As the opening question of Dutch filmmaker Ramon Gvieling’s About Canto, which screened in competition for Best Documentary Film at IDFA last November, the query is one that spanned several films during those twelve days of documentary. In addition to the festival’s new program, IDFA PLAY, a competitive selection of music documentaries, a handful of docs in other sections lyrically considered the intuitive relationship between music and human emotions.

“Musicophilia” is a term used by neurologist Oliver Sacks to suggest the uplifting effects of music. It has also been used to describe an obsession with or spiritual connection to music. Most would believe that musicophilia applies to everyone in some way. Of course that is not entirely true, some consider music as merely background ambience while others are entirely unmoved and uninterested. Yet in the worlds of these film subjects, music has transcended its simplistic function to become something altogether godly.

About Canto dissects the notion of social music – compositions that make the world a little bigger by connecting individuals. From 1976 to 1979, Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt composed Canto Ostinato, a 3-hour 4-piano work that would become a sensational hit in the contemporary classical music world, with numerous recordings and performances still circulating the globe. Ramon Gieling’s film is a collection of interviews with various devotees of the work who, with intense emotionality, explain their personal connection to the composition.

A woman gave birth to her son while listening to Canto Ostinato; a man had a portion of the score tattooed on this upper arm; an architect claims that the scenery around him comes together when Canto plays. Dutch actress Halina Reijn recalls how the music affected her training, while scientist Johannes discovered similarities between Canto and the design of roundabouts: four pianos and four entrance and exits points, feeding into each other and filtering out. Canto Ostinato has no conductor, like a roundabout has no traffic lights. “This is how science should sound,” says Johannes.
Boiled down, About Canto is about one thing, which is that music is about one thing: emotion.

The same point is expressed in Brazilian director Eduardo Coutinho’s Songs, which also screened in competition for Best Documentary Feature at IDFA. The film is a testament to the power of simple concepts that accomplish more in the way of audience association than docs that attempt to conquer epic emotional feats through story and style. Here the interplay between subject and director becomes as serpentine as teller and listener – and most viewers can relate, perhaps shuffling through their own mental music catalogues searching for that one tune.

In Songs, maestro/director Eduardo Coutinho sits in a chair, just off-frame from a fixed camera, and calls in one musicphile after another to describe a song that has influenced or irrevocably changed their lives, going back to the initial question proposed in About Canto. At certain points, they sing excerpts – sometimes in perfect pitch, other times in cracking intonations – but each one is beautiful, sincere, and at turns, utterly embarrassing but all the more heartwarming.
The intelligence of Coutinho’s directing style comes from his knack for being a gentle listener. It’s an approach reminiscent of Amsterdam-based filmmaker Heddy Honigmann who, behind the camera, has learned to shrug off intrusive tactics by adopting the curiosity of an honest child. The simpler and more direct the questions, the more open and sincere the answers, resulting in the unraveling of personal stories that sometimes shock even the subjects themselves. Honigmann too tackled the theme of musicophilia back in 1997 when she took to the streets of Paris to follow the stories of a diverse group of exiled bohemian street musicians. United by their experiences with political repression, music becomes their economic lifeline and integral to their will to survive.
Songs carries a similar sentiment. The camera never leaves the studio stage, which is outfitted in a black curtain from behind which the ‘contestants’ appear and then disappear in the style of an audition or talent show. We enter their personal universes through their stories of how certain songs have become the catalyst or the core of a memory, bringing them both gratitude and grief. The songs provide the backdrop to stories of unrequited love, family tragedy, heartbreak and dark deceit. But there are also those exceptional moments of passion and joy, which like Gieling’s film, seek to unravel the mystery of the universal power of music.
Canto Ostinato conveys wisdom about what life is and what it isn’t. It’s about life and death,” says a music student in About Canto, who recalls the first time she heard the composition as a child. She explains crying as she listened to it, because she knew that one day she would die and “there would be no more Canto.” At another moment in the film, a man reads a letter to a pianist who performed Canto Ostinato in Amsterdam several years ago. The man’s brother had suffered from severe depression, but was fortunate enough to attend the Canto performance in the Dutch capital. He would eventually commit suicide, but in his final note expressed gratitude for the composition, which had profoundly changed his life. As his final wish, he requested that the Amsterdam version of Canto be played at his funeral.
At another moment, a landscaper named Jos prunes trees in a pastoral setting and declares, “Canto is a heartbeat. It’s a musical reflection of the magnificence of creation.” So if the power of creation can be reflected by music, then perhaps the potential of creation can also find its soundtrack.

In Water Children, by Dutch filmmaker Aliona van der Horst, Bach’s Goldberg Variations inspires Dutch-Japanese pianist and artist Tomoko Mukaiyama to create an installation work on the theme of womanhood.

In a small Japanese village, Mukaiyama collects twelve thousand white silk dresses and, in a cathedral-like space, hangs them in spiraling clusters of weightless apparitions. At the center of the cathedral, Mukaiyama strings up a white shroud stained by her own menstrual blood, signifying the source of life. Opening the space to visitors and passers-by, many of whom have never been to a museum or art exhibit, Mukaiyama titles the work, Red Room.
The idea started with Bach. Having realized that she would never bear another child, Mukaiyama began to wear a dress marked with her own menstrual blood during her concerts. She explains that the music and her installation helped her reveal herself, and in an open letter to the women visiting the Red Room, Mukaiyama asks that they too perform the ritual and imprint their dresses. She requests letters and images from their experiences from which she can draw inspiration to improvise on Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Against her Bach rendition, the women who partake in this ritual reflect about sexuality and life-choices – about motherhood, miscarriages and menopause. They speak about their children who were born and not born – and about the ritual of the ‘water children’ that is performed for premature babies or stillborns, or for babies that were never born. As one Japanese mother says, water children are real children too.
Tomoko Mukaiyama’s work of art is a requiem to the potential of life that is washed away every time a woman has her period. But it is also about life itself, and death, much like Canto Ostinato and the musings of its most devoted fans. Simeon ten Holt himself says in interview during Gieling’s film, “Canto is an ode to the sensuality of life.” Likewise, Tomoko Mukaiyama found kindred themes in Bach and created an ode to fertility – the very essence of life – and a reflection of the magnificence of creation. Such discoveries affirm that while music may not always change people, it is certainly at work. And thus listening is not passive – it’s very much active.