The Sound of Pictures
Australia Ensemble @UNSW, September 16
Master and Pupil
James Fraser and The Marais Project, September 15
I’m currently fascinated by hierarchies in the arts. (Please don’t ask. I’ll try and explain and then we’ll be here for hours, and it’ll end up in an inarticulate and quite possibly drunken heap.) To cut a long, messy story short, who wins: pure or applied? Pure music, that Parnassian goal of the essentially useless work of art; or applied music — soundtracks, anthems, songs of praise, theme tunes, jingles, war cries — which, in the hands of a skilful artist can transform how we perceive the world, change our behaviour, even change our minds.
All this as a prelude to thoughts about two recent gigs. The first, the Australia Ensemble’s The Sound of Pictures, an illustrated talk, or an annotated concert if you like. Or perhaps just two hours of interesting stuff involving live music, music and film, and the mellifluous musings of composer, writer and broadcaster Andrew Ford in an inside-out inspection of how composers and directors and music and film interact.
Ford talked us through a number of classic examples: the shower scene from Psycho; the party scene from Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet; and the glorious climax of the assassination attempt in Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. This was fun — lots of in-jokes, with a composer-who-knows to elucidate. It’s Arthur Benjamin’s The Storm Cloud Cantata, arranged and extended by Bernard Herrmann, who is seen on film, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Death by music. Now there’s a way to die…
As for the concert repertoire, the Australia Ensemble were on hand to perform live. Two full-blooded movements from Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet bookended the program, no visuals required. Arthur Benjamin’s Suite from various Scarlet Pimpernels (arranged by Ian Munro) was, to a 21st century ear, a quaint dip into 1930s Britain, played with exacting insouciance. Nino Rota’s Trio (1958) had more bite, and the musicians delivered it with great flair, but — ah, you knew there was a but coming — but it felt, somehow, inconsequential — no headway up Parnassus, but no emotional buttons pressed either. By comparison, the ensemble’s rendition of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho Suite (originally for strings, arranged for string quartet by Richard Birchall in 2010) ticked all the boxes: a whistle stop tour of the most memorable themes (including the dreamy driving music, beautifully articulated by Dene Olding) spliced into a satisfying musical arc. Film music, but on the composer’s terms, not the director’s.
Which brings me to the highlights of the evening, two recent works by Australian composers combining film and live music. The first was Scherzo Perpetuo by Andrew Ford, written in 2014 for the Flinders Quartet as an accompaniment to Le Sculpteur express, a silent short from 1907. The music is made up of funky riffs, layer on layer of rhythmic patterns, match and mismatching, bouncing off each other, regrouping and reinventing. Endless play, if you like. Interestingly, it’s not closely aligned with action on screen, which consists of a sculptor (and his rather intense assistant) modelling faces in clay, making them smile or grimace then, with a punch to the jaw, breaking down the clay to make way for a new face. So the music is not a literal, descriptive accompaniment so much as a commentary on the frantic art-making and breaking; two works in parataxis.
The premiere performance of Felicity Wilcox‘s Vivre sa vie — Composer’s Cut takes this interplay between screen and stage further still, by adapting the film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) to an original piece of music. The inventive synergy between the two is a big part of the work’s impact: there are no words, but clarinet and flute manage to provide most eloquent dialogue; and when the ensemble break into an irresistible groove, the main character on screen can’t resist dancing. It’s playful, it’s dramatic, and it nudges the boundaries between live and recorded, screen and stage, concert and film with a delicious sense of exploration. And it manages to condense the movie into a gripping ten minutes which retains the sense of beauty and mystery and urgent, existential enquiry of the original. That works.
**Just across town actor James Fraser and four musicians of the viola da gamba-centric group, The Marais Project, presented Master and Pupil as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival. Inspired by the movie Tous Les Matins du Monde, based on the lives of French composer Sainte Colombe and his protégé Marin Marais, it brings the wild and wistful monologue of Marais together with live performances of the music of his time. It’s an intimate piece, and rightly so. The viola da gamba has a soft, almost submissive timbre — it won’t make you listen to it, if you don’t want to. But, with The Marais Project, you do want to. You listen, and the ear tunes into the subtleties. Meanwhile Fraser, who created the script himself, sustains the intense, listening environment created by the music with a delicate but moving evocation of longing and regret, creating all the characters from the reclusive and angry Sainte Colombe to the earnest and frustrated Marais to poor, abandonned Madeleine. It’s a fine performance. Ultimately, however, it leaves the audience with their own question to answer: if an artist creates in the forest and none is there to see it is it art at all?