Listen to Canto Ostinato while you read. And then tell me how you feel…

Can music change lives?

I was deeply moved, say mesmerized, by a German film I saw at the Festival International du Film sur l’Art, or FIFA, a few days ago, and the music it portrayed. About Canto, by Ramon Gieling, is about Canto Ostinato, a piece written for four pianos in 1979 by contemporary Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt, and the euphoric effect that piece of music has had on human beings since.

I am here to say that the FIFA has the same effect. At least on me. But full house events and screenings every night for the past ten days might corroborate my claim.

Full house at the Montreal Fine Arts Museum at the screening of Un musée dans la ville


Actually Canto, as it is commonly referred to here, can be played on 4 or 2 pianos or only one piano if you wish, for an hour, 2 hours or 3, depending on how many repetitions you include, explains Christopher Jackson, Artistic Director of the SMAM (Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal), Concordia professor, organist, harpsichordist, choral conductor, and member of the jury at this year’s FIFA. It’s a minimalist piece, he adds, there isn’t really anything special about it other than how it affects people. Asked if the movie could just be an super pumped marketing campaign for the CD, he responded with a resounding no, that it is all real.

It’s anecdotal that at the screening of Never Stand Still last Sunday, one of the films scheduled was inadvertently replaced by About Canto. We were there to see films on dance and the first film was supposed to be a short from Israel, Country Club. So upon the first frames of Canto, in German, we were all well aware that there was a mistake. It took a while for the projectionist to take the film off the reel (so to speak), so we got to watch Canto up to the part where overhead cameras shoot the four pianos facing each other, and the music is played. When the screening was cut short, I remember turning to the person next to me and saying with a genuine pout, “Pity, I was looking forward to that!” Indeed, in just a few bars, Canto had gotten under my skin.

I reminded Christopher that the film opens with a premise: Can music change lives? According to this movie, and Christopher agrees, Canto actually does. In the film, four people are invited to speak of their experiences as they are exposed to the work. One woman just sits in a sort of trance while the children are playing and the gardener is seen in the background noisily tending to weeds with electric machinery, and she is unphased. Another gave birth easily while listening to the music. Another says she felt Canto gave her the mental and philosophical tools to free herself. She changed her life completely, divorced, and married the composer!

And a man was so moved by the piece that he based his scientific research on it, describing Canto as an analogy to the roundabout, a structure with a constant flow, as he explains it, 4 entrances and exits, no end and no traffic lights, and that displays “self-generating behavior” like a flock of a thousand birds that change their flight pattern simultaneously and instinctively.

And the movie goes on like this.

Canto is like a mating dance.

Canto is a vector to freedom.

Canto is how science should sound.

Canto is the emotional expression of numbers.

Canto has the memory of the future.

Canto contains notions of birth, love, death and all the important passages in our lives. Therefore, it treads on dangerous territory.

Other research demonstrates that Canto triggers a rise in the dopamine levels in the brain, unleashing an euphoric, liberating feeling. Questions arise as to whether the euphoria comes from the music or the emotional context of the person, but ultimately, it is said that music is not about beauty, structure, measures, etc., but about emotion.

Finally, at the end of the film Simeon ten Holt is asked how he created the piece. He answered in a surprisingly humble manner, sort of detached, saying that he doesn’t even consider himself a musician: “Canto comes from a nebula; it answers to a higher power”.


So, here we have a definition of Art as something that defies logic, that lives in a realm of mystery, that remains out of the reach of mere mortals. Yet so many claim that art is necessary to sustain life. The well of psychological well-being.

Well, I would argue that the success of the FIFA lies in its ability to choose films of quality that convey not only the beauty of an art form, but also the pride and conviction of creators all over the world, in all their compulsive zeal, thus emotion. Because they all have in common that passion for expressing an inner creative force that drives them to photograph, write, draw, paint, build, dance… against all odds and against the forces that aim to dismiss art as “useless and irrelevant.” And because the FIFA recognizes no boundaries in its quest to relate Art through film, it can be said, I believe, that the FIFA channels emotion, that which makes people cry and laugh… If Art is the yeast of life, then the FIFA is the loaf. Our annual bread.

I was amazed, for example, to learn of the similarities in the lives of architects in three films who have all fled their homelands in order to pursue their art. In Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions, Unfinished Spaces, and Oscar Niemeyer, un architecte engagé dans le siècle, Erich Mendelsohn left Germany for Amsterdam in 1933 to avoid the wrath of the Third Reich, to Israel and then to the United States when his designs are not retained by Tel Aviv city administrators. The architects of the arts schools commissioned by Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra during the Cuban revolution chose to exile themselves rather than subdue their creative energies to cheap labor when the latter changed their minds and squelched the project. Oscar Niemeyer escaped the dictatorship in Brazil in the 60s and lived in Paris where his creativity flourished for years before he came back to Brazil. Whereas in different contexts, different countries and different eras, these men would rather leave their countries, cultures and families than give up their art.

In Bone Wind Fire, Georgia O’keefe, Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo fight prejudices and illness to continue painting.

In Never Stand Still, the vibrancy of dance, all styles of dance, explode by virtual necessity. For authors like Philip Roth, literary abandon is a cure for depression.

Because the FIFA makes no distinction as to origin, culture, or language, audiences are inevitably drawn to what is essential: self expression.

Further, as several have stated over the course of these last ten days, the FIFA not only is the biggest festival of its kind, but it is practically the only left standing after 30 years.

To Simon Brault, a jury member this year and also one who is celebrating 10 years at the head of Culture Montréal, the Festival’s longevity is as much a tribute to its vision as to perseverance. Art film distributor Anthony Roland has been coming to the FIFA for years and considers the FIFA as the best on the genre because of its international nature. And filmmaker Teri Wehn Damisch, who contributed to Alain Fleisher’s Une idée folle commemorating the 30th anniversary of the FIFA, acknowledges that now filmmakers “work for the FIFA”, in the hope that their films will be shown here.

Caméo video interviews with Simon Brault, Anthony Roland and Teri Wehn Damisch. In English and French.

Thus, it would seem that the analogy of the Festival as a life changing event holds true, no? Diversity and openness to all forms of art, as well as the ability to put the artist on the same level as the filmmaker, but also the increasing difficulties facing distribution of films on art, makes people say that the FIFA has become a museum in and of itself.

And beauty is euphoric, isn’t it? You tell me.


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