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Seen and Heard International Concert Review
Lincoln Center Festival 2004, Quatre Chiens (Four Dogs), Ensemble Sospeso, Walter Reade Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York City, 22nd July 2004 (BH)
Kirk Noreen: Totally Bourgeois
Wolfgang Rihm: Bild
Joshua Cody: Eight Years Later
Elliott Sharp: Akadak
The Ensemble Sospeso
Flutes: Cécile Daroux
Clarinets: Marianne Gythfeldt
Horn: Theodore Primis
Trumpet: Wayne du Maine
Trombone: Jonathan Greenberg
Piano: Stephen Gosling
Percussion: Thomas Kolor
Percussion: David Shively
Violin: Vesselin Gellev
Viola: Danielle Farina
Cello: Michael Finckel
Double Bass: Jeremy McCoy
Accordion: William Schimmel
Guitar: Elliott Sharp
Production Designer: Tetsu Ohara
Conductor: Rand Steiger
The art of scoring a film can be approached in a multitude of ways, directly or obliquely, and some wildly different ideas about a classic made for an unusually stimulating concert by the Ensemble Sospeso, as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the surrealist totem, Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, the group collaborated with the Film Society of Lincoln Center to offer the still-shocking sixteen minutes four times, with four different scores.
Speaking from the stage, Film Society program director Richard Peña described the original score adopted in the 1960’s: a mix of tangos and Wagner. If it hadn’t meant yet another screening, it might have been a good reference point to hear this, especially given Joshua Cody’s elegant allusions to it. Deeply immersed in tangos, Cody’s score was notable for its gratefully written accordion part, here played by the gifted William Schimmel, and castanets employed by several non-percussion players (from my vantage point). If the composer’s acknowledged use of Wagner was heavily disguised, I seem to be one of the few who immediately recognized Cody’s quote from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo.
Kirk Noreen’s Totally Bourgeois offered an equally sensitive, formal approach to the project, with his gestures responding keenly to the action onscreen. But in keeping with the surrealist mantra, Noreen found room to accommodate a bit of the hymn, "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow" (naturally, since its music is by Louis Bourgeois) and in a more secular vein, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." He also seemed to mine more of the film’s humor, and as with the other three scores, I left wanting to hear the music again.
Rihm’s Bild was the only one not directly composed for the occasion, although according to program notes by Giorgio Biancorosso of Columbia University, in writing the piece Rihm was imagining Un Chien Andalou "without quite knowing it." His was also the only concept to seriously tamper with the physical construct of the screening process itself, since apparently the performance instructions indicate that the sounds and the images should deliberately not coincide. Rihm’s stark palette began two or three minutes into the film, well after the notorious eyeball-cutting scene, and then dropped out completely for long stretches, only to rev up again when the percussion section delivered some ear-splitting decibels from metallic plates. Eventually the music continued well after the closing credits, the musicians tapering off for a few minutes in front of a flickering white screen.
I liked Elliott Sharp’s completely different approach a lot, and it was well-positioned at the end of the evening. His was the only one with electronics, including a blazingly intense part for himself on electric guitar. Using sweeping waves of sound, Sharp evoked a dreamlike, hypnotic state with the ensemble melded in a throbbing hum that seemed to stretch far back into my head. He also, perhaps inadvertently, solved a minor acoustical hurdle, since the Walter Reade Theatre is on the dry side to better accommodate film soundtracks. Sharp’s long, droning tones created an illusion that the space is more resonant than it actually is.
Coordinating a live performance with a film offers unique exasperations, but you wouldn’t know it from conductor Rand Steiger’s fluid, yet bracing direction that brought out clean performances from Sospeso’s excellent musicians. If the four screenings may have felt like study to some, Steiger’s understatement encouraged us to stay focused onscreen. And as for the musicians themselves, their total commitment made me suspect that if the visual element had been eliminated entirely, the evening still would have been successful.
Tetsu Ohara’s tongue-in-cheek stage décor included four milk-glass spheres resting on legs among the musicians, and as each work began, a different one was illuminated. My favorite was for Cody’s piece, with the globe intersected by a pink fluorescent tube, evoking the eyeball slashing. Musical content of the evening aside, Buñuel and Dalí might have found the benign strangeness of these sculptures a bit endearing, all on their own.
POSTSCRIPT: Now and then I wonder why screenplays are only used once. In addition to his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, why shouldn’t Jonathan Demme give us his version of say, Annie Hall, using exactly the same script, but a different cast, photographer and musical score?