'Music': Harmony With a Few Dissonant Notes

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

"It's not drudgery," says Dick, one of the large cast of Philadelphia Orchestra musicians identified only by first name in Daniel Anker's documentary "Music From the Inside Out." But what he really means is, it's not drudgery so long as you can still reconnect with what first made music meaningful to you. Good advice for anyone who is doing what they always wanted to do and finding it a bit routine.

Anker's movie, which follows members of one of the country's greatest orchestras as it tours the world, skates around the drudgery question. We don't see lonely musicians closeted in practice rooms, and when they come together to play one of the great monuments of the repertoire -- Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony or Brahms's First Symphony -- there's no reminder that each of them has played these same pieces perhaps hundreds of times before.

Still, the musicians give enough unfiltered access to their lives to suggest the tensions and frustrations of making music as one cog in a very big, and often authoritarian, machine. For some, there is a struggle between submitting to the conductor's vision and maintaining some shred of independence or personality. There is the disappointment of those who aspired to solo careers and ended up in an orchestra. And there's a recurrent sense of loneliness and alienation that leads many musicians to take refuge in music as a bulwark against their own social isolation.

The first of the film's three sections leaves one with a rather bleak view of the great core repertoire of the orchestra. Adam, a horn player, got a jazz degree. Jazz for him is "a looser way to play," in contrast to orchestral work, which, he says, is "artistically frustrating" at times. Zack finds the same release in bluegrass and fiddling. Nitzan, a trombone player, heads off to jam in a Latin music club after his regular Thursday night orchestra performance.

The director's point, most likely, is the usual ideological one: Music is music is music, no matter what its style, purpose or supposed status in the world. But the darker message is that playing in an orchestra is so limiting that sane musicians need other outlets.

As the film progresses, that unintended message takes on grander existential implications. Although no one can quite articulate it, being part of an orchestra puts the individual in constant contact with music so grand and utopian that it can either ennoble or wreck the soul. It demands from those who make it essentially the same bargain that the religious must make with God: You submit and serve, in return for a deeper sense of participation in the sublime.

The problem is that music can't reward one in the same sense that many people believe God can. Ultimately, it is a human project, and the grandeur and sublimity it projects is simply the product of another human imagination. Submission to the divine is one thing; submission to the imagination of a deeply flawed man with a bad temper who lived two centuries ago and went by the name of Beethoven is another. The perversity of orchestral life is that it requires the yoking together of individual human beings to create music about independence, individual dignity and freedom.

The most moving stories collected in this documentary hint, in one way or another, at the importance of selflessness among the players. We learn the full name of concertmaster David Kim when we see a clip of him, in 1986, competing in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Violin Competition. He took a medal and seemed to be on the verge of fulfilling his mother's ready-made dream for him before he was born: to be a concert soloist.

"I got pretty close at some point," he says. But the gigs got smaller and further in between, and one day, after watching the movie "Jerry Maguire" -- about a man who reassesses his ambitions -- Kim gave up and joined an orchestra.

It was, he says, a liberating but difficult epiphany.

"Now I really feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the whole world," he says.

The emotional challenges many of these musicians confront would make a lot more sense if the filmmaker made a better case for why the classical music written from the early years of the 18th century through the middle decades of the 20th century is, in fact, different from other music.

For about 250 years, composers from Bach and Beethoven to Schoenberg constructed music with radically bigger ambitions than anything that had been made (in Western society) before them. Breaking free of preordained religious and political ideas about humanity, they offered a new sense, in sound, of what it meant to be and feel human. Their music suggested an unprecedented complexity and daring in the human project. It put the mortal individual at the center of the emotional and philosophical universe.

Toiling in service to such grand visions is humbling, exhilarating and exhausting. The classical pianist who turns to jazz after a long day of playing Bach and Beethoven isn't necessarily making a case for the equivalence of these two different types of music; rather, like a guy who does theoretical physics by day and unwinds with pickup basketball in the evening, the musician takes a break, looks for other rewards (often social) and flexes different muscles.

Orchestral musicians suffer the double indignity (or blessing) of living within the unreasonably grand visions of men such as Brahms and Mahler, and doing so as essentially anonymous worker bees. Their entire existence embodies a series of contradictions: vassals of utopian dreams, slaves to a fantasy of freedom, servants of an ideal of liberation.

Federico Fellini probably got this basic absurdity of orchestral life best in his 1978 "Orchestra Rehearsal," in which open rebellion breaks out among the members of a tyrannized orchestra. His was a brutally comic vision of the basic contradictions of orchestral life.

"Music From the Inside Out" has a softer touch, and some powerful moments, including a passage in which one of Brahms's most devastatingly beautiful melodies results from stitching together snatches of the tune from individual players. The filmmaker also got extraordinary access to the musicians, a rarity in a business perpetually hampered by paranoid public relations directors and their fatal inability to know what, in fact, is actually interesting about what orchestras do.

Is it a great film? Not quite. It flits from idea to idea too promiscuously and relies too much on the visually deadening use of people talking on camera. For some incomprehensible reason, none of the music used is identified, except in the credits -- as if it doesn't really matter what we're hearing. But among the dull passages there are some moving stories, and a very loving sympathy for the people it profiles.

Music From the Inside Out (97 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains nothing objectionable even to the finest sensitivities.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company