Mr McFall’s Chamber

RevolucionarioIt sounds like a Scottish literary euphemism for Hell. Mr McFall, the fallen one, and his chamber of horrors; a fiery anteroom, possibly, presided over by a kilted Lucifer, playing the bagpipes for All Eternity.

Of course, nothing could be further from the reality of McFall being a slightly crumpled gentleman from Morningside who runs a band of talented maverick classical musicians, looking to escape the formal strictures of their day jobs as members of Scotland’s various tie n’ tux ensembles, by playing arrangements of Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix numbers, tango songs and wonky commissions from the lunatic fringe of the contemporary music fraternity.

I came across them in November 2002. I was planning a day out for my Dad, whose 58th birthday we were celebrating. My mum had died in October of the previous year, and my brother had moved to Cardiff, so it was just the two of us. The Sunday Herald ran a pretty comprehensive gig guide in those days, and this was listed as a free event at St Andrew’s in the Square, a gorgeous 18th century chapel in the Calton, just off Saltmarket, which had recently been renovated and turned into a stunning new venue.

The concert was in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, so perfectly timed for me to meet Dad out of his Spanish class and get some lunch beforehand. I had no idea what to expect. My Dad’s pretty open-minded when it comes to music like this, so I wasn’t worried about that; myself, less so. I’d read a review or two that praised them for the adventurousness of their programming as much as for their performing pedigree. But reviews can be subjective. I put it to my Dad and we agreed that even if the music was rubbish, there was always the venue to admire.

For some reason, the first week in November always seems to show the best of the autumn. If you’re lucky, if the rain stays away, the colours, the light, the stillness can be as beautiful as anything you will see. We turned up, in good time, and filed our way in, not quite trusting our luck that this was a free gig. Outside, it was a perfectly still day. Cold, crisp, a little overcast. But as we took our seats and became more aware of the splendour of the church’s interior, outside the sun began to shine. And through centuries old glass, ripples of light drifted in, bringing autumn colours of bronze and gold from the trees in the square, lighting up the glorious interior with its gilded motifs and stark white walls.

It became apparent as soon as everyone had taken their seats that this concert was for the benefit of a BBC recording. There were mikes and desks and people with enormous headphones everywhere. And standing out in front, introducing the proceedings was a man who possessed the voice of BBC Radio 3’s breakfast show presenter, Sandy Burnett. So that’s what he looked like! And even if thought him a bit of a dry stick, I always enjoyed his voice: richly timbred and unfailingly precise – and sadly missing from the schedules these ten years or so.

Sandy introduced the first song, a fittingly seasonal Astor Piazzola composition called Otoño Porteño, by asking us to listen out for the first few notes which are scratched on the strings behind the bridge of the violin, giving a rasping sound. Unheard of in classical repertoire, these sounds are idiomatic to Argentinian tango music where they could be said to represent the sound of the cicada – indeed, the notation of this device is often represented by its Spanish name, chicharra. And at that, McFall’s bow launched us into a gorgeous recital of Piazzola arrangements and tango songs, as warm and sumptuous as our surroundings, as clear and bright as the day outside.

It’s one of my favourite concerts, and for many reasons. Partly it’s the element of surprise: I was already a fan of Piazzola – having discovered him through a Mexican celllist friend of A-‘s in Perpignan in the mid 90s – and I was hearing him anew in Mr McFall’s ingenious bandoneonless arrangements. Surprise, too, from the tango songs, a genre new to me, and delivered with fabulous panache by the band, particularly their singer Valentina Montoya Martinez and her elemental interpretations. Partly, it was the air of theatricality brought by the RECORDING lights and various bits of radio paraphernalia. Partly it was that place, that light. Partly cos it was a freebie (and Dad loves a freebie).

It was a thing for my Dad and I, a perfect serendipitous gift of an afternoon and one I would dearly love to relive. It made me a lifetime fan of Mr McFall and his chamber of wonders.

I saw them again soon after at the Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite. I had raved about this concert in the church to my girlfriend C- who was keen to hear them too, so we went at the next available opportunity. The one thing I remember was a performance of John Cage’s Water Music for solo piano, a virtuoso display of timing – musical and comic – by pianist Graeme McNaught, which seemed to capture the essence and spirit of John Cage at his best. Played straight and taken seriously, but clever and funny and brilliant and like nothing else you’re ever likely to hear. Another perfect little gift.

I saw Mr McFall’s Chamber once more, at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh. That gig is mostly memorable for me because of some music I heard over the PA before the concert started and which transfixed me in exactly the same way as Ana fil houb had done five years earlier. I asked an usher, who directed me to the front of house manager, who directed me to the sound engineer, who gave me the name of a CD that he had been playing during the tour.

But that all seems like a whole other chapter.

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The Double Life of Veronique

Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1991)
with Irene Jacob

VeroniqueIt’s the music that moves me first. Always with Kieslowski’s films, it’s the music. Always composed by Zbigniew Preisner, and often in the guise of his alter ego, Van Den Budemeyer who indeed makes an appearance here – possibly the director’s way of acknowledging the importance of Preisner’s scores in his movies, that they are like characters in themselves.

The Double Life of Veronique, I think I’m right in saying, was the film that made Kieslowski’s name in the West, as it used to be called, when anything past Berlin was considered “East”. The film was released in 1991 to massive acclaim and a bunch of prizes at Cannes, just a couple of years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a year before the unification of Europe in Maastricht. There’s an east/west theme going on in the film, which I hadn’t previously considered, but which seems obvious now.

The Double Life… is the story of two Veronicas – well, one Veronique, French, and one Weronika, Polish – who are twins, of a sort. While they may look identical, they are unrelated – they have no family relationship that we know of, but there are many correspondences that unite the two. Both have been brought up by their fathers. Both are musicially talented. Both are generous and loving, and a bit lost. These connections seem to be mostly spiritual or psychic, some circumstantial, but there is also a crucial physical connection – of the heart, no less. Both Veronicas suffer from a heart condition, indeed the Polish Weronika dies of hers early in the film. French Veronique is given a kind of intuitive/ telekinetic insight through the experiences of her spiritual twin that allows her to avoid the same fate as her Polish double. She quits singing. Quits smoking. Chucks the needy lover. And, vitally, she gets her heart checked out at the hospital, meaning she gets to live.

The what-if double-life story is fantastic. It feels almost like one of the seven original stories you hear writers and dramaturgs talking about. It’s not the first time Kieslowski used the ‘double life’ theme – Blind Chance from 1982 engages similar themes, and elements of both films were given a slick make-over several years later in the hit rom-dram Sliding Doors.

As you’d expect, there’s a lot going on, much of it at a symbolic level. The Double Life of Veronique is rich in visual metaphors, reflections, repetitions, inversions, prisms, cracks in the glass. The camera sometimes occupies impossible subjective points of view – for example, by taking you over the heads of the audience when Weronka dies on stage, her soul obviously leaving the building; or looking up from the bottom of the grave as her bereaved family throw earth down on to her coffin. Sound design plays a huge part, too, and not just in Preisner’s beautiful and affecting score. A key sequence that leads Veronique to her suitor is a sonic detective story through the sound world around Gare St. Lazare. The moment when she discovers the photo of her Polish double, by contrast, is delivered in austere, pained silence.

It’s been years since I watched The Double Life of Veronique. I don’t quite know what I’m expecting when I watch the film back again. I don’t really remember watching it for a first time, don’t really remember when that might have been. Before I lived in Poland? 1993, maybe? I remember a VHS tape with the title pencilled along the face of the cassette, a recording from the good old days of Channel Four, when you could rely on quality films, usually late – but not graveyard shift late – like at 11pm, several times a week.

I love the reflexivity of the storytelling, the way that the marionette artist tells Veronique a version of her own story back to her. I love the games Kieslowski plays with sound and image, all the stuff I’ve listed above. And I love the very last beat of the film. Veronique’s father, pensive at his workbench, waiting for his daughter to come and ask him some difficult questions he’s been shirking the whole of her life. Was that actually her twin in Krakow?

There’s a lot to love, too, about Irene Jacob’s performance. Yes, I fancied her. I think, like every guy at the time, I always assumed I’d meet and fall in love with someone like Irene Jacob. It’s a natural performance, rather than a technical one – much as the musical director describes Weronika’s singing in the Polish scenes. She’s not had the shit trained out of her, let’s say that. She draws you in, makes you want to know too the mystery that she’s trying to solve within herself. It’s a tender and naive performance, which is exactly perfect for this role, which is about a uniquely affected young woman learning about herself. In portraying this, Jacob is note-perfect.

After watching, what am I left with? Disbelief that this film is 25 years old? Partly. That’s a lot of water under the bridge and it makes me pine for those late nights staying up watching weird films on Channel Four, hoping you’d find a good one. You felt that you were discovering something that was just for you, rather than something packaged and sold to you via some search engine algorithm, or because of what you already “liked”. But I don’t suppose it matters how you find stuff, in the end, as long as you’re looking and keep open mind.

Kieslowski was, probably still is, my favourite film maker. I love him for the way that he – and his excellent cast – can bring out difficult to access emotions. I love how he can layer meaning and metaphor, weave stories within stories, without ever being too clever or too obscure. I love the stories he tells.

Mostly, watching The Double Life of Veronique makes me want to live in that world again. It makes me want to revisit Dekalog and The Three Colours Trilogy. It makes me want to find my Veronica.