On the Nature of Daylight (2018)

Have you ever walked through the darkness alone, not knowing what to do with yourself? I have. In fact, I once spent three months without seeing the sun to live through that despair in places where none of the language I spoke was in use. I was a stranger with a proper paperwork which guaranteed my passage through the walls, both visible and invisible, that separated peoples. Then, one day, came an epiphany: Nobody knew who I was and no one would care if I happened to die on the spot. Owing to the temporary sense of liberation granted by this realisation, I was happier in the frigid darkness than in the daylight that followed. Once the winter ended, the magic was gone. I went back to my country of origin and watched the world unraveled.

Max Richter’s lament, ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ (The Blue Notebooks, FatCat Records, 2004), was not yet written then. The German-British composer wrote this piece in the midst of an intense distress as yet another senseless violence, now known as the Iraq War, loomed on the horizon. Whilst this particular crisis prompted Richter to compose what he called a ‘protest piece’, as the new cycles of violence followed and engulfed the globe, the nature of grieving in this composition ceased to be a merely internalised response to a specific political and humanitarian crisis: it has gained a philosophical depth and scope to a greater degree. By the time Deutsche Grammophon issued the 15 year anniversary edition of The Blue Notebook, the Iraq War had, lamentably, receded into the background as a historical footnote. By then, ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ had revealed itself as a sombre contemplation of the progressively abysmal state of humanity despite all the ‘advancements’ we have supposedly made since the inception of modernity.

‘On the Nature of Daylight’ has proven itself to be a very popular piece. It has been featured in many motion pictures as a key piece of soundtrack to dictate the mood of a given scene. Most notably, it acts as the Leitmotiv for an acclaimed ‘Sci-Fi film’, Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016). Villeneuve has tasked it to do far more than the most soundtracks are expected to do for his film. The manner in which the Canadian features this music is close to Steve McQueen’s use of a particularly solemn music at the defining moment of his masterpiece, Shame (2011): Glenn Gould’s performance of J. S. Bach (Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, No. 16: Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV 885) featured for the dramatic apex of the movie expresses the very Geist of the movie. Gould’s piano and his voice in the background embody the profound sadness of the siblings (Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan) so acutely that one cannot imagine the movie being complete without this music: Gould is, in effect, so involved with this film that he must be considered as one of the protagonists. Gould’s posthumous ‘appearance’ in this movie crystallises the profound alienation the protagonists suffer, that is, Brandon, Sisi and Gould himself. This ‘use of music’ illustrates the cinematic genus of McQueen: by bringing Gould on board, the Briton not only intensifies the dramatic effect of the movie; he also draws our attention to the heavy price Gould had to pay for the devotion to his artistic ideal. The accumulative effect of McQueen’s direction significantly broaden the scope of this cinema: it is not merely an exposition of what must be considered a fairly contemporary symptom called ‘sex addiction’; it is an unflinching contemplation of the modern condition, that is, the existential alienation from the world, which manifests in a multitude of ways. To many, ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ has done exactly the same to Arrival: although this music has been featured in countless motion pictures of various kind to diverse effects, Villeneuve’s use is arguably the only meaningful one whose affective intensity matches that of the original score. The depth of grief suffered by the protagonist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), demands the music with a certain nobility, that is, a genuine expression of painful affections with a certain restraint that prevent it from becoming melodramatic. In the movie, a grieving mother who lost her daughter eventually comes to terms with the finiteness of life and the pains that accompanies it: the depth of her suffering tragically affirms the strength of her love for the child. This realisation allows Louise, and the audience, to face the most fundamental paradox of the human condition with a certain grace. Despite the pain we experience with the loss, without embracing the finiteness of life, we cannot love someone as deeply as we possibly do now.

That being acknowledged, the mode in which the grief is expressed in the movie is slightly different from the mode in which Richter composed the original score. Whilst the darkness which initially smothers Louise leads to a resolution when she ‘retroactively’ realises the meaning of her ‘future’ loss and suffering, the music is always intended to be a pure expression of grief. Richter has never been seeking to ‘overcome’ this melancholia; rather, he is trying his best not to betray it. This is because Richter’s music is not only anti-dramatic; it is anti-cathartic. He is not interested in showing a way through the darkness to the light; he is instead asking us to stay true to the grief that we feel, to sincerely experience the darkness as it is. Richter’s intention is clearly expressed by the musical structure: ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ strictly rejects the classical principle which follows a Biblical formula of redemption, that is, a story of a journey whose protagonist fights demons, rids of mortal sins and attains the eternal bliss. Richter resists the tyranny of conventions that forces a certain linearity upon us. Instead of seeing the darkness as the lack of light, he invites us to see many shades in it. This is reflected in his particular interpretation of post-minimalist mode of composition; as it gently repeats the main theme, one is guided through many tones of grief. In this sense, ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ expresses Richter’s Rilkean attitude toward life’s darker moments. Like the German poet, who once asked his young correspondent to discover the meaning of suffering to help develop a nascent self (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter), the composer simply wants to stay in the moment. Hence, unlike Arrival, ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ does not move from the darkness to the light as if there has to be a final destination to his emotional experience, for the light is not a happy resolution which everyone expects at the end of a ‘story’. The composer is committed instead to live in the moment.

Notwithstanding the popularity of his music, Richter’s affective sincerity is antithetical to our Zeitgeist. In this sense, Richter’s protest is not merely against a particular historical event. In the Form of Life which worships so-called the pursuit of ‘happiness’, we are practically prohibited from admitting and/or expressing our affections if it is generally deemed negative in their nature. From very early on, we are taught not to ‘whine’, not to be a ‘victim’, not to be ‘weak’. In short, we are all trained to internalise the ethos of social Darwinism which is itself a byproduct of Anglo-Liberalist ideology in which only the ‘winners’ deserve to have a voice (If in doubt of this assessment, it would do you good to study the genealogy of Anglo Liberalism, beginning with John Locke’s political philosophy. He cheerfully expressed his famously Samaritan view: the sole function of a government is to safeguard private properties and the political process must be exclusive to the ones who own the means to produce and increase capital). Dwelling in negative feelings is the attitude of ‘losers’, and one must keep one’s lips tight, jaw rigid and head down in order to carry on.

Naturally, such a strict repression of one’s affections has consequences. Whilst the ill-effects of such a repression upon our mental health are well-documented, we are told that our great civilisation is not without a ready ‘solution’: our Geist sanctions a violent emotional outburst as the proof of strength if and only if it is enacted by persons of male gender. It is curious that our Form of Life enshrines what is effectively a complete loss of emotional control, that is, an infantile reaction to frustrating circumstances. ‘Rage’ or ‘fury’, however you call it, the fact remains despite our attempts to glorify it: such a reaction is a clear sign of arrested development in terms of cognitive function, psychological maturity and social skills. These are the most basic areas of development by which humankind may distinguish itself from other species. The level of development in these areas therefore represents the standard against which every human must be judged. In psychology ‘rage’ is defined as the dissolution of self, that is, the loss of access to higher functioning of a brain. In a rage, one is taken over by so-called ‘reptilian brain’ and effectively loses one’s agency. In short, when one lashes out by seeing red, one is not really human: due to the loss of rationality, one becomes prone to violence whether it is directed toward oneself or to others. Rage renders us incapable of agency, thereby reducing us into beasts, that is, a lesser existence to all creatures whether they be human or non-human. What emerges from the combination of these phenomena is a highly destructive Form of Life in which violent and infantile reactions to frustrations is institutionalised, and glorified, as the proof of ’masculinity’. This Form of Life prohibits not only outwardly expressing emotions except anger, it forces us to internalise the affective repression as a norm.

In this respect, ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ must be understood as a protest against the ubiquitous glorification of violence. This is clear from the composer’s commentary on the music: as he defines this particular composition as a means for him to protest against the looming military conflict, its popular support and the resulting violence that would devastate lives, he reflects on just how he has always reacted to the violence by ‘internalising’ it. What he internalises is not the violence itself: it is his emotional reaction to the violence. It means that he does not respond to violence with ‘rage’. And by composing ‘On the Nature of Daylight’, the German-British composer has found strength to thoughtfully counter violence and the Form of Life that systematically institutionalises and glorifies it: he quietly stands against violence with the depth of his distress. The nobility of his suffering reveals a distinctly Rilkean insight: the strength belongs to gentleness that allows oneself to suffer for the distress of others without making it an emotional drama about oneself. This affective restraint, not the repression, is supremely ethical in a Levinasian sense: by steering away from a melodrama which shifts the emphasis from the suffering of others to one’s reaction to it, one can finally begin to live ethically.

To say that such a thoughtful attitude toward others is antithetical to our Zeitgeist is a terrible thing in and of itself. Yet, on the basis of the current global political climate, we must see that the majority of humankind has lost receptivity to one another to a level at which the antagonism arising out of the disagreements on certain issues, both critical and trivial, sufficiently undermines the possibility of dialectic, that is, an open dialogue in good faith to attain some form of sublation out of divisions. It appears that, regardless of views on any given issues, many of us are not interested in talking to one another; this is evident from the way in which speakers merely try to ‘win the debate’. When we have lost ability to simply listen to the testimonies of the survivors of mass shooting with sincere disinterestedness, we must know: we are truly fallen. As we broadcast every aspect of events as if we are participating in them, either retroactively or in real time (although I think we have collectively lost our ability to care to make such a distinction for quite some time), we allow ourselves to exercise a strange kind of self-entitlement, as if we the spectator must be heard as much as the actual participants of the events in question. When we think that our own opinions of the policies regarding gun control is more important than understanding the horror and the grief of the survivors of a violent event, we are allowed to seriously question the notion of human progress through collective enlightenment. All the talks about ‘thoughts’ and ‘prayers’ is completely empty if we cannot be open to the possibility of being receptive to the speech of one’s counterpart. In order to prepare ourselves to be sufficiently open to the words of others, being empathetic to them is not enough; you could easily consumed by your own reaction, thereby effectively eliminating your counterpart, another human being who has her/their/his own mind, desires, hopes and fears just as you do. In the end, it becomes all about how you feel and/or what you want to get out of the experience of another person. Hence we must conclude: without disinterestedness, there is no possibility of Sittlichkeit. If we cannot live ethically, there is no sociality. Conversely, if we cannot be genuinely receptive to others’ voices, we cannot be ethical at all.

Then, on account of what we have examined by far, it must be clear that Richer’s affective sincerity expressed by On the Nature of Daylight should not allow it to be appropriated as a mere mood-piece for a motion picture. Whilst I am not going to suggest that the use of this music for Arrival is not justifiable, it does leave me wanting to see something that would illuminate the nature of lament expressed by this music without compromise. Unfortunately it is impossible to meet such a demand in the use of a music for a motion-picture; a soundtrack is there to meet the aesthetic demands of a movie, and thus the music is always going to be a means to an end. Therefore it is not reasonable to expect a director, however capable, would consistently find a way to incorporate the music and the movie to illuminate the meanings of both, unless the director’s name is Andrei Tarkovsky. Therefore, to see a high-level of the synthesis between a music and a motion-picture for Richter’s music, exemplified by McQueen’s masterpiece with Gould’s posthumous role in it, there must be a dedicated short film produced by someone who shares the same sensibility with the composer.

In this respect, the music video of the same title, On the Nature of Daylight (2018), was born out of an urgent necessity of the part of one director and an actor. Directed by George Belfield and starring Elisabeth Moss, this short film was conceived not only as a tribute to Richter’s illustrious career, but also as an essay to illuminate the very nature of the lament expressed by the music in question. And it turned out that Elisabeth Moss was more than happy to take this challenge; by her own admission, Moss has been preparing herself on the set by listening to Richter’s music when she needs to ‘go dark’. Moss’ word is entirely believable. She has been known for her portrayal of characters who come up against the norms and the conventions set by patriarchy. With her break-out role in Mad Men, she played a star copywriter named Peggy Olson for an advertisement agency. Whilst Peggy challenged her male colleagues and often proven them wrong about the supposed place for women in professional settings, she had to face substantial discriminations before earning the support of the main protagonist of the show, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who continued to patronise her despite genuinely appreciating her talent. Moss also played an alcoholic woman ‘in grief of life’ (Masha in The Seagull) and an unravelling woman suffering from the loss of her father and the end of relationship(Queen of the Earth), thereby establishing herself as the master of blending dark comedy and existential angst of the first order.

The reasons why Moss has managed to achieve such a unique portfolio as one of the best character actors is manifold. Needless to say, she is a supremely talented actor, yet there are other actors who are just as good. The unique quality of Moss is first and foremost her sensibility and her ability to translate it to her various projects, including TV series. She has proven herself as someone who is in tune with the degeneration of our time, and has been consistently involved with quality projects for which she sometimes acts as a producer. Perhaps the culmination of such efforts is a landmark TV series, The Handmaids’ Tale. Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, the program has significantly helped to raise the awareness of the utter cruelty of patriarchy not only by dramatising Atwood’s striking symbolism but also by sustaining our attention to it over the course of intense two seasons of weekly viewing experience. As the lead actor and a producer, Moss’ involvement has been quite deep to the point where the actor has become synonymous with the project and the idea which sustains it. What has been consistently unique about Moss is: she is not afraid to play a ‘victim’ who portrays the excruciating sufferings of women in the world dominated by self-serving men. Whilst many actors prefer to play ‘strong women’ who deftly defies/overpowers patriarchy, Moss appears to show a simple fact: before the world is truly ready for a ‘Wonder Woman’, we need to recognise the actual suffering of every person who is marginalised and exploited by the privileged. Without the proper recognition of the sufferings and the sincere receptivity to the tales of victims, we are not going to transform the Form of Life that legitimises and institutionalises abhorrent cruelties against fellow humans. Before rising up with rage against the systematic degradation of peoples or grossing over the victimhood by mindlessly ‘empowering’ oneself in a fantasy, we must first humbly listen to the voices of the silenced.

Naturally, playing a victim is a tricky business: with a drop of sentimentality it turns itself into a perverted affirmation of patriarchy by reenforcing the victimhood as the ‘innate nature’ of womanhood. Perhaps one of the most known example would be the film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979). Whilst there is no doubt that the direction and the performance of the lead actor, Nastassja Kinski, is of high-quality, its Victorian Geist (in the late 20th century) is also quite evident: whilst Hardy’s intention of illustrating a young woman’s plight in the crushing grip of an old Form of Life which blames women for every opportunity available is a well-meaning one, its limitation is abundantly clear in that earning the ‘forgiveness’ of her spouse for the ‘sins’ committed by her ‘master’ for which Tess is blamed is the ultimate resolution which restores peace and happiness in her life. Furthermore, the cinematography and the direction serve for patriarchy in a deeply troubling manner; they place too much emphasis upon Kinski’s sensuality in that it in effect romanticises the abhorrent condition in which a young woman is abused, thereby rendering the entire project unambiguously voyeuristic. Whilst Kinski was limited by the traditional role of a Hollywood diva, or worse, Moss has been able to assert her agency by assuming more authority in her numerous projects by acting as a producer. Whilst there are now options available for female artists to assert themselves more to shape the projects they wish to be involved, it appears that Moss has been exhibiting not only the smart to capitalise on it, but also exercising the clarity of vision to test the limit of what women can do in the industry.

That being acknowledged, we must take a moment to note a peculiar complication at play regarding Moss. Whilst none doubts her talent and intelligent creative choices she has made so far, many have called into question her moral integrity: she has become a champion of the silenced whilst being a member of a group which is accused of its alleged abuse of power over its vulnerable members. Whilst she has never been an active recruiter of Scientology in a manner in which Tom Cruise and John Travolta have been, she does occasionally defends her ‘religious freedom’, although she appears to wish her affiliations to the said organisation strictly private these days. As you should expect, I am not going to join speculations on whether any of the allegations against the said organisation is true or not. I also refuse to be so presumptuous as to take a moral high ground to judge the actor’s moral integrity by condemning her guilty by association. If these allegations are true, then Moss does have to resolve moral inconsistency one way or another. Citing religious freedom could take one only so far. But the jury is still out on this case. And, more importantly, whatever the decision Moss might enact, it is hers alone to make.

Therefore, now is the time for us to clear the noise in our little heads and open ourselves to the music and the motion-picture made explicitly for it. It is time for us to walk silently along with this lonely soul as phantoms, out of the half-deserted fast-food joint into the freezing depth of night until the dawn. Please note that the light that comes with the daybreak is not kind to a grieving person. Night is freezing and desolate, yet it does not judge her: she can go through every shade of sadness without feeling diminished. Once the darkness is gone, she must observe the norms which forbid her to be a ‘victim’. In the harsh clarity of the daylight, she has nowhere to hide. As a modern woman, she must be strong enough to simply carry on regardless the depth and the scope of her loss. If she succeeds, they will despise her yet at least respect her enough to leave her alone. If she fails, they will wrap her in a blanket and make a cheap spectacle of her before discarding her to a rubbish dump. So what choice is left for her in this unforgiving dominion? Before parting our ways, however, we must take a moment to think of what we can do for her. In fact, there are quite a few things for us not to do. To begin with, let us not add any more to this harshness by means of flashes, strobes and torchlights. Let us respect someone’s wish to speak only when she is ready. Let her grieve in silence so at least the feeling remains her own. Living in such an unforgiving time is difficult enough. There is no need to direct more light at her. She is just waiting for the night to fall.

The short film reviewed above is availabe here.