Raindance 2021 film review: Helmut Lachenmann: My Way
Ivan Radford | On 06, Nov 2021
This film is streaming at the 2021 Raindance Film Festival. For more information on what’s playing online at the festival and how it works, click here.
“I was impressed and irritated.” Those are the words of a young school pupil writing to Helmut Lachenmann after listening to his music – and it’s easy to understand why. The German composer is famed for his dizzyingly experimental approach to music, with a disregard for conventional melodies and constructs and a total commitment to doing something different.
In his case, that something different is almost anything but playing an instrument normally. He’s a maestro of reimagining every object as a tool to produce sounds – and a genius at taking those sounds and working them into their own strange music. Whether it’s drumming on violins, scratching on the back of cellos, disassembling clarinets to parp down their middle or pouring water down the bell of a brass instrument, anything goes in his astonishing repertoire of repurposed parts.
“You have to learn to listen in another way,” he tells us, and a parade of high-profile musical figures line up to share the joys and benefits of what happens when you do. He, meanwhile, is visibly skilled at teaching others to tune into his wavelength, and some of the best moments in this documentary are when he’s demonstrating and explaining things to the players trying to tackle his compositions – he’s as practical as he is creative, able to do everything he demands of his musician and work with them until they can see, and hear, the line between ugly and beauty that he’s striving to draw.
Director Wiebke Pöpel gives us ample time to see him in action, working with the Berlin Philharmonic and even at the Zurich Opera House, but she also lets us get to know the man behind the manuscript. That means we join him on a journey back to his home town – “There’s where I composed and stuff,” he remarks, with a surprising and charmingly casual tone, as he reflects on growing up with a musical father, who was a clergyman. Glimpses of him on the organ and piano emphasise not only his natural musical talents but also his willingness to move away from the normal tunes and harmonies he was taught – “You could play Hindemith but not Stockhausen,” he comments. Pöpel also lets us see him achieve that at every stage of the production process, including transcribing his lengthy, unusual scores on the page at his music studio in Lake Maggiore.
But the best moments are undoubtedly when we get to soak up his completed works live, from rehearsals to concerts, and DoP Michael Zimmer gorgeously captures the orchestral and operatic drama unfolding on stage – the gestures and movements of the players are as balletic as the dancers, highlighting how astonishing it is that Lachenmann is able to extract and distort such unique sounds without every resorting to electronics.
The result is a celebration of an artist whose uncompromising work resonates down even through to film music, thanks to the work of Jonny Greenwood and Nathan Johnson – one superbly edited sequence sees Lachenmann driving into a tunnel, only for the noises of the car and road to blend seamlessly into one of his pieces. By the time the end credits roll, your learning process is complete, and his music becomes haunting, bewitching and, yes, beautiful in its strangeness. An insightful, entertaining, absorbing documentary.
Helmut Lachenmann: My Way is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema until 11.59pm on 8th November