JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Between Two Notes (Director: Florence Strauss) - April 2, 2007
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Between Two Notes

4 4
85 min.

Paradise Lost?

There are two kinds of music: good and bad—the distinction’s in the ears of the beholder. Even as the planet gets smaller (and deadlier) and cultures intermingle either literally or via digital downloads, one wonders if world music might revert back to a single source and style or whether countless new forms of aural expression will, like blogs, provide anyone a platform for their music. What did Adam sing to Eve in the cradle of civilization lo those many centuries ago?

In Between Two Notes, Florence Strauss has provided some of the answer to the future by delving into her heritage and, simultaneously, stirred up the notions of how traditions are passed down and the role of art as peacemaker: quite a feat in just 85 minutes!

The storied past and current state of the art of “classical” Arab music (although it seems more like “traditional”) is examined from Egypt to Israel, Lebanon to Syria using Iraq and the Tigris & Euphrates Rivers as the geographical cantus firmus. In the early going, clips from black-and-white television are an especial treat for the eye and the ear: Oum Koulsoum’s rendition of “Al Zaman”—resplendent in a glittering gown that would make Liberace drool—brought the SRO crowd to its feet; Mohammed Abdelwahab and his orchestra broadcast from a studio set that would have been perfectly suitable for Lawrence Welk. But while the visual presentations foreshadow globalization, the great divide between East and West music is readily apparent from the first strum of the eleven-string ouds (predecessor of the lute) and fairuz, wood flutes/recorders, qanun (similar to a zither) and percussion (tambourines, triangles, and cymbals).

But it’s not so much the colour of the instruments but the division of pitch that gives the music its unique characteristic. The extensive use of quarter tones in the underlying harmonic structure and the deeply felt melodies magically induce a “tarab” (state of ecstasy and surrender while listening “body and soul” to music). Major scales need not apply! Still, the emergence of a single perfect fourth following a solo cantor’s extended declamation of much-closer intervals is as welcome as water in the desert; an extended oud cadenza (accompanied by punchy chords then long, unison pedals) shows the twin links to concerto form and jazz (and most certainly these are two-way streets).

Vocally, the close-pitch voices bring the songs of love, pain and redemption to life with a nasal production, edgy vowels and guttural consonants that are more in tune with their reedy, instrumental colleagues than Western voices with “modern” instruments.

From several practitioners (happily, right across the generations) the power of music to heal and bring people together is tellingly reinforced. Zohar Fresco just cares about the music and wants to play with others “no matter where they are from.” Many agree that this music is “a religion of peace [where] all are accepted.”

Strauss wisely lets the music speak for itself (the tracks are first-rate) and with Laurent Brunet’s magnificent images (underscoring the sound with wide shots of water, sand, barbed wire, formidable walls and young love blossoming) brings her vision of hope and warning of loss (Who will ensure that this rich aural history will be lovingly handed down when its roots are threatened by centuries-old conflict, resources envy and a decaying environment?) into sharp focus. Perhaps that’s where Western music can show the way. For it is the only music that features counterpoint: two or more ideas co-existing, creating tension, drama and dissonance before finally finding resolution that satisfies all who choose to hear its message. JWR

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