Monsaingeon’s films are not documentaries in the standard sense. He has no patience for simply filming reality. For him, the camera is not a neutral instrument and his work requires that he stage a musical process and not just relay a musical performance. The starting question is whether an artist is just a musician or can he also be a hero? Most great artists go beyond their instrument – they have other aspects of genius.
Across his great body of art, one theme he has been pursuing has been Russia. He has films on the Soviet school of violin playing (Op. 15), Viktoria Postnikova (Op. 18), a 4-hand recital with Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Op. 19), performances in Russia by Barbara Hendricks, Yehudi Menuhin (Opp. 33, 35, 36), and so on. The question he’s seeking an answer to is ‘what system is more favourable to the great artists: a democratic one or a totalitarian one?’ By ‘totalitarian’ he doesn’t mean communism or fascism, or the like, but any constraining system. By his definition, Bach was working under the totalitarian system of the church, and, under that regime, produced phenomenal works.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky: Profession: Conductor
To create his films, Monsaingeon requires a close relationship with his subject. There has to be a sense of mutual complicity between them. The process of completing a film may take years – for his film on Sviatoslav Richter (Op. 58), for example, they had been talking for 25 years before Richter agreed that a project could be done, be it a film or a book. In the end, it was both.
Richter: The Enigma
You’ll have noted that, like composers, Monsaingeon gives his works Opus numbers. This enables his audience to know where the film falls within Monsaingeon’s oeuvre and which exact film is under discussion. The Glenn Gould films are Op. 2, 20, 21, 22, 29, or 73, for example.
For his first film with Glenn Gould, Monsaingeon wrote to him in Toronto in 1971, speaking to him of a recording by Gould that had changed his life. As Monsaingeon was at the beginning of his film career, he didn’t have much experience in filmmaking, but did have a deep experience in music. After some months, Gould wrote back that his ideas about filming interested him and to please come visit him in Toronto, as he no longer travelled. That led to a first film in 1974 and a final film in 2006, the last reflecting on the effect Gould had on his listeners. Monsaingeon had received tens of thousands of letters from viewers sharing their own Gould experiences and Monsaingeon used that correspondence as the basis for Glenn Gould Hereafter (Op. 73)
Glenn Gould Hereafter Monsaingeon believes Gould to be the consummate pianist of the 20th century and he finds that Gould’s genius has a way of transcending time and space – each new generation discovers him anew. Gould may have been dead for 35 years, but he keeps growing in popularity.
Once the filming is done, the editing takes next priority. Monsaingeon builds his film and doesn’t rely on chronology, but builds a coherent story. This is something that Monsaingeon credits Glenn Gould for teaching him. During the ten years of work that the two collaborated on, Gould was very much part of the film and editing process.
Recently, Monsaingeon’s films have looked to a younger generation of performers, including the violinists Valeriy Sokolov (Op. 72, 80, 83, 84) and Gilles Apap (Op. 52, 53, 61), and pianists Piotr Anderszewski (Op. 66, 77, 78, 81) and David Fray (Op. 76, 80, 82). In capturing these young players at the start of their career, he’s thinking about the opportunities he missed: what if he had been able to catch Gould, or Menuhin, or any of the other greats he’s filmed when they were young? What a story that would have been.
Monsaingeon believes that his films should outlast him and continue to affect and influence musicians and music lovers for decades to come. His intimate style of filming and the stories he tells make this a continuing reality.
Next: A Different Story than Film: Bruno Monsaingeon’s Books and Performances