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Ensemble Intercontemporain (I): Benedict Mason: ChaplinOperas (1988, U.S. Premiere) [Including Easy Street (1917), The Immigrant (1917), and The Adventurer (1917)], Della Jones, mezzo-soprano, Richard Stuart, bass-baritone, Ensemble intercontemporain, Jonathan Nott, conductor, Rose Theatre at Time Warner Center, New York City, 24 May, 2005 (BH)

In his vivid comments on ChaplinOperas, Benedict Mason writes:

There is a free exchange of “bad jokes” between screen and pit. The musicians are very vocal, and a good-humored anarchic rumpus is always just around the corner. The music develops the potential for a certain surrealism, often emphasising the asymptotic nightmare frequently implied but underplayed in the films. I find this also to be a good antidote to the sentimentality and mawkishness that is never far away in Chaplin’s films.”

Of the twelve silent films in Charlie Chaplin’s series for Mutual Studios, Mason chose three from 1917 and created a whirlwind of a soundtrack that is quite different from the usual “comfortable, anaesthetic, trivializing, and condescending effect of Hollywood music.” For Easy Street, in which Chaplin plays a rookie cop charged with policing a tough neighborhood, Mason adds spoken texts that sometimes resemble sprechstimme, the syllables as musical as the instrumental portions. Here are two samples of the vocal assignment given the mezzo-soprano soloist, here the superb Della Jones. (The extracts are copied exactly as they appeared in the program.)

(very affected): Ah oy oo
ee yoy wee hee hay
woo yoay wah
ww yoo oy oy

Further, the words and their contexts may or may not match the time period, such as this excerpt which appears while images of “crooks and drug addicts” fill the screen:

(in dismay): Skinpopping?

……..Chasing the dragon……..

(more frightened): Peyote Cactus…..
……..Liquid Cosh….Mainlining
(scrambled): China White! Poppers!! Snappers!!!
E-C-S-T-A-S-Y ! ! ! !

Ms. Jones, along with her excellent, hard-working colleague, bass-baritone Richard Stuart, was charged with creating virtually every sound possible from singing to shouting and all points in between, occasionally even swiveling around and standing up to conduct, as well. The result was an integration of music, speech, sounds and electronics, all swirling around as the films progressed. In the third film, The Adventurer, for which Mason’s music is “maximal and extrovert, almost to the point of manic saturation,” much of the vocal part contains fractured spoken texts that reminded me of Berio’s Sinfonia. In one amusing sequence, Ms. Jones and Mr. Stuart intoned words begin with the letters “Ch”: Chadwick, Challis, Chabrier, Channing, Channel, Chapman, Charlton, Chatwin, Chaminade, Chaliapin, and Chávez. Further, sometimes the sounds echo the action onscreen, but at others, the aural barrage was cheerily at odds. Mason delights in subverting expectations, such as during an onscreen brawl, accompanied by corresponding brutality in the score. The tension rises until at the climax, when a man is howling in pain, the entire ensemble suddenly drops out in silence.

Having Jonathan Nott and the Ensemble intercontemporain as the “pit band” for all this merriment was the contemporary music equivalent of luxury casting, and from start to finish, this group radiated a natural, unforced virtuosity that was consistently impressive. With Nott using headphones and expertly monitoring all the action with the help of a “click track” (a rhythmic pulse used to help maintain uniform synchronization with the film), the ensemble would insert effects (often in the percussion section) that coincided precisely with the action onscreen. As Mason said afterward, “Mr. Nott is a master of this annoying little device.” The ability to coordinate a film with a terribly complicated soundtrack performed live cannot be underestimated, and Nott’s coolness when faced with this circus was impressive, just as the adrenalin rush provided by his brilliant players.

In comments afterward, Mason mentioned Ives, Bruckner, Eisler and other composers as musical influences, and vestiges of these and others drifted through the evening like ebullient ghosts. In an explicit comment on his inspiration for The Immigrant, he conceived it as a pastiche of Dvorák and Steve Reich – an amazing marriage, indeed. Mason hopes the score (or scores, since each of the three does have a distinct personality) can stand on its own without the films, perhaps in concert without revealing the cinematic origins to the audience. I found plenty of wit, intelligence and sheer musical pleasure in all the mayhem to justify his wish.

Bruce Hodges

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