Monday, April 28, 2008

President Bush's New Career?

The music directorship is currently vacant at the National Symphony Orchestra, and it seems a new contender has thrown his hat into the ring. And after eight years as the leader of the free world, I think he's prepared for the pressures of the job.

At the recent White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, President Bush picked up a baton and led the United States Marine Corps Marching Band in Stars and Stripes Forever. Like him or hate him, at least he's got a sense of humor. This is priceless.

(Photo by Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Society for New Music Performs at Syracuse International Film Festival

When I go to a new film, I spend nearly as much time listening as I do watching. A compelling score can rescue an average movie, or transform an already great movie into an icon–Bernard Herrmann in Psycho, Ennio Morricone in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, John Williams in Jaws and Star Wars, to name a few. With much of the music in recent films (at least the one's I've seen) now maddeningly formulaic, soundtracks have, to my ears, drifted into mere background accompaniment. Thankfully, the Society for New Music and the Syracuse International Film Festival have teamed up to remind us that music is an active part of any movie, as much a character as anyone on screen. 

On Saturday night at the Everson Museum of Art, musicians from the Society presented composer Martin Matalon's original music for two films by Luis Bunuel: Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread) and Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). As the scores were performed, the films were projected on stage, harkening back to the early days of cinema when live musicians provided the soundtrack to silent pictures.

Both films are surrealist, stretching–sometimes exceeding–the bounds of what is believable. So it was only fitting that the music did not explicitly coordinate with the action, instead creating an atmosphere that clarifies and augments the images on screen. In Las Hurdes, a documentary narrated by Malcolm Ingram about life in a remote region of Spain, the music, written for solo viola and electronics, helps us understand the difficult existence locals face every day. Surging melodic sweeps punctuated by violent attacks and electronic buildups complement the graphic shots of dead animals, sick villagers, and, most disturbingly, a dead child. Throughout, violist John Graham gave a committed, intense performance that embraced the score's darkness and extreme emotions.

The connection between sound and image proved more elusive in Un Chien Andalou, a film seemingly about nothing. Unlike Las Hurdes, it has no clear subject or plot, only a succession of unrelated, incomprehensible scenes. Had Matalon tried to write music that followed each shot, he would have created a manic, random score. Instead, he seemed to riff on specific moods and emotions: A heavy, ominous atmosphere emerged when a man began to grope a woman, but lasted well after the scene had changed. Conductor Heather Buchman led the octet of musicians in a crisp, driving performance.

The evening also included a screening of Holding Fast, a film by Mary Harron and John C. Walsh about life in Tibet. It featured music by Randall Woolf, but unfortunately it was prerecorded. The two live performances, however, were very provocative, sparking discussions–both positive and negative–amongst the audience. And even if some people didn't like the music, they were surely reminded of the importance of a film score. Maybe the next time people go to the Carousel for a movie, they will give its music a little extra thought.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Jon Vickers: Back by Popular Demand

After the overwhelming response (2 comments!!) to my last video of Jon Vickers being frighteningly good, I figured this would be a good follow-up. Vickers is known for portraying complex, emotionally-conflicted characters such as Tristan, Otello, and Florestan, but his legendary interpretation of Peter Grimes is surely his defining role. Against the composer's wishes, Vicker's turned Grimes into an explosive, violent brute, completely altering the public's perception of the outcast fisherman.

Here's Vickers performing Grimes's chilling final scene.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Vickers. Tristan. Enough Said.

I ran across this clip of Jon Vickers performing Tristan's death scene. The sound is terrible, and I'm not sold on the set or camera work, but the performance is terrifying. It's a complete loss of ego, total commitment to the character. His desperation and anguish are palpable. Vickers isn't merely portraying Tristan; he is Tristan.

Just another day at the office.