scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘Nostalghia’ in sound and moving image

A scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 feature film, “Nostalghia.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concerts April 27-29 and May 2 feature Andris Nelsons conducting violin soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter in a memorial from one artist to another: Toru Takemitsu’s “Nostalghia,” composed in 1987 as a tribute to the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who died the previous year. The Japanese composer was attuned to film, scoring nearly a hundred of them, but his appreciation for Tarkovsky (with whom he never collaborated) extended beyond medium: Tarkovsky’s films were evidence of a kindred artistic spirit.

“Nostalghia,” Tarkovsky’s penultimate feature, embodies its title’s seductive, unhurried corrosion. Russian historian Andrei Gorchakov (played by Oleg Yankovsky), on a research trip to Italy, finds himself weighted down by the sense of displacement. The only real connection he makes is with Domenico (Erland Josephson), a madman; Gorchakov is drawn to his consuming, pure alienation. (Even the film’s title is deliberately neither here nor there: the extra “h” was Tarkovsky’s addition, forcing the Italian pronunciation to adopt the hard “g” the term would have in Russian.)


The film’s symbolism is pervasive and elemental. Water, for instance — mists, rain, streams, trickles — is a near ubiquitous, multifarious presence: a pervasive aura of amniotic longing. Takemitsu was particularly taken with the way the saturation is as much aural as visual, how heightened sounds of drips and splashes impinge on the viewer’s consciousness from outside the visual frame. Musicologist Kunio Hara has analyzed Takemitsu’s “Nostalghia” as a musical analogue of that pattern, with the solo violin’s circumscribed, only gradually varied repetitions centering the musical image while the orchestra’s hazy, ever-fluctuating textures smudge and dissolve the margins.

But Takemitsu and Tarkovsky also shared a conception of time. Both explored how long stretches of time can be meaningfully, palpably filled — with sound, with image. Takemitsu’s works, in fact, often achieved this by adopting a quasi-cinematic structure, composing not over a rhythmic grid but within blocks of time, dissolving their hierarchical flow into pure presence.


Appropriately, “Nostalghia” contains one of Tarkovsky’s most famous, most audacious cinematizations of time’s actuality. Domenico has long believed that if he can cross the mineral baths of the Bagno Vignoni while holding a lit candle, he will save the world. It is Andrei who fulfills the task, walking the length of the drained pool, restarting each time the candle goes out, the entire ritual captured by Tarkovsky in a single, horizontally-tracking, nine-minute shot. Takemitsu’s music enacts a similar ceremony, the deliberate, circular-yet-not process generating brooding consequence. Film and piece ruminate their way to a temporal paradox: static inexorability.

The BSO performs music of Tchaikovsky, Takemitsu, and Shostakovich, April 27-29 and May 2 at Symphony Hall. Tickets $30-$145. 888-266-1200,

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at