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Ed HUGHES (b 1968) Symphonic Visions – Music for Silent Films
Brighton – Symphony of a City (2016) [47:46]
Alice in Wonderland (2015) [9:42] Le Voyage dans la Lune (2015) [13:08]
The Nose (Le Nez) (2015) [11:20]
Night Music (2014) [17:54]
Film extra (no music): Sky Giant (1942) [9:54]
Orchestra of Sound and Light, New Music Players/Ed Hughes
Clare Hammond, piano (The Nose); Richard Casey, piano; Danny Bright, sound diffusion (Night Music)
rec. 2015/16, St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London; The Warehouse, London; The Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, University of Sussex METIER DVD MSVDX103 [109:44]
This engrossing DVD from Métier is dedicated to the music of Ed Hughes, whose interest in film music and soundtrack seems to have grown substantially in recent years. It showcases five attractive scores together with the silent films, for which they were written. Two of these are shorts drawn from the really early days of film; Hepworth and Stow’s Alice in Wonderland and Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune, from 1902 and 1903 respectively. Alexandre Alexeeieff and Claire Parker’s deeply unsettling 1963 animated treatment of Gogol’s surreal story Le Nez (The same Nose that inspired Shostakovich’s work) features an atmospheric piano score as does Night Music, an 18 minute compilation of contemporary imagery (selected by the composer himself) relating to the wartime construction and combat flying of the legendary Lancaster bomber aircraft. One of the sources of this footage, the 1942 short Sky Giant is included as a pendant with its original soundtrack voiced by the legendary Leslie Mitchell.
Unquestionably, however, the main attraction here is Hughes’s superb score for Lizzie Thynne’s evocative dawn-to-dusk portrait ‘Brighton: Symphony of a City’ for an orchestra of 21 players. In an extensive accompanying essay Mervyn Cooke traces the history of the film genre known as the ‘city-symphony’, a term which describes the documentary film portrait of a particular location, usually with music. Arguably the most famous example was Walther Ruttmann’s 1927 Weimar-era masterpiece ‘Berlin- Die Sinfonie der Großstadt ’ which was scored by the provocative Marxist composer Edmund Meisel and which both Hughes and Thynne have cited as a major influence on this Brighton project. This is most obviously made manifest by the sectioning of the work into seven ‘movements’, the musical form thus being echoed by the film’s structure.
It begins at dawn with the adventurous members of the Brighton Swimming Club taking the plunge in what looks like a freezing sea against a lilac sky to a backdrop of rather Glassy, Adamsy type scoring which, as the visuals begin to change, incorporating cyclists, bakers, commuters and bin-men, begins to take on the rhythms of Zadok the Priest – one suspects this is deliberate, given the Georgian associations of the city.
The images never settle on one idea for long and seamlessly incorporate fleeting episodes of archive footage. This allows the composer to constantly vary the colours, textures and rhythms of his music - given the modest size of his ensemble he does this most effectively. In a work of this length a soundtrack could easily degenerate into tokenistic repetition, but the sheer variety of the material Hughes produces is deeply impressive. The fifty minutes fly by, the music is always attractive but never twee. Thynne’s images are compelling and fast-moving – she celebrates the traditional holiday resort type aspects of the city with regular reference to those archive images, but also confidently projects the modern Brighton – its role as a centre for the LGBT community in Britain is highlighted by the colourful footage of the Gay Pride procession in the third movement; here Hughes’s score is pleasingly quirky yet revealingly English.
As a counterpoint to this Thynne doesn’t flinch from presenting footage of more ominous kinds of procession; extraordinary archive film of anti-Fascist marches in the city (presumably organised by the Trade Unions and the British Communist Party in the late 1930s); echoed by footage of more contemporary student protests. Hughes’s score seems to take on a more dissonant, ambiguous hue at such points. As the film inexorably moves towards night-time it carefully avoids the obvious clichés associated with the nightlife of a resort, choosing instead to focus on workers at the end of a hard day or on homeless individuals, as they prepare for another chilly night. Consequently the music becomes wistful and melancholy, almost assuming an angry tone at times. Thynne’s eloquent cinematography at one point seems to focus on hands – making hands, waving, pointing hands; begging hands. While much of this work is celebratory, some of it seems designed to prick one’s conscience, but it does so in a humane, unhectoring manner.
The Orchestra of Sound and Light turn in a detailed, committed and beautifully recorded account of Hughes’s score under the composer’s baton. The group sounds more ample in number than it is. It would be easy to trot out a list of composers’ names, who are recalled here and there, but ultimately Hughes’s music is very much his own. The last time I was so impressed by a wordless film (and its music) about provincial Britain was when I first encountered Geoffrey Jones’s unforgettable short ‘Locomotion’ with its (very different!) score by Don Fraser – made in 1975 for British Transport Films to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Stockton to Darlington Railway (see and hear that fifteen minute masterpiece here).
The two earliest films on the present disc are scored for a quintet made up of flute, clarinet and piano trio. Both Alice in Wonderland and Le Voyage dans la Lune feature gentle, verdant music. The surviving print of the Alice movie was almost irretrievably damaged and has been restored as far as is possible. What remains is effectively a dream sequence which initially sees Alice follow the White Rabbit into the Hall of Many Doors. She is miniaturised (via some primitive camera trickery) and encounters a somewhat disinterested looking Cheshire Cat prior to a chaotic Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the bizarre Royal Procession, during which Alice avoids execution before waking up. All of this is condensed into 10 minutes. Hughes’s score is hypnotic and gently fantastical, its jerky rhythms matching the distortedness of the flawed restoration. The music for the Royal Procession hints at neo-classicism and features florid piano-writing, which exudes a pastel, xanthic quality.
The print of Méliès’s even earlier Le Voyage dans la Lune suffers happily from no such issues. On its release it caused a sensation both in Europe and the United States, where, Cooke tells us, it fell victim to an early form of illegal pirating! Inspired by writers such as Wells and Verne its rather infantile plot features a quintet of oddly-dressed astronomers who land a craft directly in the eye of the Man-in-the-Moon, are pursued by aliens whom they manage to overcome before returning to Earth to great public acclaim. Some of the music Hughes supplies to accompany the astronomers’ adventures on the moon recalls (to my ears at any rate) the four note motif that begins the music for the original 1960s TV version of Star Trek (the tune directly before the immortal words “Space; the final frontier…..”); of course this may be down to perceptual set. On the whole, though, the score effortlessly conveys the naïve imaginings and cosmic wonderings of our ancestors.
A winning feature of these two delightful chamber scores is the fluency of Ed Hughes’s piano writing. This perception is amply confirmed in the two remaining items, both of which feature solo piano (judiciously accompanied by live electronics in the concluding Night Music). Clare Hammond is currently one of the go-to pianists for new British piano music and she gives a mesmerising account of Hughes’s new score for Alexeieff and Parker’s classic animation of Le Nez. The haunting opening townscape is accompanied by neo-baroque toccata-like figurations. When the nose is abandoned in the snow next to the sentry-box the score takes on a serene, if enigmatic quality, whereas the grandeur of Kazan Cathedral is matched to a kind of ersatz salon music. There is a darkness to this score, which is perfectly apt for the ironic sense of menace that permeates the visuals throughout.
Hughes’s score for Le Nez is played with real care and affection by Ms Hammond; its gracefully cascading notes fall gratefully under her fingers and beguile one’s ears as much as the monochrome images haunt one’s mind.
The concluding item Hughes has scored is Night Music, a selection of archive clips he has arranged himself to depict both the assembly lines during the manufacture of the Lancaster bomber and its nocturnal role in combat over Germany. The score, played in this case by Richard Casey, another contemporary piano specialist, also features idiomatic piano writing together with discreet, expertly integrated live electronics. The piano music often projects a whiff of a neo-impressionism while the electronics allude to the bleeps of land to air communication and by gentle distortion of the piano’s textures to interference and fading signals. It’s a superbly evocative score which is winningly performed and recorded.
The entire package has been thoughtfully curated and is attractively presented. I cannot speak highly enough of Mervyn Cooke’s deeply illuminating introductory essay which is a model of its kind. There are two DVDs to cover both PAL and NTSC formats. Each film is uniquely fascinating but the thread that connects them is Ed Hughes’s skilfully conceived and delightfully accessible music which receives unstinting advocacy from all the performers here. I have spent a couple of most enjoyable evenings with these discs and I hope that those who read these thoughts will be persuaded to acquire them.