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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New documentary Traces to Nowhere takes a look at the elusive conductor Carlos Kleiber

The Austrian documentary Traces to Nowhere, newly released on DVD, doesn't do much to explain the little enigmas that still surround the reclusive conductor Carlos Kleiber... which is a good thing. We hear some details of his life: Kleiber (1930-2004) was the son of another well-known conductor, and even when his own reputation seemed to equal or surpass that of his father's, he oddly never felt he measured up. His father remained a giant in his mind. There are other details about his life, the admiration and enmity that his idiosyncratic style and fast success earned him, his unusual death, and so on.

But one of the film's strengths lies in its skirting away from a preponderance of biographical detail and towards the use of archival footage of the conductor at work: This sounds like it would be a little dull (“Hey, wanna watch some archival footage of a Serbian conductor rehearsing with the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1970s?” “Er, no thanks. There's an ice cube I was planning to watch melt.”) But the conductor actually had a beautiful and precise way of verbally translating his vision of a score to his musicians that's exciting to watch, even for non-musicians and those who may not normally be fans of classical music.

“Play this section as if you believe in ghosts,” sounds like nonsense, but an interview with a flutist—who still precisely recalled the odd direction 40 years after the fact—suggests otherwise, as does hearing the orchestra play the piece with the direction in mind. Kleiber had an image for every phrase, but it was the precision and accuracy of his imagination—its practical effect and the artistry he was able to pull out of an orchestra—that made him such a great conductor. Part of a conductor's job is to know how to get the best out of other people. Kleiber was also visually arresting—one of the interviewees describes him as an Apollo at the podium—his vivid, expressive movements closer to dance and his lived, in-the-moment, emotive expressions bore a close relation to the best acting.

The documentary is well put together: the interview subjects—his sister, other conductors, musicians and singers including Placido Domingo—speak in mostly glowing and admiring terms about his artistry, but we do hear some of the problematic aspects of his character: he was much loved, but no one would describe him as an easy person to know. (And the archival footage is also surprisingly sharp and crisp by the way: Austrians must know how and why to store such things).

Part of the mystery surrounding Kleiber is due to the fact that he never gave interviews. He was a fan of Eastern philosophy, and a phrase from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi “Leave no traces” was particularly close to his heart. Though he tried to live his life according to that doctrine, the documentary is, ironically, a testament to its opposite: a great artist always leaves lasting traces. It's a well-constructed, if knowingly incomplete, look at a complicated and fascinating man.

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