At the opening of the film, church bells announce the beginning of something; some seconds later, non-diegetic shot gun sounds announce the revolution – stressed by a stroboscopic effect by interweaving  black or white frames. The sounds and shots used here, come back several times. When an image of Lenin appears, the frantic music begins, evoking the sound of a riding train, an image emerging a little later. The agitated musical rhythm makes the fast cutting montage appear even faster. The composition used is ‘Time, Forward!’ by Gyorgi Sviridov, a theme that was commissioned for a propagandistic film two years earlier.

This brings us back to a previous post on The Heart of the World by Guy Maddin, a film with similar fast cutting pace, using the same musical composition. In my earlier post, I missed the connection between these two films, but music, images and montage in both films are clearly related. Another sign that the influence of Pelechian is more present than visible at a first sight.

International Jazz Day – Sco-Mule

April 30 is called International Jazz Day

Although jazz purists may not label this as jazz, I’d like to highlight one of the most fascinating releases I bought the last time: a pairing of John Scofield with the rockers of Gov’t Mule. This album consists of recordings of two live gigs in 1999 that apparantly aquired cult status. However, this album sounds as fresh as early birds in springtime. Songs of Gov’t Mule are paired with compositions written by James Brown, Wayne Shorter and Hottentot by John Scofield (first heard on the magnificent album A Go Go that John Scofield recorded with Medeski, Martin & Wood).

There is a nice review on AllAboutJazz that sums it up beautifully:

Sco-Mule isn’t a jazz album by any standard definition; it rocks way too hard for that. Still, with Scofield’s intuitive way of taking the music ever so slightly out, only to bring it back in again with the kind of effortless aplomb he’s developed in a career now entering its fifth decade as the guitarist moves into his mid-sixties, Sco-Mule ain’t your typical jam band album either. Instead, it sits somewhere in-between, with everyone forgetting about artificial delineation. Sco-Mule is, quite simply, great songs played by a terrific group that may have been performing live for the first time, but was already imbued with a profound connection that went deeper and broader than any one genre.

The album even comes in colourful cover art. If you buy the vinyl version (that sounds very good), you’ll even have two pieces of art (the cover and the music) that will stay with you for a long time.

Jazz in film noir

Tomorrow, I’ll give a lecture at Ghent University on the use of jazz in film noir.

Contrary to the common idea, jazz is not frequently used in film noir. It’s more the dark setting, the connection with the night (the prefered time slot in film noir), femmes fatales that makes one think that jazz is so present in film noir. On a list of about 300 film noir, someone counted only 30 featuring jazz in any way.

Most of the film noir feature a traditional, orchestral score – and sometimes a diegetic (present in the image) use of jazz, preferably when criminals or their victims visit a club.


Furthermore, contrary to what one might expect, bebop or cool jazz are nearly absent. The jazz styles with which Charlie Parker and later on John Coltrane and Miles Davis and many others turned the musical world upside down, were not only seen as too difficult and too intellectual for film. Bebop and cool explicitely fighted for a recognition of on the one hand jazz as an art style, and not only simplistic or (as often presented in films) inferior expression, and on the other hand also played a role in the fight against segregation. Instead, most of the jazz sequence in film noir use swing, bigband or more easy-listening jazz. The use of jazz and depiction of it also reflects on social codes and context of the time.

Some examples of the use of jazz, and the shift that occurs with the years:

  • Blues in the Night by Anatole Litvak (1941) features a white jazz musician – who outclasses his black tutor
  • Mildred Pierce by Michael Curtiz (1945) features one jazz song – and it symbolises the fall of the daughter who should have become a lady with class and who ends up singing simple songs for the entertainment of hungry men in a club
  • D.O.A. (Death On Arrival) by Rudolph Maté (1950) features black jazz musicians, but was not allowed to show them in one and the same shot with the white audience…
  • The Man With the Golden Arm by Otto Preminger (1955) makes the jazz sound more explicit, even in the more traditional, orchestral parts of the score
  • I Want To Live! by Robert Wise (1958) features the black musician Art Farmer in a white band
  • Anatomy of a Murder by Otto Preminger (1958) features the first score fully composed by a black composer, Duke Ellington

More info during my lecture or in the book Jazz Noir by David Butler.

The Heart of the World by Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin’s dreamlike and often surreal films are mostly in black and white and contain a lot of echoes of films of the 20ies and 30ies. He is mostly known for his feature film The Saddest Music in the World (2003), featuring a mesmerising Isabelle Rossellini, and his personal documentary vision of his home town My Winnipeg (2007) . Maddin also made a lot of experimental short films.

The Heart of the World was made in 2000. For the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival, several directors were asked to create a short film that would be screened prior to feature films during the festival. When Maddin heard that other directors planned films with a small number of shots (Cronenberg’s Camera for example has less than sixty shots in its nearly 6’40 minutes), he planned to make a film with about 100 shots a minute.

This film not only features lots of characteristics inspired by silent film and early sound film, such as the experimental camera angles, irises to focus or blend, actors either over-acting, either under-acting. The film was also digitally manipulated to give it the look of an old and fading print, and last but not least, this fascinating short film is full of allusions and references to German expressionism as Murnau’s Metropolis or Von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel ; surrealist film as Dali & Buñuel’s Un chien andalou ; or Lotte Reiniger’s shadow animation. The most explicit one – and mentionned by Maddin himself – is the connection with Russian constructivism. This reminiscence of Russian constructivism is enhanced by the use of music by the Russian composer Georgy Sviridov (1915-1999). The theme used here was written for the film Time, Forward!, a Russian propagandistic drama film from 1965, and became a sort of calling card for the Soviet Union itself. Since 1986 it was used as the signature tune of Vremya, the TV news program on USSR Central Television and Russian Channel One.  Filmic influences from Russian constructivism are also palpable, from Eisenstein’s dialectic montage in Potemkin to Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera and Pudovkin’s Mother for example, and most of all the proto-science-fiction of Aelita, a 1924 film by Iakov Protazanov that in its turn inspired Murnau’s Metropolis.

As such, The Heart of the World not only functions as a fine introduction to Maddin’s universe, but as a condensed trip into film history as well.

From Herbie Hancock to Daft Punk

Great was my surprise lately when I heard Herbie Hancock’s album Directstep (1978) for the first time. In the second half of the seventies, Hancock was not only touring with V.S.O.P., essentially the fabulous Miles Davis Quintet from ’64-’69 (Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums and Wayne Shorter on saxophone) with Freddie Hubbard instead of Miles on trumpet. In the same period, Hancock also released a very beautiful duet album with Chick Corea, and experimented with pop, funk and disco on albums such as this Sunlight (1978) and Mr. Hands (1982). Directstep is such a pop-jazz crossover album. It was originally only released in Japan and was one of the first albums to be released on CD. For this album, Hancock re-recorded the track I Thought It Was You from Sunlight, turning its sound even more in an electronic direction than on the first recording.


Impossible not to think of Daft Punk’s The Game of Love from Random Access Memories (2013):

It’s not only the use of the vocoder that creates an echo of Hancock. Rhythm, bass, melody, it all contains clear echoes from Hancock – too close to be pure luck. Even the part of Daft Punk’s text “and it was you” sounds almost like Hancock’s line “I thought it was you”.

Actually, it’s no surprise, since Random Access Memories features many echoes from that time period, becoming very explicit in the track Giorgio by Moroder, featuring Giorgio Moroder who made extensive use of the vocoder on the albums Einzelganger (’75) and From Here to Eternity (’77).

But in the case of The Game of Love, Daft Punk should have credited Hancock too, or change the title of the track into The Game of Herbie, or Herbie by Daft Punk.


ps: Too nice to withold: Hancock continued to play games, as can be heard in the eighties hit Rockit, according to wikipedia the first popsingle that featured scratching.