A viewing of Solaris as a child introduced Australian Chamber Orchestra artistic director Richard Tognetti to the power of music in film. By Neha Kale.
Richard Tognetti has spent more than 30 years as the artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. With Tognetti at the helm, the ACO – which this weekend is hosting an opening festival to commemorate its new home at Walsh Bay’s Pier 2/3 – has garnered multiple Grammy, ARIA and Helpmann awards. The company has attracted global renown for interdisciplinary collaborations with the likes of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, director Jennifer Peedom and artist Bill Henson, taking it – in Tognetti’s words – “out of our little classical music bubble” in the process.
Tognetti, who is passionate and refreshingly candid, trained as a violinist under Alice Waten at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He was introduced to the Suzuki method by William Primrose when he was growing up in Wollongong.
There, as a boy, he became entranced by the films of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris – in which psychologist Kris Kelvin is dispatched to a space station that orbits a distant planet (from which the film takes its title) and cosmonauts grapple with memories sparked by a sentient ocean – still sends psychic ripples across his life and work.
For this column, you’ve chosen to speak about the 1972 science fiction film Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is an epic film that challenges ideas about truth and humanity and is based on a novel by the Polish writer Stanisław Lem. When did you first see it?
I heard the music first before I saw the film. My father was a mathematician at the University of Wollongong, [which hosted] film nights. And oh my god, the things I saw! My poor mum went to see A Clockwork Orange on her own and after the film she went to ring my dad to tell him to pick her up and she couldn’t remember her phone number. I saw all these films and one of them was Solaris. My father had somehow seen it before.
My father gave me the gift of music. He was an original environmentalist in the area, one of the first to plant native plants. He would play the chorale prelude of Bach [which features in Solaris] on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. I remember falling in love with it.
It was only much later I was aware that the composer, Eduard Artemyev, had composed for my other favourite Tarkovsky movie, Stalker. He was an electronic music composer who had reworked the music of Bach. The chorale prelude is called Ich ruf zu dir. It speaks to Jesus and says “I call to you”. It had a profound effect on me. And then when I saw the film [at 12], I was completely blown away.
Critic Roger Ebert once described Tarkovsky’s films as environments rather than entertainments and, when I was watching Solaris, I was struck by the opening sequence. Kris Kelvin spends time in his father’s house on Earth. The water flows into a brook. These long takes are designed to slow the viewer down. You almost enter this state of meditation or trance.
The shots don’t stay too long but it is long enough for you to be absorbed by the film. You feel like you are really there. You’ve crossed the threshold, haven’t you? You are travelling with them, wherever they are. And isn’t it amazing, at the end, you realise, “Oh – we’re not at home. We’re out there in Solaris.”
A few years ago, I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception. And I just hated it beyond anything I’ve ever seen because the music was so in your face, I couldn’t absorb the film. When Tarkovsky draws on Bach, the music leads the emotional dance.
Because I’d already considered myself pretentiously to be a violinist, when I was 11, I realised, then, the power of music to lead in a film. What I’ve learnt through all the films we’ve made – Musica Surfica, Master and Commander – is when you get strong audio impulses and strong visual impulses, they can cancel each other out. It’s like going to a rave party. You end up being numbed by overload. A lot of directors go too slow. That’s the other way around. That’s why people get bored. But in a film by Tarkovsky, he somehow manages to get this balance right.
Tarkovsky broke with the conventions of Soviet realism and hated normal dramatic structure in film – he wanted instead to show the dream, the thought and the memory.
It’s always the dream! When you bring people into a state of art, you want the Stendhal effect, when you are bowled over and you can barely talk, and you feel overwhelmed. But if you got that every time, it would be slightly ridiculous. I watched the Grammys the other night and it is like the audience is experiencing the Stendhal effect every time a pop star walks on stage. It’s offensive! It’s kind of like an end-of-days Roman gorging. Tarkovsky is the opposite of that. It’s about hypnotising the audience into a dreamlike state so you can start telling your story.
For me, the more compelling part of Solaris is the way the planet enters the minds of the cosmonauts and the return of Kelvin’s late wife, Hari. To me it gets at the way our own fantasies and ideals can shape love. What scene has stayed with you over the years? And how does his treatment of memory shape you as an artist?
The levitation scene [which features] Hunters in the Snow, a [1565 painting] by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir. A sense of discombobulated unease is pitted against a sense of love and comfort. It occurs as we experience weightlessness of space due to a temporary loss of gravity within the spaceship.
The yearning of humans and replicants is exacerbated as they float out in space, prisoners of memories. Traumatised but somehow transcendent. Tarkovsky is able to elicit a sense of reality found through the familiarity of normal earthly objects. That foreboding Solaris ocean and the comforting idea of the lovers hits us in the guts.
When I was young, I recall being told that any part of a Bruegel painting can be separated from its whole to form a painting on its own terms. That’s the case with this scene. It’s so clear yet so complex.
Although Tarkovsky received many accolades outside his native Russia, he was famously unconcerned with box office success.
He was a Soviet filmmaker, so he didn’t have to!
You celebrated 30 years as the artistic director of the ACO. How do you balance your own artistic vision with commercial pressures?
I’ve got to balance them all the time. We’ve just moved into this amazing venue and we have to pay it off. But then if everything is driven by commercial enterprise, you end up with a McDonald’s hamburger. Of course, art could get more resonance in Australia. I don’t think the people at the top have time for their inner emotions, which is a huge problem. But then if you were to say, If they only had time for art, they would be better leaders? You mean like Putin? I’m not a moral proselytiser for the good of art. No. I’m more for the good of craft. You give a kid a violin. It doesn’t lead to Solaris but it leads to keeping a kid active. You should look at the act of doing something rather than the impact of it. The act of playing a violin is enough.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Richard Tognetti".
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