May 17, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

The Complicated Music of Fathers and Sons in “Stenofonen”

4 min read

In the opening sequence of “Stenofonen,” there is a lot for the eye to take in, suggesting more for the ear, as well: rows of books and CDs, a sound system Tetris’d among the books and CDs, a table hoisting up piles of sheet music, a music stand hoisting up even more sheet music. And then there’s an old man, trudging through a piece of that sheet music, Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, on a violin. He performs in fits and starts, playing the same two measures over and over, while his adult son sits nearby, listening. The musical menagerie is rendered visually, glaring and generous. But the son, who has probably endured this very situation in this very place many, many times, focusses on a single object, a stone that may as well be a paperweight for all of the sheet music situated next to it. The stone itself is inconspicuous, relatively unspectacular, but it’s different from anything else in the room.

“Dad?” the son interrupts. “What kind of stone is this?”

“It’s just something stupid,” the father dismissively spits out, the “stupid” a verbal dagger. He’s annoyed. He emits an expression as if a bruise was being incessantly poked—and that’s because one is, albeit an abstract one. The son doesn’t realize that the stone is something special but fraught. It is one of a collection that makes up the titular “stonophone”—an instrument constructed of eight stones that, once arranged in a fashion not unlike a xylophone, tonally creates the C-major scale.

The Danish actor and filmmaker Nicolaj Kopernikus, who wrote and directed the scripted short film, first learned of the instrument in a similar way—his late father, Jørn, invented one, and the film’s opening scene mirrors Kopernikus’s experience. In his cinematic retelling: when Jørn was twelve years old, his own father, Harald, had forbidden him from taking his violin to a sleepaway camp, and so Jørn sifted through roughly two thousand stones on the camp’s beach to find the eight that would compose a stonophone. The instrument earned him a short bout of fame, including a spot on a radio show and a newspaper cover story. All the while, though, Harald belittled his son as an instrumentalist. “You’re not talented enough to play for the others,” the lightly fictionalized Harald tells Jørn early in the film, with a still affect. While Jørn’s eyes well up with tears, Harald looks chillingly comfortable.

Decades later, the real-life Jørn was reluctant to share this part of his life with his son. Kopernikus recalled, in a recent Zoom interview, that when his father eventually did, “I said to myself, I need to tell somebody about this. I need to do a movie about this.” In our conversation, Kopernikus, who is still delighted by his father’s innovation, often borrowed the Warholian expression “fifteen minutes of fame” to describe Jørn’s childhood glory. And yet it was Kopernikus’s decision to expand that fame by another twenty-two minutes, with “Stenofonen,” that cemented his father’s achievement, and his lingering pain, into something everlasting.

The film contains recursive layers of art imitating life, with Kopernikus’s own son, Louis Nӕss-Schmidt, playing the young Jørn and Kopernikus playing Nicolaj, a version of himself. There are other personal touches, too. Segments of the actual radio show that Jørn performed on can be heard. The newspaper he was once on the cover of is tucked away in the musical library. Two stones from the original stonophone make a cameo. And the music—the music is Beethoven, a favorite of Jørn’s. “But I also want to make a film that’s universal,” Kopernikus emphasized. “And of course the people, the audience—they don’t know anything about all this. Hopefully, they can feel something, but they don’t know that it’s my own son. They don’t know that it’s me playing me. Or they don’t know the backstory, about Beethoven, and that the stone music from the radio is really my father. But I think maybe you can sense it, in a way.”

If the ingrained intimacy of the film misses recognition, the universality that Kopernikus strived for does not. The specifics of Jørn’s musical creation may be unfamiliar to most, but the primal instinct that drives him to create it—the base desire to communicate his talent, to win some long-withheld approval (and to overcome the loss when such approval fails to arrive)—resonates even with viewers who have never touched an instrument. Jørn seems inconspicuous, relatively unspectacular—certainly that’s how Harald seems to see him—but he defies expectation in unfathomable ways, proving to be so full of music that he can turn the very earth into a symphony.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/screening-room/the-complicated-music-of-fathers-and-sons-in-stenofonen

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