The Mindful Bard – A Late Quartet

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

Film: A Late Quartet

Director: Yaron Zilberman

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots

?From the first note I understood the dynamic of a quartet and how special it was to be part of the group and that being part of the group is about becoming one. Up until that point I’d thought I was the one. I thought I was more special, set apart.?

Robert Gelbart, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in The Late Quartet

The Sweet Paradox of the Joy of Music

Robert, the second violin, is describing to an interviewer how he came to join the Fugue Quartet, a critically acclaimed chamber orchestra with a palpably exquisite chemistry. He’s describing the emotional phenomenon many musicians experience during moments of intense synergy: that oceanic sense that one has abandoned one’s own ego to become part of something marvellous and eternal.

The crisis that drives the story is that Peter, the cellist, has just learned he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s. He asks that the first concert of their next season be his farewell, and he’s chosen the cellist whom he wishes to replace him.

The story does a masterful job of showing how identity and sense of self can be expanded to include others, and at the same time how it can be threatened by the creeping sabotage of the ego that won’t give up without a snarling, hissing fight.

A major prop is the String Quartet in C# Minor, Opus 131, one of Beethoven’s ?late? string quartets, whose score shows up in different incarnations on the music stands of each of these performers, each score appropriately wrinkled with use and riddled with differing notes. It’s the thing that unites them?the beauty and meaning to which they all aspire in their own way?and the process of working on it together gives them the opportunity to define the uniqueness of their individual selves.

Music makes us feel immortal; by means of it we can be closely connected to a distant past and also usher in elements of the future. If we’re excellent musicians or composers, our fame may live on after us. But ultimately the reality of death belies all of this and adds a sense of tragedy to our joys and aspirations.

Music brings love, providing a context that facilitates and enhances the experience of love. In A Late Quartet the romantic love is as meaningful and profound as it gets, but It’s still compromised by fears that the love returned may have been only pretense.

Music lifts above the mundane until the mundane whines about neglect and fills us with shame.

Music can open our minds and make us more tolerant and accepting, until one of our geezer musician friends starts sleeping with our young daughters. Music teaches connection and self-sacrifice for the good of the music until the geezer is asked to sacrifice the lovely young girl for it.

But music, in particular making music with others, is a formidable expression of love and an opportunity to experience a kind of love that in the end transcends all the discipline, time, effort, and technique we’ve used to carry it forward.

The acting and directing in this film are a singular achievement, making repeat viewings an unending delight.

A Late Quartet manifests nine of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 3) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; 4) it is about attainment of the true self; 5) it inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation; 6) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 7) it gives me artistic tools; 8) it makes me want to be a better artist; and 9) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.