03.12.2020 | Artist

Jean-Luc Godard @ 90

“His use of sound has a way of creating fresh caverns of poetic depth.”
– Seth Colter Walls,
New York Times

Jean-Luc Godard, 90 years old today, remains a uniquely creative force in the world of film.  One of the principal architects of the 1960’s French New Wave of cinema with early masterpieces such as  Vivre sa vie and Bande à part, Godard has continued to innovate throughout the decades.

His films of the last thirty years have consistently incorporated music from ECM, beginning with Nouvelle Vague in 1990. That film, JLG explained, had drawn its impetus from music Manfred Eicher had sent him.  “I began to imagine things due to that kind of music.  Often the sounds gave us the feeling of being orphaned from images or exiled from a land of images…It was like hearing music from films which didn’t exist.”

Godard has spoken of the mystery and importance of music for him: “Music expresses the spiritual and it provides inspiration….What has always interested me is that musicians have no need for the image although people involved with images need music.  I’ve always wanted music to take over at the moment when there is no more need to see the images.  For music to express something else.  What interests me is to see music, to try to see what one is hearing and to hear what one is seeing.”

Consequently, Godard’s approach to integrating music in his work is like no other filmmaker’s, as the release of a sound-only version of Nouvelle Vague emphasized. Cahiers du Cinéma declared “The Nouvelle Vague soundtrack is magnificent. The intertwining of the various forms of music, voices and sounds is one of the most extraordinary ever heard, even including Godard’s oeuvre.” ECM’s edition incorporates a liner essay by blind cinephile Claire Bartoli who describes Godard as a “magician, the ferryman from another reality.  He dislodges the sounds of the world, fashions them, isolates  them from the life peculiar to them: a bark, a strain of music, a few words by a writer, the ring of a bell, the sound of waves (…) Emotion is engendered by the very substance of the sound. Nouvelle Vague invents concrete music that does not hew to the beat, that toys with the irrational.”

More than a master of montage, then, Jean-Luc Godard could also be considered a composer of sorts, an argument that Heiner Goebbels took up in the book Horizons Touched: “We are dealing [in Nouvelle Vague] with an acoustical nexus of shifting priorities and functions.  The music is not only there to set the moods; the words are not only there to convey messages. The nexus is tightly organized musically, for even the noises, animal sounds and human voices are constructed in terms of  pitch and rhythm. They all interrelate; the auditory lead shuttles from one to the other, as in a relay race.”

The boxed set edition of Histoire(s) du Cinéma, with its five CDs and four text books, proposes an even deeper immersion in the filmmaker’s sound world, and as Manfred Eicher  has pointed out  “Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma is also a history of music.” Music swirls around Godard’s multi-part essay: from Beethoven to Kancheli, from Coltrane to Saluzzi, and voices loom out of the mix, JLG’s smoky narration juxtaposed with voices from history including Hitchcock and Ezra Pound, Paul Celan and André Malraux.  “Only Godard and Eicher could have celebrated cinema without recourse to the visual image,” suggested Rob Cowan in The Independent. “The resulting aural montage is breathtaking. It was the most nourishing musical surprise of my year.” The Histoire(s) set won the Sonderjahrespreis 2000 der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, the jury hailing it as “a product of friendship and shared work (…), a virtuoso network of voices, noises and tones from which Godard’s sonorous lecture arises, by turns insistent, provocative, elegiac, thoughtful, poetic.”

Another artefact from the JLG/ECM association is the DVD Four Short Films with De l’origine de XXIe siècle, The Old Place, Liberté et patrie and Je vous salue, Sarajevo. The films are wide ranging exchanges with long-time collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville, which encompass, as writer Michael Althen noted, “art and freedom, presence and memory, violence and passion.  Four essays in which the cinema itself seems to speak to us, in friendly dialogue with painting, literature and music, as a brother to all the arts.” And music of course runs through these works, too.  Herbert Henck’s account of Hans Otte’s minimalistic Das Buch der Klange counterpoints the repetitive horrors of war in De l’origine de XXIe siècle.  A multitude of sounds swarms through The Old Place:  Kurtág, Scelsi, Mompou, Shostakovich, Jarrett, Bjørnstad,  Stanko.  Arvo Pärt’s music underpins Je vous salue, Sarajevo.

If music from ECM has influenced the filmmaker’s work, the opposite is also true.  As Manfred Eicher has said, “What makes things so different and special is the way Godard is able to juxtapose sound, light, text and music. His sense of rhythm, inhaling and exhaling is remarkable, as is his sense of timing. His artistic work is often a point of reference for me, for instance the sculptural quality of his films and the depth of aesthetic and artistic information they convey.”

photo by Richard Dumas

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