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He studied piano and, apparently, wanted to become a conductor. He loved Bach. In a questionnaire from 1974, which he attached to an entry in The Diaries, he mentions St John Passion as his favourite piece. Ironically, there is very little actual music in his films but its presence does reveal itself in an often diverse and indirect way. At many times, his directing credo  seems to refer both to films and to music because his poetical definition of “sculpting in time” seems to perfectly fit both. He perceived editing as an art of dilution and condensing which respected the flow of time in the particular scenes and its various tensions. In his poetics of limiting, slowing down and contemplating Tarkovsky turned out to be very close to many composers and improvisers and this is borne out by the programme of this year’s Nostalgia Festival. Let us listen anew to his films and discover the music within them.


“Music is obviously of great importance to me. It's not only the image I could photograph that is important, but for this image I need precisely this snippet of Bach. If I don't find it I won't replace it with anything else and I won't photograph that image. Here in Sweden I have discovered a wonderful folk music which has a fantastic influence on me and it organises the whole material of my new film around itself. It will enter the film not as illustration but as its emotional weave. As usual. Music competes with film, it can become an organic element of film but it can also take control of the image — this is a serious problem! A scene without music is completely different; it changes with music dubbed in. Pure film should be able to do without music but that's pure theory as music is something organic in film, it's not only a form of illustration.”

When I think about music in Tarkovsky’s cinema I instantly recall several beautiful scenes… The boat reconnaissance by night in a winter landscape illuminated by the glow of explosions and the specific mysterious sounds and dissonant impulses in Ivan’s Childhood. The moment when artificial gravity is lost at the space base in Solaris and the characters and objects are levitating to an organ version of Bach’s Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ. Bach again and his choral fugue Herr, unser Herrcher from St John Passion in the final scene of The Mirror and the mother smoking a cigarette and looking at the forest, the field and the past. The three travellers: the eponymous Stalker, the Writer and the Professor on their way to the Zone on a handcar with faces resembling those in Rublev’s Trinity whilst the rhythmical clatter fluently changes into Eduard Artemyev electronic music. The climax of Nostalghia when the emigrant from Russia tries to accomplish the mission of his Italian friend and walk across an empty hot spring pool with a burning candle as the vapours and wind blow in Verdi’s Requiem. And, of course, the last film, The Sacrifice with the peculiar combination of Swedish and Japanese ethnic music and the aria Erbarme, Dich from Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Several themes emerge already from this loose and, after all, subjective compilation. As Tarkovsky emphasised in the fragment quoted above, he was not really interested in music as an enhancement of the image. He only used it in this role (albeit not always successfully) in his earliest films (the composer was Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov). In the Andrei Rublev finale, after a convincing black and white reconstruction of medieval Russia, there is a sequence in colour showing (finally – after nearly three hours!) the icons painted by the eponymous character. This is accompanied by portentous orthodox choir music in a 19th century rendition providing an extremely powerful closure. Clearly, Artemyev’s exotic synthesiser sounds in Stalker and Bach’s Orgelbüchlein preludes in The Mirror also serve to characterise the depicted world. Both composers are brought together in Solaris and it is there that you can hear what Tarkovsky was about: Earth and that which is familiar contrasted with the alien and extraordinary Ocean. A similar contrast is made in Rublev where the evocative singing clashes with the solo singing (the drum) of the skomorokh, the wandering clown. The sacred meets the profane.

Hence the music in Tarkovsky’s films is a symbol. The pieces refer to their significance in culture, to a social or religious context. The Mirror is, after all, not only Tarkovsky’s real autobiography but also his spiritual one. It features his father’s poems as well as masterpieces of painting and music with the latter exemplified by Purcell’s aria The Indian Queen, a fragment of Stabat Mater and three excerpts from Bach. The film is not only about his personal experiences but also his experience of art. In Stalker such passages, lasting less than a minute can also be heard three times. In each instance La Marseillaise, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Ravel’s Bolero are completely distorted and stifled by freight trains: beauty in the Stalker’s world appears only for a moment; it comes from afar only to vanish again. In Nostalghia two meaningful masterpieces accompany two simultaneous scenes: Andrei’s passage with a candle through the hot spring pool in Bagno Vignoni and Domenico’s self-immolation in Forum Romanum. Verdi’s Requiem aeternam in the first scene commemorates the death in the latter. When Domenico makes his last desperate attempt to convert the world he is accompanied by the choir from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony playing from a portable tape recorder. But the tape becomes jammed and all you can hear is a desperate cry. In The Sacrifice the alto from Bach’s St Matthew Passion seems to be repeating after Alexander: “Jesus, have mercy on us”.

Sometimes, music also emerges as a theme. The title of Tarkovsky’s diploma featurette, The Steamroller and the Violin reveals the axis of a conflict. The encounter between a boy from an affluent family and a physical road worker foreshadows a war of classes. But in the charming scene by the puddle a magical understanding is created between the two boys. The culminating moment in Andrei Rublev is marked by the bell casting scene which inspired the composer Kasia Głowicka to create a multimedia piece called Quasi Rublev which actually incorporates an agonising fragment of the film. It is not known until the very end if the young bellfounder knows what he is doing whilst the punishment for any flaw is extremely severe. Finally, everyone comes to the casting site, they peel the clay from the cast, swing the clapper and… a sound is born. The protagonist of Nostalghia, on the other hand, is following the tracks of his fellow countryman, a composer from the 18th century, modelled on a real character. “His name was Maxim Sasontovich Beriozovsky, and he was born on 16 October 1745 in Glukhov. In 1765 he was sent to the Musical Academy of Bologna, where he studied under Padre Martini the Elder, who was also a teacher of Mozart. … He composed a great deal of superb music and became very well known in Italy. In 1774 he returned to Russia at the wish of Potyomkin, who proposed that he found a musical academy in Kremenschug. He fell in love with a serf actress belonging to Count Razoumovsky. When the Count heard of it he raped the girl and dispatched her to Siberia. Beriozovsky went to St. Petersburg where he started to drink heavily and in 1777 took his own life.”


We can all sense, nonetheless, that the combination “Tarkovsky-music” is not exhausted by a list of what pieces he had used in his eight films. Musicality manifests itself in his films in many ways and in the ones that followed Nostalghia it probably becomes even more intensive. Bohdan Pociej in his beautiful essay  specifies three levels: added music, music in accidents and music in substance. Regarding the second level he means the entire phonosphere, i.e. dialogues, sounds and noises. And the primary manifestation is nature: the sound of the wind and rain, the rhythm of falling droplets or the crackling of a dying fire present in so many sequences of Tarkovsky’s late works. And it is interesting to note how often he misguides the audience. He either stresses sounds unnaturally or stifles them completely, which is most audible in Stalker where the footsteps of invisible characters or a perfectly silent waterfall seem to constitute yet another trap in the Zone. Also in Nostalghia we hear the recurring sound of a power saw which is uncorroborated by the image and seems to come from another world. And in The Sacrifice the thundering sounds of bombers or, perhaps, earthquakes build an apocalyptic feeling.
Thus the sound in these films creates its completely own space which often foreshadows a scene or reminisces on one, for instance the trembling of crystal before the roar of the planes in The Sacrifice or of windows after the passage of a train in Stalker. It is a sign of the past or of a dream, like in Nostalghia which mixes the space-time continuums of the real Italy and the yearned-for Russia.  When Andrei dreams about his wife we can see her but we can still hear his own sonic landscape. The visual and audial layers continuously enter into a dynamic counterpoint, a very unobvious relation filled with reverberations, phantoms and reminiscences. And I would cast the Swedish and Japanese folklore from The Sacrifice in yet another role of the phonosphere. The shepherds’ kulning (calls) and the exotic sound of the bamboo shakuhachi flute also serve to build space – a distant, unusual and unearthly one.

But the most important element of the sonic landscape of Tarkovsky’s cinema is the voice. This is the omnipresent off-camera narration comprising reflections and disputes, memories and poems as well as the protagonists’ inner conflicts. It is characteristic that these usually do not have anything in common with what is going on onscreen. They create a completely autonomous layer and the world remains completely indifferent to them. This is especially apparent in The Sacrifice where the Little Man seems to be completely oblivious to what Alexander is saying as he unfolds his catastrophic visions and the only response he gets are the shrieks of birds and the rustling of grass in the wind. The voice is lost in the world.  Also in The Mirror the lyrical subject, a grown man who is reminiscing on his childhood, does not appear in any take beyond his flashbacks. This is particularly striking in the second scene during the telephone conversation with his mother when an incorporeal voice hovers around a flat shown by a restless camera. The voice is beyond the world.

“Why did I use themes from classic scores [in The Sacrifice]? Because it is stupid and useless to write original music that cannot be better than those. Eisenstein’s collaboration with Prokofiev produced, in my opinion, results that were to portentous: it is an opera. Music is a cultural layer which my film is based on but I did not intend to provide it with a musical structure. I spend my free time in the country and I think that the wind, fire and water are stronger elements than music: when I made my film I observed life and didn’t think about giving it a musical constitution.”  

In the third, deepest layer of music’s presence in cinema Pociej points to the very substance of films. This entails tempo and time, features which coincide with Tarkovsky’s interests. The Polish musicologist, in line with his own preferences, sees this as the cinematic realisation of adagio which Gustav Mahler (who Tarkovsky also cited in The Diaries) brought to the heights of metaphysics and contemplation in his symphonic works. Tarkovsky builds his adagio with a sparing, fluid and usually linear movement of the camera from one side to another, especially in his late works: the walk across the pool in Nostalghia or the dream of the stairs in The Sacrifice. In his earlier films the tempo is embodied by flowing water: the boats in Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, the grass in the river current in Solaris or the flooded rooms in Stalker. But there are also visual motifs that recur in different takes, angles and light. The figures and heads of the three characters in Stalker: on a handcar, in a bar, outside the Room. The home which the protagonists remember and dream of in The Mirror, Solaris and Nostalghia contrasted with the burning house in The Sacrifice. The panoramic front shot of the stairs in Nostalghia and the vertical downward travelling shot in the dream from The Sacrifice. A theme and its variations, the tempo: adagio. Tarkovsky – music.

Jan Topolski