Niki Vasilakis remembers taking “violin lessons multiple times a week” as a child. She also remembers that her brothers and sisters, along with her parents, would go with her. They would sit in the car doing their homework, she says, while she was inside with the teacher, two hours each session. She adds, “I began to learn the violin because I had behavioral problems,” and her parents hoped the instrument would help her to focus. “If it had been now,” Vasilakis smiles, “They probably would have put me on medication or something.”
The anecdote suggests Vasilakis’ good fortune, that her family was both supportive and resourceful, as well as her awareness of same. Now, as she speaks for the documentary 4 — premiering as part of PBS’ “Global Voices” on 15 May — Vasilakis is embarked on a journey. Along with other young Australian musicians, she’s traveling from her home in Adelaide to the north, Alice Springs, to play a concert. As they travel, they contemplate the red, dry, summertime landscape — and the heat. “It can be an absolute life stealer,” she notes. The experience helps her to understand the music she’s playing, The Four Seasons ( Le quattro stagioni) by Vivaldi. The concerto titled “Summer,” she says, “has references to this farmer whose crops have been destroyed,” and during the trip, she sees this story repeated in farmers’ experiences around her. “All I see is this grief and this pain,” she observes, “So many people that are suffering at the moment because of drought. The land can be something that causes the most amazing grief.”
The film illustrates her observations in a series of images, long shots of parched land, close-ups of desiccate grasses. Her fellow travelers, with different sorts of backgrounds, describe what they see differently. A helicopter pilot, Chris Collins, enthuses, “Dawn, I think, is the most beautiful time in this country.” As you imagine he’s seen more than a few spectacular versions of this moment, the film demonstrates with a shot of early morning light peeping pinkly through tree branches. But before you feel too delighted, the scene cuts to another wild, dry horizon, as Collins cautions, “You really do need to be prepared… people have died of lack of water.”
The seasons are vivid in 4. Certainly, the music is: the four violin concertos are performed by four artists in four locations, each a striking instance of the season at hand. The film suggests this particular composition is “universal,” in that all of the artists use it as an example of how music traverses times and places, passes on traditions and inspires transformations — no matter the particular culture or history.
Each of the film’s four sections ends with the piece played on stage, each artist manifesting his or her lifetime’s worth of study and work. And the film makes clear its own work and investment, each segment set in an environment that seems especially apt, not to say extreme. The film opens on Spring in Tokyo, with an emphasis on cherry blossoms. “Japanese love something which is not staying forever,” says violinist Sayaka Shoji, “something that is staying forever is not beautiful for us. Everything will change and maybe disappear, appear and disappear.” Her paean to transience is illustrated in brief shots of pink blossoms, tourists with cameras, punky blue and red-haired girls in black leather and studs, and dogs on leashes — all part of the scene in a city park, all appreciating the moment of change. Shoji, like Vasilakis, recalls her first encounters with the instrument she now plays and teaches, at the Tho Gakuen School in Tokyo. “When I was four, I went to Italy, to Sienna. I lived there about two years, and there I met violin.” She didn’t know its name at first, she says, but pointed it out on television to her parents and imitated playing it, using chopsticks. “When violin arrived in my house and I opened the case,” she smiles, “It was there such a big impact.”
Such stories grant the glorious, familiar music of 4 a welcome specificity. Just as Shoji describes each sound for her students — “The bird song is a conversation three of you play,” she instructs, and “Dogs are meant to be faithful, they have to always be on watch” — each season here is shaped as much by the artist as by the location. Cho-Liang (Jimmy) Lin lives in New York, an ideal place to observe the Fall, he says. “You start notice the leaves turning and you have to go into the park to see it… I love seeing the very clear turning points.”
While the film offers expected shots of orange and yellow leaves, it also comes up with an occasional surprise. Interviewee on the street Karen Lubeck, for instance, describes a simultaneous immersion and distance from the city. Though she grew up in suburban Philadelphia, she says, she’s now a New Yorker. “When I moved here, I felt my entire body clock change. I began talking faster and walking faster.” The city’s pace and the attitude changed, Lin adds, following 9/11. “Whether it’s the Yankees or the 9/11 event, there’s a certain unity among New Yorkers,” he says, “After 9/11, people don’t think of New York as this imperious, invincible city any more.” Rather, it’s a city defined by Autumn, a season of harvest and transition, of loss and renewal.
The same might be said of the Winter represented in 4, set not in a city, but in Finnish Lapland. Amid the predictable shots of snow and dogsleds and ice hockey, Pekka Kuusisto — a classical and jazz violinist — explains what it’s like to live in a place where the “sun doesn’t go up for several weeks at a time.” During winter, he says, people in Finland indulge in drinking and partying “because there’s nothing else to do.” The environment also provides context for Vivaldi’s composition, says the boyish, boisterous Kuusisto, its cycles and changes. “This landscape, you really feel it’s been here forever and it puts things in perspective. We’re here for only a short moment.” He makes the same case for music, “here forever and I am touching it for a moment.”