Music and Longing

Filmmaker Sally Potter, who just put out her debut album Pink Bikini, on the sense of yearning tied to the artform she's loved since childhood.

For almost as long as I can remember, music for me has been inextricably tied to a sense of deep longing.

When I was three or four years old, my father had a large horn gramophone. It was so huge, I could have easily climbed inside it, curled up and hidden in there. My father loved his gramophone and had a collection of 78 rpm records he adored even more, particularly Beethoven’s late quartets, the really complicated, extraordinary ones, and Beethoven’s piano sonatas played by Artur Schnabel, particularly the Diabelli Variations. I spent many hours sitting silently, as instructed, watching him listen with extreme focus. He entered into the music as if he was playing it, or had written it, even. He was moved and would often silently cry, tears rolling down his face. I was mesmerized; by his focus, by the music itself, by his tears, by my longings for him as my dad and also my longing to be my dad. This was music, this was excitement, and it was also a yearning for transcendence through music, transcendence of my four-year-old self, into and through music.

My grandfather listened to opera on a very old-fashioned wireless once a week, when it was broadcast live. He too was moved by music. What it evoked for him was not just the beauty that others were able to make, but also the beauty that perhaps he himself had not managed to make. His generation of men had fought in the First World War, so all they wanted to do after that was create a safe domesticity, to stay alive. Having a job, however boring, was a triumph over adversity. My grandmother had trained as a singer and an actress but gave it up when she had children at the rather late age of 30. So, music for her was always a source of both longing and melancholy. My mother took up music late, because she’d been busy as a teenage mother with me and my brother. She always wanted to be an opera singer but came to it too late and didn’t have the temperament for life on the road. Her first singing job was as part of the chorus for a touring ice show. This was not her dream of grand opera.

Sally Potter singing with the Film Music Orchestra in 1982. (Photo courtesy Sally Potter.)

The result of my family history meant that longing, yearning and disappointment were all tied together with music in this strange package, accompanied by the feeling that there was no higher art form to aspire to. That theme was influential and, in a way, inescapable. In my case, it also filled me with the longing to not be disappointed. To not give up on the things that I most deeply wanted to pursue and to hold music as a form that could help you reach the stars, if you could just catch onto its coattails.

But after working as a singer and dancer in my twenties, I became a filmmaker. Because music is non-representational, it has a kind of purity and an abstraction. Film is always “about” something; it’s a storytelling medium. For me, however, film was always linked with music, in its layers of meaning and the rhythms of its cuts. And you could create a world of images which worked in tandem with a soundtrack. I began to experience all sounds as music; to me, there was no real distinction between a score and other kinds of sounds, whether they were sound effects or the timbre of somebody’s voice. And then I could link all of them in this hybrid art form, which was relatively young and had an incredible reach.

But even when totally immersed in the films I was making, I never let go of music in its own right. It just took me a long time to come forward with the music I was making, rather than quietly composing or curating soundtracks for my films. Still, making my first album at 73 was an apparently strange and supposedly unnatural progression at this stage in my creative life. It was utterly unexpected, not just by others, but by me, too. I didn’t look into the future and think, “I’ve done nine feature films, so now I’ll make a singer-songwriter album.” But what overtook me was an incredible feeling of longing to do this. It felt unavoidable.

Actor Javier Bardem with Sally Potter on the set of The Roads Not Taken. (Photo by Manolo Pavon / Bleecker Street.)

I live mostly in London, but I also have a hut in France where I go to write for big blocks of time, because there I can be completely undisturbed. I have a desk where I write scripts and a keyboard where I compose music. When I come into the hut, I can either turn right and sit at my desk to work on a film or keep going and end up at my keyboard.

A few years ago, I started to find that I was drawn like a magnet to write music. There was just no competition. I was also taken aback by how I found I was suddenly singing again, which I hadn’t done since my 20s. I hadn’t really sung properly or found my voice for decades, but it was like opening the door and stepping through into a landscape, one that filled me with great longing. It was a longing to learn, practice, get better and refine my skills, so I could compose with more dexterity and make more interesting arrangements. It was like being in a state of possession, a state I also experience when I’m making a film.

There is a word in Roma called “dor,” which means the state of longing necessary to sing, or to make great work. I first learned about it when I was working with the Taraf de Haïdouks, the wonderful Romanian group of self-described “gypsies.” At that time, I listened to them and watched them go into this state of longing from which then would pour forth their incredible sound. When I learned about “dor,” it felt like a validation of a state I’d experienced throughout my working life; certainly on every film I’ve made. Every time, I almost felt I had to hide how much I wanted to make the film. I longed to make it. I longed to make it good. I longed for excellence. And because one can always improve and therefore always feel below what one’s aiming for, the reaching continues.

Sally Potter in 2023.

In the past few years, I learned an incredible amount and worked a phenomenal number of hours, not just on Pink Bikini but also on my next album, which I’m now two thirds of the way through. There’s an excitement that comes from learning a new form. Except it’s not really new. I’ve been working in music all my life, but doing it now in this really committed way is definitely a growth process. It’s exhausting but also energizing.

I frequently wake up at 3:30 a.m., look at the clock and say, “Oh shit, it’s not time to start yet. Damn.” And then go back to sleep. But when I do get up, around 6 a.m., I can’t wait to get on with my work. But what I also feel is the lack of time, which is perhaps the price of beginning a new artistic trajectory at this point in my life. I feel I have to start at 6:30 in the morning and go on until 9:30 at night, otherwise I won’t get the work done. And it’s got to be done now. I’m not sure how sane that feeling of urgency is, but it’s what I feel. It doesn’t feel like ambition. It feels like … longing.

Sally Potter’s first ever studio album, Pink Bikini, a semi-autobiographical collection of songs about growing up as a young rebel and activist in London in the 1960s, is out now. Sally made her first 8mm film aged 14. She has since written and directed nine feature films, including Orlando (1992), her bold, Oscar-nominated adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, The Tango Lesson (1996), The Man Who Cried (2000), Yes (2004), Rage (2009), Ginger & Rosa (2012), The Party (2017) and The Roads Not Taken, which premiered at Berlin Film Festival in 2020. She has also directed many short films (including Thriller and Play) and a television series, and has directed opera (Carmen for the ENO in 2007) and other live work. She was awarded an OBE in 2012 and her book Naked Cinema – Working with Actors was published by Faber & Faber in 2014.