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Hot Docs Film Review – ‘Echo of Everything’

“When the universe began, it started with a primordial song. And it sang in harmony.”

Writer/director Cam Christiansen’s fascinating documentary film, Echo of Everything, attempts to get to the bottom of music’s universal appeal and power. With an economical run time of under 90 minutes, it’s a bit like filling out one of those exam blue books responding to the question, “Why music?”

Appropriately, Christiansen ends up making his points as much with sound and imagery as he does with words. He searches for answers in poetry, philosophy, and science, and presents his evidence accompanied by wailing song, ecstatic dance, and provocative imagery. The film’s intriguing string quartet score is composed by British composer Michael Bascom, accompanying extensive expressionist animation throughout. There are notable performances, including an intense flamenco vocal by Victoria Romero, a hip-hop jazz improvisation by God Particle featuring saxophonist/cosmologist Stephon Alexander and bassist Melvin Gibbs, and a contemplative piano piece by Dan Tepfer.

The director traces his journey of discovery using the device of a silent character, played by Calgary actor Andy Curtis, with a Beatle-mop of black hair and thick white pancake makeup. The recurring appearances of this silent character are shot in highly-stylized monochrome, reminiscent of both Buster Keaton’s silent films and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Curtis’s pantomime character guides us through not only Christiansen’s analysis, but also his personal relationship to music.

The film is quite confessional, as the director shares intimate details of his life that led him to seek this knowledge of music. His search begins with the poetry of Spanish poet Gabriel Garcia Lorca, who introduces him to the concept of the duende. Lorca wrote extensively about this goblin of folklore, a spirit of passion and inspiration. In Lorca’s view, an artist must be willing to face death in a performance to find duende.

Frederico Garcia Lorca

Christiansen moves on, drawing comparisons between physicist Albert Einstein and jazz giant John Coltrane, calling Einstein the “great improvisor,” and suggesting Coltrane’s approach to improvisation was deeply scientific. Notably, Christiansen finds an enlightening gateway through the observations of great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. He gives particular focus to 6th-century Greek philosopher Pythagoras, whom commentator Jules Evans refers to as “the Coltrane of his day,” who worked out the mathematics of music, including the western musical scale.

Finally, the director presents the discovery in 1964 by two American radio astronomers, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, of “an odd microwave signal,” ever-present and existing since the beginning of time. Further investigation of this phenomenon resulted in a 360-degree satellite image of the microwaves surrounding Earth. Christiansen refers to the image as “a photograph of the infant universe, only cosmic moments after its birth.”

According to University of Virginia cosmologist Mark Whittle, that satellite image represents sound waves, a recording of which, pitched up to the range of human hearing, reveals a siren-like sound with distinct harmonic frequencies and chords. This, it would seem, is the echo of everything – the primordial musical ooze.

This film appears to have been an extraordinary undertaking, particularly given that it was created during the height of the pandemic. It is intellectual and artistic, without feeling pretentious. It never goes clinical in its examination and analysis, and doesn’t claim to solve any riddles; it simply offers a deeper insight into the existential mystery of music. Echo of Everything is Cam Christiansen’s observation of the human condition through his own life and his belief in music’s transcendent healing power.

Echo of Everything directed by Cam Christiansen recently screened at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. hotdocs.ca

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