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David LANG (b. 1957) The Village Detective – a song cycle (2020)
Frode Andersen (accordion), Shara Nova (voice)
rec. 2020, Copenhagen, Denmark CANTALOUPE CA21164 [53:46]
Curiouser and curiouser. The cover of this issue depicts a still from Bill Morrison’s film The Village Detective. David Lang’s fifteen number composition seems to be described as ‘a song cycle’ and constitutes the soundtrack to the film. But as might be expected with both Morrison and Lang, beyond these seemingly straightforward descriptors, absolutely nothing is as it seems. Firstly, the phrase ‘a song cycle’ is part of the title of the film rather than a description of the soundtrack itself, whilst fourteen of Lang’s pieces are scored for Frode Andersen’s accordion alone. Only in the last number, the effortlessly touching I cross the field, do we hear Shara Nova’s achingly nostalgic voice.
And then there’s the film itself. I’m sure many readers will be aware of at least some of Bill Morrison’s work given that he has collaborated in the past with composers such as Michael Gordon (notably Decasia in 2002 and Gotham in 2004), Steve Reich (for a film which accompanied a live performance of Different Trains at Edge Hill Station in Liverpool to celebrate Reich’s 80th birthday in 2016) and Philip Glass (Re-Awakenings, 2013). For those who are less familiar, Morrison is renowned as a filmmaker who frequently makes new work from old, refashioning archival documentary and amateur footage to new ends. Without question my favourite amongst those films of his which I have seen is TheMiners’ Hymns, an extraordinary paean to Northern England’s lost industrial heritage. Morrison’s haunting provincial imagery was enhanced by a superbly apt score for brass band by the late Jˇhann Jˇhannsson; I mention this because one of Jˇhannsson’s final acts before his untimely passing in 2016 would trigger both the concept and the music of The Village Detective.
During the summer of that year an Icelandic trawlerman happened to ‘catch’ four rusted film reels from the seabed, at a specific point 20 miles off the western coast of Iceland where continental plates collide and which geologists have identified as a demarcation point dividing East from West. The contents of these decaying canisters were duly cleaned up but proved to be disappointingly mundane, revealing only a sea-weathered print of a 1969 Soviet film, Dererevnsky Detektiv (anglicised as The Village Detective), a staple of daytime schedules for decades, as familiar to Russians of a certain vintage as Carry On Up the Khyber is to their contemporaries in Britain or The Odd Couple is to Americans. As its plot concerns the quest for a stolen accordion, I’m afraid my mind leapt to an episode from the second series of the immortal Channel 4 clerical sitcom Father Ted, entitled The Old Grey Whistle Theft. (For those unfamiliar, seek it out – it is one of the most hysterically funny comedies ever devised). Dererevnsky Detektiv starred an actor called Mikhail Zharov, a gnarled veteran involved in Russian film for seven decades; Morrison uses the recovered, distorted reels as a framework around which he traces the not inconsiderable arc of Zharov’s career, sampling his other films and providing other assorted memorabila to forge what amounts to a commentary about (as well as a metaphor for) twentieth century Russian history.
Inevitably Morrison initially asked Jˇhannsson for a soundtrack to accompany this project; his friend agreed but wrongfooted the filmmaker by suggesting a work for percussion alone. The Icelander’s unexpected death instead led to Morrison approaching David Lang who duly contributed the present sequence, which Morrison presumably considered to be more aptly scored for solo accordion.
This extended introduction is necessary to explain the singular context which necessitated the genesis of this music; it greatly exceeds in quantity the thoughts I wish to share about Lang’s tasteful and perfectly agreeable score, gracefully and imaginatively performed as it is by Frode Andersen and presented in pristine Cantaloupe sound. Each short piece is accessible, atmospheric and succeeds in evoking shades of sepia or lichen green melancholy. Whether it’s the sound of the accordion per se, Lang’s dark melodies and evocative harmonies, or maybe just one’s prior knowledge about the concept, each of these pieces seems Slavic in spirit and nostalgic in mood. They are consistently uncomplicated and most idiomatically conceived for the instrument, although Lang still exhibits his experimental zeal here and there (the strange crunching dissonances in the instrumental version of I cross the field, the Cagean hyper-simplicity of rambling canister, the prog-rocky effects of slow loop). The ten minutes of continuous fall seems to act as the pivot for the cycle and recalls some of John Adams’ early adventures with slow music; it bridges the divide between the first seven cues which are brief fragments and the longer numbers which follow. For the final track the singer-songwriter Shara Nova offers a poignant vocal account of
I cross the field which is noteworthy for the warm objectivity of her tone and the transparency of her diction.
Ultimately soundtrack junkies, accordion lovers and many others will find Lang’s music agreeable and undemanding, although possibly the most important critical question one might ask is impossible to answer without seeing the film itself; given that it’s only just hit US art-house cinemas in the last couple of days (reviews have been broadly favourable) I suspect it will be some time before I can fairly appraise this music in its actual soundtrack context.
1. ask [1:17]
2. I cross the field (instrumental) [4:07]
3. rambling canister [1:34]
4. mz 1915 [1:32]
5. fall of the romanoffs [2:19]
6. darker village [1:30]
7. slow loop [2:48]
8. continuous fall [10:36]
9. simple tune [4:07]
10. simple tune slow [3:55]
11. epiphany [4:21]
12. the fragile eternal [3:12]
13. the fragile eternal low octave [3:11]
14. continuous present [4:55]
15. I cross the field [4:13]