Regina Carter: Paganini: After a Dream

Alison Wong

Regina Carter

Paganini: After a Dream

Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2003-04-22
UK Release Date: 2003-04-28

Regina Carter hit the newsstands at the end of 2001 by becoming the first non-Classical musician and first African American to play the renowned Paganini violin "Il Cannone". Paganini: After a Dream, a figurative title that alludes to the album as the showcase housing the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, features the violinist playing "Il Cannone", a feat matched only by a handful of violinists in the world. Make no mistake in underestimating the magnitude of this achievement.

Nicknamed "Il Cannone" (the Cannon) for its grandiose and booming voice, the violin boasts an impressive heritage worthy of royalty. It was crafted by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Guarneri in 1742 and owned by the legendary classical violinist Nicolò Paganini, whose talent was such that rumors circulated that it came from the devil, to whom Paganini had sold his soul. Upon Paganini's death in 1840, the violin was bequeathed to the city of Genoa, where it now resides with its own set of bodyguards and caretaker. An audience with the violin requires square dancing around various commissions and institutes with more pomp and circumstance than it takes to meet the queen.

The violin is physically bigger than average; of German descent, its sound box is shorter but thicker, and belly is more rounded to produce a fleshier, fuller sound. The vibrating string is longer and that's what gives it the resonating bass and sweet upper register quality. The sound that Carter produces is delicious; her playing is flawless with a technique that underlines her classical training.

After playing the violin in concert in Genoa to hyped up worldwide media attention and multiple standing ovations, Carter capitalized upon this by recording Paganini: After a Dream 10 months later. The album consists of several modified pieces from the French Impressionist movement of the early 20th century, a piece by the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, a light cinematic piece by Ennio Morricone, a composition by pianist Werner Gierig and a Carter original. The musical content represents a departure from the innovative jazz that Carter has produced to date that has announced her as a worthy successor to the likes of Stephane Grappelli and Jean Luc Ponty. The official guardians of the violin insisted that only classical music be recorded on the album, suggesting that playing jazz on the instrument would be degrading and an insult. This has a slight detrimental effect on the album, where Carter's answer was not to "play like a classical player", but to "bridge the two worlds". When you listen to the album, at times it appears that the bridge is one of those rocky wooden swing bridges with several missing planks. In particular, the opening track seems to be more of a fighting compromise on Carter's stance as a jazz musician.

The first track "Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte" by Maurice Ravel plays on the ear as being a little too Disney-esque, to tell the truth. The opening begins with piano and soaring strings in unison with a sound that appears to have been transported straight from Fantasia. The hauntingly simple melody that follows is the perfect entrance for the violin. Its voice is commanding yet mellifluous, but unfortunately it doesn't benefit from the rhythmic play arrangement. Coupled with the Andrew Lloyd Webber-style piano and orchestral violin backdrop, it comes across as a shameless attempt to tug at your heartstrings to delve into the center of your emotional angst. It improves as Carter segues into a jazz/salon interlude, but on the whole the piece doesn't seem to hold itself together.

Pianist Werner "Vana" Gierig's composition, "Healing in Foreign Lands", is overly sentimental and lacking in substance. That said, it's probably the one piece on this album where, if you can get past the uninspiring melody, you can really sink your teeth into sound of the violin. The slow tempo with long sustained notes enables you to hear the purity of its tone, the richness of its timbre, the beauty of its soul. Now who's being sentimental? Yes, but the violin truly is all that and more.

There are three tracks that really stand out as positively scandalous. In a juicy way. In a way that makes your toes curl. The first is "Pavane" by Gabriel Fauré. The original melody is almost lost in the unrepentant jazz treatment, but the key is the sexy upright bass with its solid pizzicato support. The second track is Debussy's "Rêverie", where Carter swings and slides her way around without a care in the world for bureaucracy or stylistic impediments. The third is Luiz Bonfa's "Black Orpheus", a light R&B soundtrack number with a gorgeous lyrical cello part that intertwines with the violin melody.

This was an ambitious project that, despite the numerous restrictions, Carter pulled off with panache. The music may not be wholly engaging, but as I said before, make no mistake in underestimating the magnitude of this achievement. Listen to history being made.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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