Tarkovsky Quartet, created and led by pianist François Couturier, is one of the most fascinating genre-defying ensembles I have encountered. In my personal catalog, recordings of the group are kept in the jazz section; but this is definitely a group whose approach to jazz is “chamber music by other means.” The other three members of the quartet are a cellist (Anja Lechner), a soprano saxophonist (Jean-Marc Larché), and an accordionist (Jean-Louis Matinier). Such an ensemble can just as easily be taken as a chamber music ensemble playing “jazz by other means.”
The fact is that the group is in a class by itself, which is why it is so well named. Anyone who has seen one of the few works of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (providing one has the patience to follow his dream-like detachment from both space and time as we know those physical properties) will quickly appreciate that he, too, is in a class by himself. The group made its recording debut on ECM in 2006 with an album entitled Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky, described on the back cover as “Music inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, his favorite actors, and the way he plays with shades of colour and sound.” This was followed in 2011 by the release of an album entitled simply Tarkovsky Quartet. This Friday ECM will release the group’s third album, Nuit blanche (white night); and, as is usually the case, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders.
Couturier clearly put a lot of thought into the structure of this album. It has a “spinal cord” in the form of seven tracks that are pure improvisations. Six of them have the title “dream;” but they unfold as three pairs, each of which gives the title in a different language, first French (rêve), then English (dream), and finally German (Traum). The seventh improvisation, situated between English and German, is entitled “Vertigo.” There are also pieces by Couturier entitled “Daydream” and “Nightdream;” and the final track is a joint compositional effort entitled “Rêve étrange…” (strange dream). These are all relatively brief pieces; and the only really lengthy composition (a little over eleven minutes in duration) occurs in the middle of the cycle of the album. Couturier gave this piece the ambiguous title “Urga;” and the accompanying booklet offers nothing to resolve the ambiguity.
There are also allusions to other musical sources. Couturier’s “Dakus” draws upon Toru Takemitsu’s “Nostalghia,” which was Takemitsu’s own effort to memorialize Tarkovsky. Similarly, the quartet plays their collective arrangement of the “Cum dederit delectis suis somnum” (as he gives sleep to those in whom he delights) movement from Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus, music that Tarkovsky was listening to when he was working on his film Stalker. Finally, Couturier and Lechner collaborated on an arrangement of the fifteenth-century chanson “Quant ien congneu a ma pensee.” In this context it is worth recalling that the Tarkovsky Quartet album included arrangements of music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. (Couturier and Lechner would then explore Pergolesi in greater depth in their Il Pergolese ECM album.)
Taken as a whole, Nuit blanche is an adventurous foray that tends to push the envelope of what we take to be “serious listening.” Those of us willing to buy into Couturier’s premises will probably find this a highly engaging album. Nevertheless, one has to recognize that this is very much “context-sensitive” music; and most of that context involves the continuing influence of Tarkovsky on how this group approaches performance based on both composition and improvisation. Those unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s work may still be able to take this music on its own terms. Those who have seen one or more of Tarkovsky’s films and have gone away perplexed might experience similar perplexity when listening to the Tarkovsky Quartet. On the other hand there is the distinct possibility that this music may serve as a “point of entry” for those who have not yet seen any of those films.