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Out of Africa

I’m about to either treat, or torture, my readers with an avalanche of posts about music, provided my life opens up just enough to allow such activity. Before I get to the, oh, 140 or so songs I put together for my 45th birthday party several weeks ago, I feel I need to start with one musical memory in particular.

There are some pieces that, for me, wind up having layers upon layers of meaning. The piece I’m concerned with this evening is just such an example. I have found it on YouTube and will be posting a link at the end of this entry. But please do bear with me for the long tangled story that accompanies it before you jump down, ok?

It was 1986, I was 23, and I was smitten, consciously and openly, for the first time, with a woman. Sure, I’d had crushes before but never anything I could acknowledge, even to myself. It was pretty heady, intoxicating stuff, those first conscious acknowledgments of what I was feeling, and the thrill of finding out that she was also attracted to me was almost too much to bear. She was (is) a movie and music buff and exposed me to so much that still resides happily in my musical repertoire … The Pretenders … Propaganda … The Cure … And, as far as movies go, there were many. The one that stands out remains one of my all-time favourite films: Out of Africa, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. A powerful, rich story, beautifully told. The soundtrack, by John Barry, could almost be considered a character in the film – so many scenes would seem completely empty without the support, or urging, or comfort of the music.

One of the most moving movie moments of all time occurs about two thirds of the way through the film. Denys (the character played by Redford), shows up unexpectedly at Karyn Blixen’s (Meryl Streep) farm in a biplane. She is excited and taken aback and, as he hands her a pair of flying goggles, she asks, “When did you learn to fly?” He responds, “Yesterday!” and away they go, into the African sky.

Much earlier in the film, this moment is foreshadowed by Karyn saying that Denys gave her gifts, one of which was seeing the world through God’s eyes. This is that moment. Denys has been on a mission to show Karyn Africa as it existed before white men spoiled it. It is becoming spoiled so quickly at this point in history – the film is set in 1913 – that he has to resort to desperate, dangerous flight to accomplish his task.

But we don’t get any of that explanation in words. We get music.

The three or so minutes of John Barry’s variation on the main theme are heart-stopping, as are the visuals which it accompanies. The first 1:47 is almost choral in nature, a deep drone holding the foundation of a single muscular line of melody that is almost addictively hummable. Strong, extremely compelling. I’ve always wondered why it is so compelling and, as I listen to it again tonight for the multi-thousandth time, I hear that the deep woodwinds and strings are blended with human voices for added depth. The voices, almost like Geogorian chant, are hiding behind the instrumentation. At 1:47 the whole piece opens up into its own complexity with now many instrumental lines working in concert to draw you on, the main theme bursting forth in glorious richness, sadness and depth.

In the film, as Denys and Karyn journey over plains and impossibly beautiful vistas, she finally understands what he has been trying to show her, to tell her. She is seated in the forward seat in the plane and they are unable to speak or even see each other. She needs to communicate to him her understanding, her “a-ha” moment. She does. Only Meryl Streep could pull this off with such grace, clarity and intimacy. This particular piece of music, Flight Over Africa (Track 7 off the soundtrack), helps cement this moment in the memory of most people who have seen the film.

Just as Karyn was able to later articulate the gifts Denys gave her in their short time together, I can say that my first amore granted me many gifts as well, one of which was this film. She helped me see the world, briefly, through her eyes which, interestingly, helped me eventually see more clearly with my own.

Years later, I was in a quirky little used bookstore in Vancouver, enjoying my one and only visit out there. It was one of those dingy, slightly suspect places that make you wonder how they can afford to survive with only dusty old used books on disorganized shelves and practically no customers. I had the luxury of being able to take my time that day -I think I was killing time waiting for someone – and I suddenly found myself welling up with tears and just, well, emoting all over the place. What was going on? There was no one else in the store and I realized that the clerk had turned the music up a few notches. It was the soundtrack to Out of Africa. I hadn’t heard the music for ages. I had no idea one could actually Buy The Soundtrack to such a film. I stayed in that store much longer than I should have, wiping tears off my cheeks as they emerged, as each track took me to a new place of memory.

This film handles even the non-original music so beautifully. Have a listen to the treatment of this two minute excerpt –Mozart -Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A (K. 622). The pace of this version is much slower and more deliberate than it is normally played and yet the more deliberate pace doesn’t add any heaviness to the interpretation.

Film is the ultimate collaborative enterprise. All the pieces have to work together, in concert (pardon the pun), for the ideas, nuance, even narrative to be communicated to the audience. If Meryl Streep doesn’t do her thing in the plane on at least one of the takes, then the director hasn’t given the editor what he/she needs to move the story along. If all that doesn’t happen, the composer has very little to go on to add his polish and punctuation. On the occasions when it all works, film is an art form to be much admired.

Africa is a mysterious place to me. It strikes me as the ultimate collaborative disaster. Having experienced Africa only from a distance, my perception fed on media and popular culture only, it seems that outside influences have worked only to fail the people and the creatures there. I am happy to get information from my friends who were born and raised there, who are there – or close by – now, or who are about to be there, that tell different stories. The workshop I did this summer on drumming/singing from Ghana also told a different story. These are stories that need to be told. Stories that give my knowledge of that place more depth and context.

Yet, somehow in my mind, I when hear stories of Africa … I hear this music in the background, bringing tears to my eyes.

Here is a link to the Flight Over Africa scene.

Here is a link to a 10 minute edit of the film that showcases the soundtrack as a whole. (Gotta love YouTube! Some other music headcase has done this for me!)

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6 comments to “Out of Africa”

  1. I realise that I am very drawn to people who are passionate. And you, my dear, are passionate about many things. Music and film are two of them. I have never seen “Out of Africa”. Odd, that. But I have now ‘zipped’ it. So, thanks, friend. (By the way, I couldn’t make the link to Mozart work.)

  2. You will really enjoy this movie, I think. Have Kleenex handy.

    Thank you for the “passionate” observation. I’m glad that gets seen from time to time.

  3. Miriam – what happens when you click on the link to the Mozart?

    When I click on the link, I get an option to open it with a QuickTime Player. When it opens, it plays. I gather this is not what happens for you, you Mac chick you? QuickTime is Apple’s standard player, so I would think this would work for you!

  4. I have QuickTime Player! The best way for me to tell you what happens when I click on the Mozart link, is to send you page it opens. I’ll do that now.

  5. Well, fancy that. I can’t. I did a select all and copy, but when I went into email to paste and send, my email program went into distress, and I had to force quit. How about I try pasting into Word.

  6. Same thing happened when I tried in Word. Well, in my own words, it’s a full page of jibberish. It may be computer speak. It must be really secret stuff, because it will not be copied and pasted. Maybe it’s a Mozart concerto that has never before been seen. Alas.

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