A MUSICAL METAMORPHOSIS by ORLANDO DI LASSO

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One of the legacies of my extended sojourn in chapel choirs, from the age of 7 to 22, is an abiding love for unusual corners of the Anglican choral repertoire.  Long before I myself had to compose intricate 5-part counterpoint at various desks in damp libraries and assorted examination halls, I grew to love the polyphonic repertoire of Palestrina, Josquin and other masters of the Renaissance by actually singing it.  As my interest in early music expanded I corralled various friends into putting on concerts of what were then practically unknown works: early French organum from Notre-Dame, Machaut and Ockeghem.

After a recent back operation I decided to reconnect with my love of singing in choirs by joining a couple of ensembles at UCLA.  I have already written about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of singing Beethoven under the masterful baton of the legendary choral teacher Donald Neuen, in his farewell concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall.  But UCLA offers many other conduits for those wanting to embark on unusual musical adventures.  In particular, the UCLA Early Music Ensemble brings together an eclectic group of students and faculty from all disciplines, together with some interlopers from the community like myself, to perform anything from Baroque standards to way-off-the-beaten-path curiosities from across the world and across the centuries.  Instrumentalists play authentic instruments of the period.

In one chamber concert we tackled a delightful potpourri of works by French and Flemish masters of the Renaissance, and for this particular work — “La Nuict Froide et Sombre” (The Cold and Somber Night) — I was asked to write the program notes.  Here they are, and at the end you can watch our performance.

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Orlando di Lasso, also known as Lassus, was something of a rock star in the hushed cloisters of 16th century polyphony.  Legend has it that he was abducted no less than three times for the beauty of his youthful singing voice.  Judging by the ubiquity of his works in print, he was also one of the first composers in history to understand the financial benefits of a good publishing deal.  It enabled him to spend most of his life in stable employment at the Bavarian court in Munich where he enjoyed enormous creative freedom.

Lassus performing at the Bavarian court

Lassus performing at the Bavarian court

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You are about to hear why his music was so popular.  He was able, within the strict compositional methods required at the time, to cultivate a more earthy and sensual manner that humanized the sacred.  His gift for word setting was especially evident in his series of French chansons, which were amongst the most widely known and popular works in late 16th century Europe.  The text for “La Nuict Froide et sombre” is by Joachim de Bellay, one of a group of poets who turned to Greek and Roman poetry as a way to revitalize the form.

Joachim de Bellay

Joachim de Bellay

This poem clearly channels Ovid to depict a scene of cosmic metamorphosis thus:

“The cold and somber night

Covering with dark shadow

The earth and the skies

As sweetly as honey

Dripping from the sky

Pours sleep into our eyes.

Then the glowing sky

To labour calling

Reveals its faint light

And in varied hues

This great universe

Unfurls and forms.”

(my translation)

This text may be secular, but its depiction of the unity of creation and the constantly renewing cycle of day and night would have resonated with devotional literature of the time.  The diurnal cycle thus mirrors how despair and hope are constantly evolving into one another in the Evening and Morning meditations.  That Lasso is aware of this resonance between nature and the spiritual life is reflected in both the pictorial detail and the underlying religiosity of his word setting.  The descent of night at the opening is depicted in a series of slow-moving but harmonically unsettled chords.  Contrasts between high and low registers accentuate the poet’s invocation of the earth and sky.  A sequence of drooping suspensions perfectly mimics the effect of sleep upon the eyes.  Throughout, a virtuosic use of chromaticism invokes not only the diaphanous quality of the scene being described, but also the profound sensuality of Nature’s effects.  In that profundity the metamorphosis of day into night, and night into day, is rendered into a spiritual contemplation of palpable physicality.

BEETHOVEN TRANSFIGURED ( THE NEUEN EFFECT )

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To transfigure: to transform into something more beautiful or elevated

There are experiences in all our lives that so completely transcend the mundane that we step out of time completely. Those experiences live on in the eternal present in our heads and we are, on some deep molecular level, altered by them – utterly.

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I had one such experience recently. I was not the sole participant in the event that prompts these words. But I dare say many of the 300-plus performers who shared the stage with me at UCLA’s Royce Hall felt similarly. We were there for two reasons. First to perform two of Beethoven’s great choral works, the Mass in C and the Choral Fantasy. Second, to mark and celebrate the extraordinary musical life of our conductor and choirmaster, Donald Neuen, Distinguished Professor of Choral Music at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.

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At the age of 80, after a sixty-year career of conducting and teaching, Donald was retiring. Yes, that white-haired gentleman on the podium summoning up a veritable tempest of musical joy was less a Prospero thinking of lazy afternoons in a more temperate clime, than a newly liberated Ariel, ready to take on the world with mischief to spare.

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There are those people who feed on life and give nothing in return, who drain the colors from the canvas. Then there are those who accept nothing as enough, who believe everything is possible, and who view adversity as opportunity. Opportunity to strive, to create, to enrich, to find the Yes buried within the No. Beethoven was one such man, and Donald Neuen is another. When these two finally meet, it won’t be over sedate scones and Earl Grey at the Elysian Tea Rooms. There will be no talk of what was and what could have been. No Falstaffian reminiscences of “the days we have seen”. More likely the conversation will go something like this:

Neuen: “So, been working on anything new?”

Beethoven: “Yes. But it’s really difficult. I doubt you can find a choir capable of singing it.”

Neuen: “Then I’ll make one.” (Turning to the hovering angels): “Now who among you can actually sing?”

The 13-year-old Beethoven

The 13-year-old Beethoven

It seems as if Beethoven, like music, has always been a part of my life. As a toddler I figured out how to operate my father’s old portable record-player with precocious alacrity, and, along with Holst’s Planets and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Beethoven’s symphonies were rarely far from the spinning turntable. The hammer blows of the 5th, the frenzied dance of the 7th, and the soaring finale of the 9th were the soundtrack to my precocity. The Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the Pastoral for its musical depiction of walks in the countryside, bucolic peasant scenes and thunderstorms, remains my go-to piece for spiritual solace. It’s music that puts what really matters in life into perspective, that says: “This is you, and this is your place in the cosmos. Treasure the world around you and it will bring you enlightenment.”

It’s a truth we still find hard to live by.

Beethoven was at odds with the world, and his music reflects his Promethean spirit with a naked, and sometimes painful, honesty. He accepts nothing, wants everything, and rails against the gods when he has to settle for something less than the ideal – which is most of the time. His deafness, the cruelest of cruel jokes to ever befall a composer, would have felled most musicians; instead it emboldened Beethoven. When you can no longer hear the sounds of this present world, you imagine the sonorities of worlds to come. And so it was with Beethoven: his music grasps for a future he desperately wants not only to hear, but also to live. His notebooks testify to his struggle to find the language – the notes – to encapsulate those sounds, that vision.

One of Beethoven's sketchbooks, containing material for the Missa Solemnis. This was once owned by Mendelssohn.

One of Beethoven’s sketchbooks, containing material for the Missa Solemnis. This was once owned by Mendelssohn.

Musical ideas erupt messily from the pages, some scratched out in a fervor of second and third thoughts. The masterpieces in his portfolio are legion, spread across all musical genres of the time. They articulate a humanist, inclusive, utopian vision, brought about as much through music as through political and ideological reformation. This vision finds its fullest public expression in the end of Fidelio and the Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony. The more interior reckoning is to be found in the late piano sonatas and quartets.

Beethoven at work

Beethoven at work

By some miracle of happenstance (or the benign influence of a god who loves music), Beethoven lived at the precise moment in time when musical language could, for the first time, sufficiently encompass his Dionysian impulses within an Apollonian frame. This was during the maturation of the so-called Classical period, articulated and embodied by Haydn and Mozart. Harmonic language found itself at a point of complete equilibrium between concord and discord. Tonality was held in balance, yet to succumb to the unraveling by the late Romantics that resulted in dodecaphony at the turn of the 19th century: the equalizing of all harmonic impulses, be they concordant or discordant – the democratizing of dissonance. As music plunged towards the maelstrom of the 20th century it moved towards a liberation from any sense of a tonal center in the music of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and early Schoenberg. From here it was but a small step to the convulsions of Stravinsky, Bartok and the birth of serialism.

In the Classical period (roughly 1730 to 1820), rhythm had become sufficiently liberated to both disrupt and also assert order.  Beethoven was too wayward and forward-thinking a spirit for the more formal structures of the Baroque, and in the 20th century the freedom to do anything tonally and rhythmically would have overly diluted the tension between disruption and resolution (or, perhaps more accurately, containment) that drives his musical dialectic.

Beethoven by Hornemann, 1803

Beethoven by Hornemann, 1803

Sonata form – the principal means by which musical material was organized at the time – was the cornerstone of the Classical era in which he composed. It had just enough elasticity to allow him to push his ideas to the limit without breaking the vessel. You see hear this over and over again, but never more tellingly so than in the famous passage in the development section of the Eroica Symphony’s first movement, where a series of hammer blows in the form of dissonant chords threatens to upend the entire harmonic and rhythmic structure. But just when you think the musical vessel is going to buckle and break completely, Beethoven pulls back so that the music’s natural order can reassert itself. (Almost a century later, Stravinsky, working with the same kind of hammer-blow motif in The Rite of Spring, is only too happy to splinter the vessel asunder and ride headlong into the whirlwind.)

Soviet-era stamp, 1970

Soviet-era stamp, 1970

These kinds of musicological preoccupations take on a different hue when one actually has to perform Beethoven’s music. In his own lifetime, the impulse behind the music – its deeper intent and modes of expression – reached beyond the notes written on the page to a degree that musicians and listeners found difficult to wrap their heads around. Even the instruments themselves seemed inadequate. The so-called Hammerklavier­ sonata for solo piano, which did, literally, hammer in a manner designed to cripple, it seemed, the instrument’s mechanism, was merely the first volley of an all-out assault on the piano’s physical capabilities. Beethoven’s music was a major factor in the instrument’s evolution away from Haydn’s polite parlor-room fortepiano into the über-instrument of today: the 9-foot long Steinway Grand used in today’s concert halls.

Controversy still rages over the precise meanings of Beethoven’s seemingly contradictory (and often willfully impossible-to-play) metronome markings (the score’s indication of what speed the music should be taken at). These issues have still not been entirely resolved by the most recent, scholarly editions of his works by Jonathan del Mar, as witness the frequency with which his recommendations are ignored by conductors. (Though this might be more accounted for by the extent to which interpreters, especially conductors, feel a right – indeed a need – to appropriate Beethoven for their own aesthetic agendas, and damn the textual niceties. Two recent examples of this inclination are Mikhael Pletnev and Christian Thielemann.)

Autograph score for Mass in C

Autograph score for the Mass in C

Given the technical and interpretive challenges of Beethoven’s music, it was hardly surprising that at our first choir rehearsal for our concert, Professor Neuen began by addressing two core issues for anyone planning to sing Beethoven: vocal production and rhythm.

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He talked about how Beethoven demanded an intensity of singing that, if one did not employ good technique, could literally tear one’s vocal chords. To avoid this he talked about how one must project more from one’s forehead than from one’s chest, and he carefully walked us through the way to achieve this (complete with diagrams). Allied to this was an idea we had to firmly implant in our brains of sending forth our voices from our bodies in a cone – an almost literal, physical projection of sound. (This also came with a diagram). By the time of our concert, seven weeks later, that “cone of sound” would be hitting the audience like a physical force, a literal “wall of sound”, even when we were singing pianissimo.

At some point in the midst of the rehearsal process, when our singing was occasionally lacking a certain focus and power, Professor Neuen pulled out a book about the great choral conductor, Robert Shaw, with whom he had trained and worked, and whose approach to choir training he had absorbed and emulated.

Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw

He read us a quote from Shaw:

“People, the flesh must not be weak. Beethoven is not precious, he’s prodigal as hell. He tramples all over nicety. He’s ugly, heroic; he roars, he lusts after beauty, he rages after nobility. Be ye not temperate. Enter ye into his courts on horseback.”

This came from a letter Shaw had written to his choir, the New York Collegiate Chorale, as they prepared for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th under the baton of the legendary maestro, Arturo Toscanini. The letter continued:

“Which, being freely translated, means: Get your backs and your bellies into it. You can’t sing Beethoven from the neck up – you’ll bleed. Quit sitting back on your soft little laurels. Get your feet on the floor. Get elbow room. Spread your back. Keep your neck decently erect and your throat open. Don’t lead with your chin. And give with the part of your gut that ties onto your ribs. Make your body do part of the work. And, oh yes! Get lots of sleep. Read lots of good books. Drink lots of milk and orange juice. Think good clean thoughts. Love your neighbor – and Allah be praised.”

Robert Shaw conducting the New York Collegiat Chorale at opening of United Nations Building in 1953

Robert Shaw conducting the New York Collegiate Chorale at opening of United Nations Building in 1953

This advice Donald recommended we follow too. I swear a look of quiet despair passed across the faces of those students inclined to dedicate the end of the school year to more Dionysian pursuits. Yet adhere to Donald’s dictum they needs must do: it was already clear he inspired fierce loyalty, devotion and love in his singers. This was all the more remarkable considering the majority of the choir consisted of non-music majors. The keg parties would have to wait.

As to rhythm, this is at the core of Beethovenian style. His music’s characteristic cut-and-thrust is achieved, in part, by accenting the offbeats and upbeats which, traditionally in music up to and including this period, are played more lightly, leading into the heavier downbeats. This off-the-beat accenting is so counter-intuitive, going against pretty much all the early training musicians receive, that Professor Neuen was reminding us of it right up to the dress rehearsal. With the orchestra in full flight, those lazy upbeats (KYR-i-E instead of the required Kyr-I-e) would cause him to yell “BEETHOVEN!!!!” and, somewhat shamefaced, we would make the necessary adjustment.

Neuen in rehearsal

Thrilling as the concert was (and it was thrilling, like riding a bucking bronco on a high-wire over the Grand Canyon), it was the many weeks of rehearsal leading up to it that I treasure. Attending rehearsals was like embarking on a great journey with a companion from whom one never ceases learning. I had forgotten (as so many of us do once we leave school) what it is like to embark on a course of study in the company of a great teacher and inspirer of men. There is a sense of moving towards a place of enlightenment that the so-called “real world” of jobs, marriage and kids can seem to deliberately obfuscate.

Arrayed around Professor Neuen in rising semi-circular tiers, like the audience before the actors in a Greek amphitheatre, we were alternately coaxed, lulled, harangued, goaded, bullied, inspired, shamed and seduced into action by the kind of leadership that wins Superbowls and great battles. In fact, Neuen has been compared to the legendary coach of UCLA basketball, John Wooden, known as much for inspiring the hearts and minds of generations of student players as for capturing trophies. Neuen had, in fact, once contemplated a career in sports, that is until he became involved in choral training. Once he caught the choir bug there was no turning back.

Donald Neuen at a recording session, 1987

Donald Neuen (r.) at a recording session, 1987

 

But, as I rapidly learned, the strictly musical preparation that took place on Monday and Wednesday afternoons was only one part of the “Neuen experience”. In the midst of wrestling with half and quarter notes, recalcitrant tuning, listless rhythms and all the other ailments that afflict even the nimblest of choirs, the Professor would put down his baton, settle into the back of his stool and invite us to share a “sit-back” moment. There would follow a reminiscence, or an anecdote, or an observation of musical methodology or history, that would, first of all, be informative and helpful to what you were trying to achieve in the rehearsal room. But then you would start to realize there were other applications for these bon mots. They were little lessons to make you feel better about how your day was going, where your life was at the moment, and where it might go in the future. All those petty preoccupations and obsessions from outside the rehearsal room, the general life-malaise with which we so easily fill our daily internal monologue, would suddenly all reveal themselves as the utterly disposable bric-a-brac they truly were. From there it was but a small step to putting them all into a little box, placing them in a drawer, closing and locking it with the thought that you might revisit at a later date, but actually you also might not need to. Then it was “Back to Beethoven”!

 

The concert hall at Eisenstadt where the Mass in C had its first performance

The concert hall at Eisenstadt where the Mass in C had its less-than-triumphant first performance. Prince Esterhazy II, who had commissioned the work, was none too happy, declaring: “But Beethoven, what have you done here?”

 

The Neuen “sit-back” moments, I learned, were famous, and rightly so. They were the lobs of a great champion on the tennis-court of the day’s preoccupations, bringing with them enlightenment and inspiration. They slowed down life’s driving forehands, jabs and seemingly insurmountable volleys and overheads. They changed the rhythm of the game, so that the defensive back foot play reset the balance of power. From love-forty down one could find oneself serving for the match.

And so, finally, and all too quickly, came the performance itself: the pomp and splendor of some 350 performers arrayed across the stage of one of the world’s great concert halls, UCLA’s Royce Hall.

 

UCLA Royce Hall at night

It was here that the Decca recording label made many of its most celebrated recordings of the 60s and 70s, capturing the legendary acoustic and the sounds of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with its now classic array of “Decca tree” microphones.

 

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Royce Hall from Sunset Boulevard, 1924

Royce Hall (left) from Sunset Boulevard, 1924

Under construction

 

Led by Dr. Rebecca Lord, who gained her PhD at UCLA under Neuen’s tutelage, and who had then become an Associate Professor in the Choral Department, there were speeches, tears – and even bugle volleys courtesy of fellow faculty member, Jens Lindemann, of the Canadian Brass.

 

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(l. to. r) Jens Lindemann, CEA Vice President Stephanie Sybert, Dr. Rebecca Lord, Professor Donald Neuen, CEA President Kanwal Sumnani, and SPARK Coordinator Elizabeth Seger

 

Current and former pupils and singers who had been touched by the Neuen magic flew in from around the country. The house was packed for a concert whose costs were met by an online campaign organized by the students themselves.

 

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Dr. Rebecca Lord and Professor Neuen

 

But finally, ineffably, after the tributes and the farewells, there was the most important thing of all —

— the music.

The Agnus Dei from the autograph score to the Mass in C

The Agnus Dei from the autograph score to the Mass in C

 

Music by Beethoven!

 

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

 

As Professor Neuen strode towards the podium one last time for the Mass, he shook his fists like a great baseball hitter heading out to the plate in extra innings, bases loaded. Everything to win, everything to lose. He mouthed only one word: Beethoven! And we all knew exactly what work had to be done.

 

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To participate in a great performance, led by a great conductor, is to reach so far beyond oneself that the process has the quality of a dream. Or, sometimes, a delirium. An articulate, controlled delirium, but a delirium nonetheless.

The notes are learned, everything is practiced and rehearsed to the nth degree, yet in the moment of performance the process is a both a frenzy and a becalming. Our minds are necessarily racing, because all music-making at this level is primarily about thinking hard and fast, always one step ahead of the score.

Our thoughts are driving our bodies to make the required sounds with constant changes in pitch, rhythm and expression. In the process we seem to become almost autonomous, divorced from ourselves, bound up into a collective, but also singular, act of creation.

The conductor’s baton, his eyes, his will, gather us up into a single thought. And in that thought, that moment, it seems as if the notes were never actually written down by the composer, the music never printed, never passed around, never scrutinized, studied, dissected and re-assembled, never worried over ad infinitum in the rehearsal room. The notes, the music, seem simply to emerge spontaneously in the here and now, drawn up from some distant consciousness we call Beethoven, to be hurled into the cosmos like the fire Prometheus stole from the gods.

With Beethoven one always seems to come back to the prodigious Prometheus; the composer even wrote music for a ballet about the mythical figure.

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What, asks Man of his gods, is it for, this music? What does it mean?

Why, the gods answer, do you need to ask?

The music, and the making of the music, is its own answer.

And so, the orchestra plays, the soloists and choristers sing: “a lifetime”, as T.S.Eliot writes in Burnt Norton, “burning in every moment”.

 

Professor Neil Stobart, soloist in the Choral Fantasy

Professor Neil Stulberg, soloist in the Choral Fantasy

 

The 80-year-old professor who has given his ideas, his passion and his grace to his students, friends, colleagues, family and the family of men and women who have shared his life’s journey; who has given his life to music, and the idea of music – that professor stands before us one final time on the stage. He invites us, through Beethoven, to reach out into the void, and pluck forth meaning.

 

Beethoven chorale men

Soloists Sarah Grandpre, Sarah Anderson, Daniel Suk, and Michael Dean

Soloists Sarah Grandpre, Sarah Anderson, Daniel Suk, and Michael Dean

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As the conductor and choir trainer par excellence Robert Shaw once wrote:

“The Arts have a chance to become what the history of man has shown that they should be – the guide and impetus to human understanding, individual integrity, and the common good. They are not an opiate, an avoidance, or a barrier, but a unifying spirit and labor.

 

Max Klinger working on his sculpture of Beethoven

Max Klinger working on his sculpture of Beethoven

 

“The Arts are not simply skills: their concern is the intellectual, ethical and spiritual maturity of human life.
 And in a time when religious and political institutions
may lose their visions of human dignity,
they are the custodians of those values
which most worthily define humanity,
 which most sensitively define divinity
and, in fact, may prove to be 
the only workable Program of Conservation 
for the human race on the planet.”

 

Beethoven by Max Klinger, 1902

Beethoven by Max Klinger, 1902

 

And so, in Royce Hall, this extraordinary music that a deaf man wrestled into existence from the void, lives again – in our hearts and voices. In the process something deeper lives too. The Soul of Man.

 

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The teacher and leader is young again —

— and we are old.

It is a complete and perfect metamorphosis, both within – and outside of – time.

As the music sounds, we are all, performers and listeners alike, translated –

— and transfigured.

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BEETHOVEN CHORALE ONSTAGE AT ROYCE HALL

You can watch the complete concert here:

Beethoven, by Andy Warhol, 1987

Beethoven, by Andy Warhol, 1987

THEMES FOR SECRET AGENTS ( The Phase 4 Stereo Effect Part 1: James Bond, Roland Shaw, et al. )

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Note: Where indicated, audio only tracks are transfers from original vinyl in my collection, yielding the best sound quality. Otherwise, audio tracks are from 2009 CD reissue of selections from Roland Shaw’s spy soundtrack albums (where masters are unknown).

James Bond Theme (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Roland Shaw More James Bond Thrillers

Anyone who collects records has the story of a Eureka moment.  A moment when they happened upon a new record of unfamiliar music that, for whatever reason, was a revelation, and subsequently became a firm favorite, a cornerstone of their collection.  I’ve had a number of these, but one of the first happened when I was around 12.  Leafing through the record bins I happened upon a collection titled The Phase 4 World of Thrillers.  The cover was the first thing to catch my attention.  It featured all the accoutrements of the gentleman spy and world adventurer, guaranteed to pique the interest of a kid who was already devouring James Bond’s adventures on the page and screen at every possible opportunity.

phase4 world of thrillers

But the title intrigued too.  What was this “Phase 4” thing all about?  Quite a few “Phase 4” records littered the bins, both in the Classical and Easy Listening sections.  Scanning the track listing of The Phase 4 World of Thrillers revealed an eclectic range of music drawn from movies and TV shows.  It was on the Decca label, and the price was right – 99 pence – (ie. almost one pound sterling) – so I plonked down my lawn-mowing pocket-money and hurried home to listen.  This is what I heard:

The Man with the Golden Arm (Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Elmer Bernstein, composer of The Man with the Golden Arm

Elmer Bernstein, composer of The Man with the Golden Arm

Immediately I knew this was a different kind of record.  The sound was Technicolor rich and vivid, with the stereo image panned sharply to the left and right channels, in the manner of the early Beatles stereo records.  The arrangements were likewise larger-than-life and eclectic in the manner of Easy Listening records of that vintage.  The tracks featured an array of Decca’s top so-called “light music” performers and session players, along with some one-offs, like the French children’s choir version of Michel Legrand’s Oscar-winning theme from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), “Les Moulins de Mon Coeur” (“The Windmills of your Mind”).

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in publicity shot for The Thomas Crown Affair

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in publicity shot for The Thomas Crown Affair

The Windmills of Your Mind (LP transfer):

 

Michel Legrand

Michel Legrand

Divvying up the main duties were two label stalwarts: Stanley Black and Roland Shaw, supplemented by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra and what I can best describe as the “stereo novelty act” of Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos.

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Charade (Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos) (LP transfer)

 

Charade BRITISHQUAD poster

All the music was compelling, from Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-inflected On the Waterfront to Miklos Rozsa’s lurid Hollywood fantasmagoria, Spellbound, but the tracks that most caught my schoolboy imagination were those by Roland Shaw, of themes from spy movies.

The music flew out of the grooves, sexy and sassy, with gigantic drums and bass guitar, tight brass licks, and kinetic strings.  The track that really blew my ears back was I Spy.

I Spy (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Just listen to the way those opening mega drums propel us forward. (The drumming on Phase 4 records was always fantastic – was it the same player, and if so, who was he?). The brass kicks it up a notch, and then that propulsive, MASSIVE bass guitar anchors the groove while the strings punch out the theme like they are on a combination of speed and caviar. A blistering sax solo unfurls against rhythm guitar, then it’s back to those strings and fat horns punching out that 60s spy glam.  On a good stereo, the vinyl practically catches fire, filling the room with three-dimensional sound.

I spy record

I did not know it then, but Phase 4 Stereo was something more than a marketing gimmick.  Decca had long enjoyed the highest reputation amongst audiophiles for the quality of its classical recordings, achieved by the famous “Decca tree” of microphones.  This was a simple arrangement of three microphones suspended above the conductor’s head, whose aim was to “hear” the orchestra like a listener would, in natural proportions, from this optimal position. (A few supplemental microphones were carefully placed at strategic points within the orchestra to add detail to the primary sound image).  It was a minimalist approach to recording which echoed that of the similarly esteemed American audiophile labels, Mercury and RCA Living Stereo.

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Herbert von Karajan recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Sofiensaal. You can see the “tree” above his head.

In many ways the apogee of this approach to recording had been the historic issue of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle of operas under Georg Solti, produced by the legendary John Culshaw between 1958 and 1965, complete with sound effects and singers wandering around the space of an imaginary stage, just like in a radio drama.

recording Gotterdammerung

Recording Wagner’s Ring cycle in the Sofiensaal, Vienna. The singers moved between marked-out squares on the stage to create a realistic “theatrical” space for the action.

With the advent of multitrack recording in the 60s, more microphones crept into recording sessions, and the increasing tendency was for the producer and engineer to fine-tune the balance of the orchestra long after the session, rather than have the conductor do so as the recording took place.  The result, over succeeding decades, was a sound which, while more refined, with each instrument carefully placed and balanced against every other instrument, lost some of its energy and sense of “aliveness”.

What was different about the “Phase 4” recordings was that, even though they were multi-miked and artificially balanced, deliberately incorporating the idea of “stereo cool” into their marketing, they retained that sense of “aliveness”. There was a palpable excitement in the grooves, as you can hear in this arrangement of the Mission Impossible Theme of Lalo Schifrin by Roland Shaw.

Mission Impossible (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Lalo Schifrin

Lalo Schifrin

An ad for Phase 4 Stereo

An ad for Phase 4 Stereo

The instrumental colors were rich and vibrant, at times almost over-ripe.  The recordings retained many of the qualities that had made earlier Decca records audiophile favorites, while adding the extra spice of the Easy Listening palette of unusual instrumental combinations.  The arrangements reveled in artificial stereo effects, exotic orchestrations and sound effects, and the result was records which were spectacular showcases for the musicians, the music – and the listener’s stereo system.

Cover art featured eye-popping visual design

Cover art featured eye-popping visual design

Record collectors are obsessive types, and can talk for hours about the relative merits of different pressings of the same record from different eras and countries.  Early Decca records were mastered using an all-tube chain of electronics which added an organic warmth to the sound, a physical palpability to the instruments and voices.  When the company switched to solid-state electronics in the mid to late 60s, the gain in precision was offset by a loss of the natural quality which tubed electronics brought to the recording chain.  Compare identical records in different pressings made before and after the switch and you can clearly hear that difference.

Phase 4 middle of the road

Collectors will tell you that the American versions of Phase 4 records, released on the London Records imprint, are brighter sounding than the Decca originals.  Interestingly, unlike many of London’s classical releases, Phase 4 records were all mastered in England.  I hear the brightness on some titles, but not others.  Clearly some records destined for the American market were simply EQ’d differently.  I guess the assumption was that Americans needed everything a little brighter and brasher than the Brits to maintain their interest.  I’d love to know whether that assumption was based on any kind of quantifiable research.

Phase 4 Foreign Film Festival cover

In a later article I will talk about some of the other Phase 4 records which occupy pride of place in my collection, including seminal recordings of his film music by Bernard Herrmann which, along with the RCA Classic Film Score Series, played an important role in establishing the legitimacy of film music recordings as standalone LPs.  But for now, this article focuses on Phase 4 recordings of music for the various secret agents who spread across movie and TV screens in the wake of the massive popularity of James Bond.

Cover for first American edition of Ian Fleming's novel

Cover for first American edition of Ian Fleming’s novel

Here is a typical example of how the Phase 4 label spiced up the originals, with Roland Shaw doing the honors for Burt Bacharach’s theme for the “alternative” Bond romp, Casino Royale. Note the addition of screaming teenage girls to Burt Bacharach’s catchy original.

Burt Bacharach

Burt Bacharach

Roland Shaw

Roland Shaw

Phase 4’s compilations of spy themes were entirely the province of arranger/orchestrator Roland Shaw. He was one of Decca’s principal house arrangers, working for Vera Lynn, Mantovani, Ted Heath, and the label’s principal conductor of film music, Stanley Black. He also worked on several films himself as composer, including The Great Waltz, Summer Holiday, and Song of Norway. He had a passion for motor cars, of which he owned several exotic examples over the years. These ranged from a Rolls-Royce to a Bentley and a beautiful classic red Ferrari. He competed in club meetings at Silverstone, Goodwood and Brands Hatch, where he often acted as a race marshal. In fact, it was while parking his Rolls near his home in Barnes (purchased with a royalty check from Tutti Camerata) that he got his break with Decca Records. He was approached by an admirer of the vehicle, who turned out to be Frank Lee, head of A&R at the label.

Roland Shaw - the James Bond thrillers

Monty Norman

Monty Norman

Shaw’s first spy genre album, Themes from the James Bond Thrillers, was released in 1964 to coincide with Goldfinger. It was a massive hit, spawning a series of further records of “Spy” themes.

Monty Norman had composed the music for the first film in the Bond series, Dr. No, and Shaw’s arrangements filled out the minimally orchestrated originals to great effect. In this track, Underneath the Mango Tree, the addition of rippling flute and harp, plus swirling strings, creates a sense of travelogue exotica.

Underneath the Mango Tree (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

John Barry

John Barry

However, it was John Barry’s iconic arrangement of the James Bond Theme, and his scores for Goldfinger and beyond, which defined the “Spy Sound” of the Swinging Sixties soundtrack. Barry seamlessly blended his jazz and bop background with lush romantic strings and heavy Wagnerian brass chords (interspersed with fabulous, soaring breaks that wailed over the propulsive drums and bass) to create a sound that defined the cool of Bond every bit as much as the beautiful girls, designer clothes, exotic locations and futuristic gadgets.

Every bit the epitome of Swinging London: John Barry and his wife, Jane Birkin.

John Barry epitomized Swinging London just as much as the spy whose musical identity he forged on the big screen. Barry is seen here with his then wife, actress and singer Jane Birkin

You can hear all these elements at work in this music from the pre-credits sequence in Thunderball, which culminated in Bond making his escape with a jet-pack.

Chateau Fight (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Thunderball jet_pack_2

Record labels were jumping over themselves to create knock-off compilations of Bond and other spy music, using various Easy Listening arrangers and scratch bands. The results were frequently lacklustre, but every so often these cover versions struck gold. Such was the case with Roland Shaw’s series of albums for Decca Phase 4.

Roland+Shaw+-+The+Phase+4+World+Of+Spy+Thrillers+-+LP+RECORD-382357

Roland Shaw rear sleeve

In his arrangement of music from Diamonds of Forever you can hear how Shaw, while remaining true to the essence of John Barry’s original, has embellished the orchestration to highlight the Hi-Fi aspect of the recording and give it more zest.

Diamonds-are-forever-James-Bond-Poster

He has added soaring and swooning contrapuntal string lines to the original, no doubt a legacy of his arranging for Mantovani’s orchestra. Then fat, funky bass lines combine with propulsive guitar licks (even throwing in a bit of wah-wah for good measure), latin drums and stabbing brass to give the whole thing an extra tinge of pop and of the exotic. (Many Phase 4 albums highlighted unusual percussion and other sounds from world music to lend a sense of travelogue to their albums).

Roland-Shaw-Themes-From-The-J-376147

Staying with Bond, here is Shaw’s arrangement of one of Barry’s most lyrical inventions for the Bond series, You Only Live Twice.

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible in You Only Live Twice

Interestingly, one of the theme songs that Shaw leaves more or less unchanged, is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Maybe this was because the track was already one of Barry’s most exciting inventions — and why mess with perfection? It was the first title sequence in a Bond film not to feature a vocal.  Instead, to accompany visuals that recapped the previous Connery adventures in preparation for George Lazenby’s assumption of the role, Barry built a driving chase fanfare over a Moog synthesizer playing in unison with a bass guitar.

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

The Moog was a completely new kind of instrument, purely electronic with no acoustic elements, and sounds radically different even on Barry’s own various recordings of this theme.

ohmss title

In the wake of Bondmania, film and television companies fast-tracked numerous secret agent projects, all demanding their own John Barry-tinged music. One of the most successful of Bond imitators was the series starring James Coburn as an urbane American agent, which kicked off with Our Man Flint.

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

 

Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

 

Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most distinctive film composers to emerge at that time (his credits include Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Alien) provided a theme which channeled the Barry sound in its guitar licks and brass stabs. But he also added his own elements (percussion and jazzy improvisations) to convey a sense of the send-up that the film encapsulated.

Our Man Flint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Back in the U.K., a quirky TV series that combined Bondian elements with fantasy and sci-fi became a cult classic and ran for many years.

the-avengers-series

The Avengers launched the careers of several subsequent Bond girls — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The hero, John Steed, always immaculately dressed in the finest Savile Row suits, with accompanying umbrella and bowler hat, was played by Patrick MacNee, who later featured as Roger Moore’s accomplice in A View to a Kill.

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

The Avengers had a killer theme written by Laurie Johnson.

Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

The Avengers (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

One of the most successful TV riffs on Bond was The Saint, which also proved to be a training ground for a future 007, Roger Moore. Based on Leslie Charteris’s series of novels about a Robin Hood-like character, the show’s catchy theme song was the work of Edwin Astley, a prolific TV composer who became a regular contributor to ITC Entertainment which produced the show. He also scored the themes for Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Danger ManRandall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and, in a different vein entirely, Kenneth Clarke’s epic documentary series, Civilisation. The theme for The Saint opened with a characterful motif for flutes, echoed woman’s voice, vibraphone and muted trumpets which would play as a halo appeared above Roger Moore’s head. It perfectly mirrors the cheeky quality of the character and show.

The Saint - Roger Moore

This kind of unusual instrumentation was typical of the genre, and is why so much of this music is such a good fit for the exotic orchestral palette of Easy Listening records. (Shaw’s arrangement dispenses with the woman’s vocal but goes to town in the blaring brass section; there’s that terrific drumming again too.)

the-saint- with car

The Saint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

A precursor to Bond was the American TV show Peter Gunn, the creation of maverick film-maker Blake Edwards, one of the most underrated talents among post-War American writer/directors, who found enormous commercial success with the Pink Panther movies.

Peter_Gunn poster

The iconic theme song, by his long-time collaborator Henry Mancini, undoubtedly influenced later composers working in the genre (including Barry).

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy from Peggy Lee for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn has been much covered, most notably by cult 80s group The Art of Noise, with Duane Eddy taking on the guitar “twanging” duties. In his version, Roland Shaw doubles that guitar line with an early synthesizer, adds some percussion pops for Hi-Fi glitter, and plays up the drums and jazzy improvised elements.

Not all spy movies of the 60s were upbeat. John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold offered Richard Burton one of his most celebrated roles in a gritty cat-and-mouse game set in a divided Berlin. The muted, evocative score was by Sol Kaplan.

The Spy who came in from the cold

The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Another highly successful series that, tonally, fell somewhere between Fleming and Le Carre, was launched with The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as the world-weary British agent Harry Palmer. The series shared much of Bond’s DNA, not surprisingly because the producer was Harry Saltzman (half of Eon Productions), bringing with him Bond’s editor, Peter Hunt, and production designer, Ken Adam. The music was also by John Barry, who used his taste for exotic instrumentation (in this case the cimbalom) to evoke eastern menace on the streets of London.

ipcress-file- Music by John Barry

The Ipcress File (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

John Barry also contributed a memorable score to The Quiller Memorandum (1966). George Segal and Alec Guinness starred in this straight ahead cold war thriller, with a script by Harold Pinter.

Quiller_memorandum_EP6305

Wednesday’s Child from The Quiller Memorandum (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

In finest Easy Listening fashion, even Shaw was not afraid to go with a somewhat cheesy vocal arrangement when called for. Here is his take on one of Burt Bacharach’s numbers from Casino Royale. (In the film it was only used as an instrumental; this is the version with Hal David’s lyrics).

Casino Royale record cover

Note, as always, the fabulous drumming and that tight rhythm guitar. I wonder how many bachelor pads have echoed to this track at the cocktail hour…..

Martini anyone?

James-Bond-Martini

“Let the Love Come Through” from Casino Royale (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Avengers - cocktails

Twisting with James (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Bond Connery aston martin Goldfinger

 

THE MAN IN THE MACHINE ( Kraftwerk Live at Disney Hall )

Kraftwerk - silhouettes

One of the most momentous discoveries of my musical life happened almost by accident.  I was a teenager at boarding-school, just hanging out one afternoon, when one of my friends sauntered by.

“Read about a pretty cool album in this week’s New Musical Express.  You should check it out.”

He ambled away down the corridor, and after a few minutes returned with a copy of the music broadsheet.  On the cover were four men dressed in red shirts and black ties, hair plastered down, heavily made up, their faces locked in expressionless sideways gazes, arranged in a highly stylized shot that reeked of both Teutonic totalitarianism and mechanistic macho.

kraftwerk2

“I think this might be right up your alley”.  No, he wasn’t making a crack at my expense.  My friend knew that I was heavily into avant-garde classical music, and especially the German avatar of progressive and electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

He opened the paper to the feature review.  It was of an album called The Man Machine, and those four men on the cover were its creatorscollectively known as Kraftwerk.

Kraftwerk_-_The_Man-Machine

From the moment I started reading about this band I realized this was music I had to investigate.  I inhaled the article.  I was only just starting to listen to pop and rock seriously; up until then I had been strictly into classical and jazz, assembling a semi-improvisatory ensemble when I was 12.  But recently I had discovered Pink Floyd and David Bowie and was getting really fired up by these new musical worlds.  By the time I finished the article I knew I had to have the record, and headed down to the local record store as soon as I could.  That record is still with me, one of my prized possessions, albeit with one chewed corner courtesy of a family pup who bypassed Bach and Basie in favor of Krautrock, discriminating fellow that he was.  On a good system this record sounds like you are inside the man machine.  Those analog synths and drums are fat.  None of the reissues or even the American pressing comes close to the sound of that original English pressing.

Kraftwerk-The_Man_Machine-Interior_Frontal

I will never forget the first time I played the album.  It was on headphones and I didn’t just listen.  I was absorbed into the music, and into a sound world unlike any other.  The electronic canvas was so rich it felt organic, and the short, motivic melodies were immediately catchy.  The occasional human voices, often fed through a range of processing devices, were flat and mechanistic, yet also oddly imbued with real feeling.  There was a sense of melancholic machine chanting.  The B-side led off with a number that is the closest the group has ever come to a conventional single, The Model.   The song plays on how we objectify feminine beauty, turning models into remote, almost technological creatures: infinitely desirable, and infinitely unapproachable.  It is an incisive piece of musical observation, made all the more poignant for the yearning that lurks just beneath the surface.  That yearning is transmogrified into something both familiar and otherworldly in the next song, Neon Lights, a tour de force of electronic expressionism.  I think it is their greatest track, a road song of the modern urban experience, driving through canyons of steel with the neon lights of the city dancing and dazzling the senses.  Cascades of shimmering synthesizers ripple over a relentless march beat and a simple, haunting melody, again tinged with melancholy.

Neon lights

Shimmering neon lights

And at the fall of night

The city’s made of light.

Neon Lights live

Many a time I have found myself on a freeway, sometimes with a light or heavy rain to deepen the electric shadows, with that music playing on the stereo or in my memory.  I am sucked into a netherworld of strange, Metropolis beauty.  (Metropolis, not surprisingly, is the title of another track on the album: an apt hommage to Fritz Lang’s silent epic which defined the modern cityscape on film, in our heads, and finally in reality).

The Tower of Babel in Metropolis

The Tower of Babel in Metropolis (1927)

Kraftwerk performing Metropolis

Metropolis live

I still hear details in that record that I’ve not heard before, it is that well-crafted.  At the time of the album’s release I was not alone in the opinion that this group was creating something unique, not just in pop music, but in music, period.  I immediately bought their earlier albums, Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express.

trans-europe-express1

I quickly discovered that Kraftwerk were sui generis, and today they are hailed as the most influential group ever, even more so than The Beatles.  And it’s not just the music which continues to ripple through practically every genre, even non-electronic music.  (Listen to Philip Glass or Steve Reich and Kraftwerk is right there at the heart of their work.  No surprise then that their appearance at Disney Hall is part of a citywide celebration of musical minimalism).  Kraftwerk’s stripped-down sense of design, for example, was a huge influence on Peter Saville, who designed covers for Joy Division and New Order, and spawned a million imitators.

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover

Peter Saville's cover for Blue Monday single

Peter Saville’s cover for Blue Monday single

At the time these record covers were the complete opposite of Roger Dean’s visual fantasias for Yes, as was the music.  Everything was stripped down to the essentials.  Repetitious and hypnotic rhythms were so carefully layered that they avoided any of the dead-hand quality of their numerous imitators.  Melodies were short and mesmeric, and full of romantic yearning.  Kraftwerk’s tunes are some of the most memorable in pop.  That romantic quality evokes the human in the machine, and it is in that domain that Kraftwerk’s music breathes and finds its staying power.  The only other techno act that I think approaches that quality is Massive Attack, but it does so with more conventional vocals laid on top of the electronic palette.

In the Kling-Klang studio

In the Kling-Klang studio

The thing about Kraftwerk is that it’s a band whose work still sounds incredibly modern at the same time as feeling timeless.   No matter that you can hear the evolutions in electronic instrument technology from album to album. (Techno Pop, formerly Electric Café, is suffused with the new digital technology of Yamaha’s DX-7 synth, and was the least well-received of their albums, though in its new remastering it is redeemed).  Timeless, indeed, as the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner that came out of Germany’s classical tradition.  But it was in reaction to that tradition that Kraftwerk crafted its distinctive sound and ethos.

Kraftwerk_by_Ueli_Frey_(1976)

After the war, German musicians wanted to do, and be, anything so long as it was far away from the German classical tradition which had been heavily tainted by its co-option by Hitler into his promotion of the Aryan ideal.  Young musicians needed to turn their back on centuries of German high culture, but they also shied away from the popular forms of their conquerors.  Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider started Kraftwerk in 1970 within the loose umbrella of the Krautrock movement, and their early albums used conventional instruments and free-form improvisation seasoned with the spice of electronic manipulation.  But their compositions were essentially conventional in method and execution.

kraftwerk_moma2-boettcher_1_wide-d5a63a7731b7db04be982e559dd4e0283ee1eb63-s6-c30

That all changed with Autobahn, whose single A-side concept piece was an electronic realization of the aural and aesthetic experience of crossing Germany via the new freeway system that had no speed limit.

waltdisneyconcerthallmar18-600x218

It was a revelation, both for what electronics could now do, and for its reinvention of what a pop record could be.  And it was as potent in its ideas — of sound as movement, and vice versa; of engagement with technology as romantic — as it was in its execution.  Its successors were no less influential.  In particular, Trans-Europe Express, which did for rail travel what Autobahn had done for motorways.   Together with The Man Machine and Computer World, these albums created a sense of what it felt like to exist as a human being in the late 20th century: one’s humanity slowly leeching away from the organic experience of life, through the mediation of technology, into something both immediate and distancing, something “other”.

KRAFTWERK 3D MoMA

On Trans Europe Express people remember the epic title track and its extension, Metal on Metal, but they forget about the haunting Hall of Mirrors, a meditation on identity and celebrity with glistening synthesizer figures rippling against a pointed refrain (“Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking-glass”), and the elegiac Franz Schubert, a techno call-out to Germany’s most lyrical and poetic composer, who in the here and now is buried beneath the literal and aesthetic railroad tracks of the new Germany.

kraftwerk-3d-trans europe expres

It is often claimed that hip-hop begins with Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 club hit Planet Rock, which quotes from Trans-Europe Express and Computer World I remember hearing this on the dance floor of London’s legendary Camden Palace, and being blown away both by the fact that I knew where the melody and rhythm had come from, and that they now existed in this cool new context.

KRAFTWERK 3D Der Katalog  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Kunstsammlung NRW Düsseldorf 2013

But back to The Man Machine, which I think is Kraftwerk’s most fully realized and perfect record.  This was the album in which the individual members of the band finally disappeared into their conceptual creation.  They became their own robots, literally using mechanical alter-egos in videos and live performance.

This week I revisited this album in vivo, so to speak, as part of the band’s 4-day trip through their complete oeuvre in live performance in the iconic performing space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

walt_disney_concert_hall_sg020808

Two modern icons working in tandem, so to speak.

Kraftwerk 3-D disney hall

disney_concert_hall4-2

Only Ralf Hutter of the original band still remains, one of four “operators” onstage (Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen), all standing behind minimalist work stations (one of whom “mixes” the 3-D visual component of the show in real time).

Kraftwerk - Hutter projection

Quite apart from the excitement of finally seeing one of my favorite bands in action, I couldn’t wait to see how music that is so essentially “canned” would work as a live show.  Stripped of the crowd-pleasing elements of the typical live rock or pop show, like barnstorming guitar or drum solos, I wondered how well the Kraftwerk aesthetic of complete control and pre-determination would play for an audience.

Kraftwerk in 1981

Kraftwerk in 1981

It took about a minute for my doubts to evaporate.  First of all the sound, the best I’ve ever heard at a live rock show, was both muscular and delicate, subtle and forceful, going as deep as any bass I’ve ever heard.  And it travelled through the space – around, about, and in and out.  No doubt those famous Disney acoustics had a hand in rendering the Kraftwerk sound so vividly and precisely.

Kraftwerk – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 TOKYO AKASAKA BLITZ

Whatever elements were pre-programmed, nothing about the musical performance felt canned, and the personality of each member of the band clearly emerged in the ways in which familiar musical lines were varied, embellished, speeded up and slowed down.  In a nice touch at the end, each player had a chance to improvise at his work station, and I was left wishing they had done a little bit more performing on the musical fly.

Kraftwerk onstage current

But it was the visuals that added a whole new dimension to the Kraftwerk experience.  On a large screen behind the four band members (who wore black suits with grids on them), a mixture of ultra-high tech and almost retro video, fully exploiting the ability of 3-D imagery to pluck at your eyes, created a fully integrated “happening”.

Kraftwerk - Disney Concert Hall - March 18, 2014

autobahn - vw

Kraftwerk live w: drawings

kraftwerk spacelab

In fact, the whole evening felt closer to a piece of performance art than to a concert, which is no doubt one of the reasons why these events have been mostly presented in museums and architecturally significant spaces rather than stadiums.  Viewing and hearing the Kraftwerk oeuvre as a whole one was struck not just by its originality and uniqueness, but by its prophetic nature.

Kraftwerk_TateModern_Feb13-144_1360242498_crop_550x372

Everything about how technology has come to shape our lives was there in this extraordinary music, created years before this phenomenon fully came to pass.  Nowhere was this more evident than in a sequence from Computer World.

Kraftwerk-Numbers-Electronic-Beats1-940x626

Here, patterns of fluorescent numbers flashed by and undulated towards us in sensual waves, while the music alternatively spiked and caressed, threatened and lulled.  It all perfectly caught the dichotomy of our love-hate affair with personal technology.

kraftwerk-perform-3d-headlining-act-at-sonar-by-night-in-barcelona_2155365

The most chilling note was sounded with the performance of Radioactivity from the lesser-known album of the same name.

Kraftwerk – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Tate Modern

Against a deeply funky groove, the names of nuclear incidents like Chernobyl and Harrisburg flashed on the screen, and then —

horishimakrafwerk_2477923b

Fukushima copy

Germany has committed itself to going nuclear-free within a couple of decades.  In a nice twist of fate, the country that originated modern mechanized warfare with the objective of cultural subjugation and annihilation has become more sensitive to the lessons of technological misdeeds than its conquerors.  Maybe the rest of us, those who are inclined to forget the lessons of history, and are unwilling to accept the prophecies of climate science, are indeed destined to dance with Death into oblivion.  If so, it will be in beautiful buildings like Disney Hall, and all to the techno stylings of a generation of musicians who confronted the dehumanizing legacy of their forefathers by seeking the man in the machine, and vice-versa.  It is an irony at which Mr. Hutter would no doubt smile.

kraftwerk robots with instruments

Kraftwerk Boing

11__Kraftwerk

And in the world of Kraftwerk cover bands —

KKK4 cover & back

( HOW MANY MILES TO ) BABYLON?

Grace Kelly b&w

BAB-Y-LON (noun): a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure (Origin: ancient city of Babylonia). (Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

LA LA LAND (noun): The term either refers to Hollywood, Los Angeles or a state of mind synonymous with Hollywood that is out of touch with reality, focusing on dreams, fantasies or frivolous endeavors. (Source: Urban Dictionary)

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: that word is love.” — Sophocles

What do you say to the woman you love

Up there on the silver screen?

Where do you go at the end of the show

With nothing to hold but a dream?

What would you say to the golden girl?

How would you play the scene?

Oh, how would you play the scene?

to-catch-a-thief-kelly-grant

Did your dreams come true as the years rolled by

Young king of the silver screen?

william holden sunset boulevard 1

How does it feel to be tied and bound

To a fading movie queen?

What can you say at the end of the day?

How will you play the scene?

Oh, how will you play the scene?

Sunset Boulevard on couch

How many kisses crossed your lips

Before your lips met mine?

How many lovers held your hand

Before your hand touched mine?

How many hopes, how many fears?

How many hearts, how many tears?

How many miles to Babylon?

sunset boulevard dancing

Why do you gaze at the silver screen

Pretty girl in the second row?

mia_farrow_purple_rose_of_cairo

How would you act if the man came down

What do you need to know?

It’s cold out there in the neon nights

How far do you aim to go?

How far do you aim to go?

purple-rose kissing

How many kisses crossed your lips

Before your lips met mine?

How many lovers held your hand

Before your hand touched mine?

How many hopes, how many fears?

How many hearts, how many tears?

How many miles to Babylon?

Grace Kelly silhouette in LIFE

Vocal by Mary Carewe.

Song and Video by Mark Ward.

Peter Gabriel - Security cover

An excellent documentary about the making of one of the greatest rock albums of the 80s, and a highly influential one too. Peter Gabriel broke new ground in terms of integrating world music and the latest sampling and synthesizer technology into the soundscapes of one of his most adventurous albums. This documentary originally aired on British TV’s South Bank Show, and offers a unique opportunity to see this highly-regarded musician exploring new terrain. It is the best documentary I’ve ever seen about how a rock album is created.

And follow this link for a superb archive of photos taken by Larry Fast, who contributed synthesizers to this and several other Gabriel albums, during the sessions and the resulting tours.

peterlinn2 prophets

THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING MUSIC CUE ( or How “An American Werewolf in London” Lost Its Bite )

Americanwerewolf Main Title large

‘Tis the season of mysteries. And in the movie world one of many recurring mysteries is why so many film directors insist on shooting themselves in the foot, music-wise.

As in: wrong music, too much music, not enough music, music in the wrong places, and, in the most peculiar scenario of all, going to the trouble of hiring a great composer and not letting him (or her) do the job.

This comes to mind since I was recently sitting in on a film music class at UCLA, and under discussion was the issue of a director’s and composer’s intent. We looked at scenes with cues that had been shuffled to see how readily an audience picks up on music that was not originally intended for the images it played with. The answer is that film sends pretty strong signals as to what kind of music will work in any given scene, and an audience intuitively gets all of them. So mess with the natural order at your peril.

I once witnessed the phenomenon of a director shutting down his composer, and thereby unintentionally hobbling his film, during the sessions for An American Werewolf in London.

I was at university, incurring the wrath (or at least the healthy skepticism) of my professors by writing a thesis on the film music of Bernard Herrmann. This was not quite the done thing within a traditional academic syllabus, especially since I was attempting to examine the interrelationship between music and image in detail, in a truly cross-disciplinary way. I was certainly no expert in film theory; but I felt I knew enough to make the attempt. The thesis included a cue-by-cue analysis of Citizen Kane and Psycho, but I could not lay my hands on the scores for these filmsHerrmann had passed away some years earlier (the night of completing the final mix for Taxi Driver), so I contacted his last producer, Christopher Palmer, in the hopes that he could help me find the material I needed.

Christopher PalmerAt that time Christopher Palmer was the guy in film music, the only one who was writing about it seriously in the mainstream media, and helping to put together recording projects like the RCA Hollywood Classic Film Score Series and the Herrmann Phase 4 records, touchstones for how to present film music properly on LP. He was also working as an orchestrator and composer in his own right.

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Phase 4 Fantasy Film World of BH

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Back then, few people took film music seriously. Certainly not the music establishment, classical or pop. I was one of a growing number of avid film music fans whose obsession was beginning to ripple through popular culture owing to the chart topping success of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters. Suddenly one was starting to see dedicated film music concerts taking place, and the RCA series of records had paved the way for new LP compilations. While Williams was the rock star of film music, Herrmann was considered the Old Master — albeit an entirely modernist one.

One memorable day, Christopher handed over bound photocopies of the autographed scores to Citizen Kane and Psycho.

“So, Mark”, Chris said, as my mouth fell open at the sight of Herrmann’s own handwriting on the scores, “Have you ever been to a film scoring session?”

“No,” I replied.

“Well, if you are going to write about film music you’d better come and see how it’s done. I’m producing a session for Elmer Bernstein in a couple of weeks. Come and sit in.”

Bernstein and Palmer in 1995

Bernstein and Palmer in 1995

It turned out the session was around the corner from where we lived, in the London village of Barnes, on the shores of the Thames. The annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race used to pass by the high street.

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As I walked through the doors of Olympic Studios I had little idea of the roll call of legendary musicians in whose footsteps I was following. I quickly found out, since the equally legendary engineer for the sessions, Keith Grant, had also done the honors for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and King Crimson. And during breaks he liked to tell stories. Boy do I wish I had written them down.

B.B King recording at Olympic in 1971, with Ringo Starr (far left) plus bassist Klaus Voormann, Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green on guitar and Steve Marriott on harmonica (all centre left).

B.B King (center right) recording in Studio One at Olympic in 1971, with Ringo Starr (far left) plus bassist Klaus Voormann, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green on guitar and Steve Marriott on harmonica (all centre left).

Anyway, as Christopher Palmer settled in for the session I noticed a bearded gentleman sitting in the corner of the control room. He wasn’t saying much, at least not yet, but I quickly gleaned he was the director. On hearing his name I got pretty excited, because John Landis had made one of my favorite guilty movie pleasures at university: National Lampoon’s Animal House. Back then, this would screen regularly on a Friday night at 11 to a packed house of pale English students, eager to soak up the anarchies of American campus life, complete with John Belushi gross-outs and topless co-eds, as we munched on greasy chips out of newspaper, smothered in salt and vinegar.

As the session got under way Landis lived up to all my expectations of what a young, hot-shot American director would be like. He was heavily bearded and wore a baseball cap like Steven Spielberg, and was constantly, brashly conversational, full of banter, movie gossip and opinions.

Bernstein (l) and Landis

Bernstein (l) and Landis

Out on the floor of Studio One, Elmer Bernstein, the distinguished composer of such classics as The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape, who had also written the music for Animal House, was revving up his scratch orchestra, a selection of the top studio and orchestral musicians in London. Recording film music is a profoundly technical process, because everything has to time out perfectly. As I watched Bernstein, baton at the ready, scrutinize the screen with its specially prepared clips from the film (cued with dots and moving lines scatched into the film, known as punches and streamers) and repeatedly cue in his musicians perfectly, I marveled at the marriage of musicianship and mathematical precision by which he had composed his cues in meters that ran in tandem with set numbers of film frames. You were never aware of the technological underpinnings: the music flowed with the images as if it had been conjured with no need to perfectly match markers in the film’s action. It was just magically “right”. Never doubt the extraordinary craft and artistry it takes to sync your musical composition to a film, let alone come up with the melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, orchestration that work with the film’s action, its emotion, its sub-text – and do not distract.

Anyway, as the film unspooled it rapidly became clear that it was something quite unusual for a horror film. Two American students were backpacking around England. The tone was light and breezy. And then something odd happened.

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Getting lost, they got caught out on the moors at night. There was a full moon. Suddenly they were attacked by a wild animal, and one of them was brutally, bloodily killed.

The hero, David (David Naughton) languished in hospital having his wounds tended to by Nurse Alex. Alex was played by the actress who had been the object of a generation of English schoolboys’ fantasies, Jenny Agutter. Naturally she was wearing a nurse’s uniform, at the sight of which swathes of english manhood were felled on the spot.

an_american_werewolf_in_london Agutter and David

David started to have odd dreams, and in the cartoonish nightmare imagery of those dreams it was clear this was a film which was taking the usually predictable horror form and upending it with something fresh, fun, and still very scary.

AWIL dream transformation

Nurse Alex starts to take more of a personal interest in her charge, and when he is discharged she invites him home to stay with her. Pretty soon she is tending to more than his wounds.

AWIL Agutter in shower

Now we arrived at the scene which Landis had been proclaiming to the assembled control room was going to “blow the movie out of the water”: the first transformation scene, in which the hero gets fully in touch with his inner lupus. But an odd thing happened. As Bernstein lifted his arms to record the cue, Landis leaned into the mixing console microphone and pressed the talkback button.

“Er, Elmer, that’s fine, but we’re not gonna use it.”

Bernstein shot back: “You haven’t heard it yet.”

“Yeah, I know, but we talked about this. We’re gonna use Blue Moon.”

 “Have you got the rights?”

At this point Landis’s equally bearded producer, George Folsey, Jr., chimed in: “We’re waiting to hear back.”

“What if they say no?” persisted Bernstein.

“They won’t”, said Landis, though it was clear from the look he exchanged with his producer that they might.

“Yeah, they might,” said Bernstein, who was as canny an old-hand in the music biz as you’ll ever meet. “Then what’ll you do? You need music here. You might like what I’ve got better”.

“Ok, Elmer,” Landis said, clearly not thinking this was possible.

Bernstein was determined. He raised his arms. Up went the bows. Silence. The film cued up.

The scene began, and so did the music. And both were something else.

The full moon rose. The hero, alone in the nurse’s flat, screamed, fell to the ground. And something started to happen, unlike anything I, or anyone else at the session, had seen on film before.

AnAmericanWerewolfInLondon transformation 3

His clothes ripped, his muscles rippled, his skeleton and skin stretched. But it was all happening on-screen in real time. There were no dissolves as in the classic werewolf movies I had grown up with. A man was violently turning into a very large, rapacious werewolf indeed. It was brilliant.

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The work of now legendary make-up designer Rick Baker, then relatively unknown, was extraordinary. This was the first time we saw animated prosthetics on camera, and they were combined with carefully animated visual effects to create a vivid illusion of metamorphosis. Bones expanded, fur grew, nails turned into claws, ears elongated, and eyes darkened as the beast within was unleashed.

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In the final coup de théâtre the hero’s elongated wolvine jaw pushed forward, stretching the human face into a fanged canine muzzle. The newly birthed American Werewolf howled to the moon.

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And with every extravagant metamorphosis on screen the music more than kept pace: it drove the transformation. It gave voice to our horror, and the character’s terror, at what was happening, at the same time as capturing all the grand beauty of the spectacle. As the sequence ended and the music smashed to its conclusion, the orchestra and control room erupted into applause. This is a rare thing. London session musicians have seen and heard it all. But it was clear that what we had just witnessed, music and image together, was a showstopper. The combination of groundbreaking visuals and barnstorming music was one for the ages. It would, in the words the director had spoken earlier in the session, “blow the movie out of the water”.

Except…..

Rick Baker (l), David Naughton (c), John Landis (r)

Rick Baker (l), David Naughton (c), John Landis (r)

The orchestra and conductor/composer waited for the pronouncement from the control-room.

“It’s great, Elmer.” John Landis’s voice was authoritative.  “But if I get Blue Moon I’m using it. Let’s move on.”

No one made a comment, but we all knew what we were thinking.

What are you thinking?

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A year later, venturing into a cinema to see the completed film, I secretly prayed that the rights to Blue Moon had been denied, and that the world would see what I had seen and heard that memorable afternoon in Olympic Studios. As the film neared the transformation scene I braced myself. The hero pottered around Jenny Agutter’s flat, the moon rose and –

Blue moon…..

The unmistakeable tones of Sam Cooke rang through the theatre. As the hero submitted to his bodily eruptions I kept hoping John Landis had come to his senses and would segue into Bernstein’s apocalyptic cue. But no. I was left to intellectually appreciate the director’s ironical juxtaposition of music and image, rather than submit to the terror and awe-inspiring horror of a man becoming a beast, red in tooth and claw. The transformation, while still striking, was robbed of its ultimate animal ferocity. It became oddly prosaic, fully serving neither the story nor the audience. Since this was a film that, for all its jokiness, had at its core the tragedy of a man destroyed by his true nature, then playing down the moment when that nature emerged for all the world to see seemed an odd choice. Knowing as I did what the scene could have been with Bernstein’s cue, it was something worse than a missed opportunity. It was a regrettable example of a director remaining wedded to his original concept, rather than listening to what the work itself and his highly experienced collaborator were telling him.

In the end, the scene did not “blow the movie out of the water” — but it certainly blew.

FILM MUSIC AFICIONADOS AND COMPLETISTS, PLEASE SEE MY EXPANDED THOUGHTS ON THIS IN THE COMMENTS BOXES BELOW.

NAPOLEON REDUX ( The Emperor of Films Returns )

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) looks at the Polyvision rig for the film's 3-screen climax

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) stands next to the Polyvision camera rig for the film’s 3-screen climax

I wouldn’t say it is the greatest movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the greatest moviegoing experiences you will ever have.

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Audiences worldwide may have thrilled to the silent-movie charms of 2011’s Oscar-winner, The Artist, but Londoners are soon to have the chance to take the ultimate cinematic ride – and the ultimate trip into cinema’s haloed past.  On November 30th the Royal Festival Hall plays host to a rare screening of 1927’s Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance in the most recent restoration by Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow.  When this made its American début last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Los Angeles Times could merely exclaim, breathlessly: “Napoleon came. Napoleon was seen. Napoleon conquered.”

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This was no mere hyperbole. I was there. Twice. And, even though I had been present at this restoration’s fabled first screening in London over thirty years ago, the screenings in Oakland’s Paramount Theater, a beautifully restored art-deco extravaganza, were in a class of their own. Just entering the lobby transported you into another world.

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Then, as the film itself began, the 21st century receded, and for the next 5-1/2 hours one was was completely immersed in the world of the French Revolution, brought to life with a veracity, vigor and, conversely, modernity, that has yet to be matched. By the time the final triptych had unspooled my 15-year old daughter was rendered speechless with awe.

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She made up for her uncharacteristic muteness by telling everyone during the following weeks she had seen the greatest film ever made. E-V-E-R.

And who amongst those who were there could argue with her? Napoleon is a complete one-off, a film sui generis. The apogee of the silent movie art. To see it under these optimal conditions is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

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How could a modern, plugged-in teenager be so completely wowed by a nearly 90-year old silent picture?

Paramount audience

The audience at the Paramount watches, rapt

For starters, the film operates on a level of visual innovation and spectacle that today’s movies are still catching up with. (Gance even did tests for shooting some of it in 3D). Then there are those obsessively detailed sets and costumes which give the film an incredibly authentic feel and texture. Scenes in Corsica were shot in Napoleon’s actual family home on the island.

Napoleon in corsica

The performances range from grand to intimate, with a sense of commitment that is riveting.

Young Napoleon

Vladimir Roudenko as the young Napoleon

Robespierre

Edmond van Daele as Robespierre

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Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon) embraces Josephine (Gina Manes) and the world

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Abel Gance as the charismatic St. Juste

Death of Marat

Death of Marat (Antonin Artaud)

The ghosts of the Revolution

The ghosts of the Revolution

Then there’s Carl Davis’s score, performed by a live orchestra, which forms a visceral conduit into both the period and the emotions of the drama. (Comparing it to the insipid score by Carmine Coppola, the only music Americans had heard during previous road shows of the restoration in this country, provides an object lesson in good and bad film scoring.)

Davis rehearsing Napoleon

Carl Davis rehearsing the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the Paramount Theater

The audience in London, like that in Oakland, will be seeing the most complete version of the film in existence, a restoration that has occupied Brownlow for a lifetime, funded by the British Film Institute and Photoplay Productions.  It will be projected at the correct speed (making movement more naturalistic), and is hand tinted. Accompanying it will be that same original score composed and conducted by Carl Davis.

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Over a period of more than four decades, Davis and Brownlow, together with producing partners Patrick Stanbury and David Gill (who died in 1997), have done more than anyone to bring silent films back from the grave of decaying film libraries, where 73% of films made before the coming of sound have crumbled into dust. Through a plethora of documentaries and live presentations in grand theatres with symphony orchestras, classics like Greed and Ben-Hur, as well as lesser-known gems like The Wind and The Chess Player, have all left viewers agog at the forgotten accomplishments of filmmakers of the silent era.

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Napoleon, though, is the one to beat: a film whose ambition to redefine the art-form is evident in every frame. Originally intended to be six films covering Bonaparte’s entire life, in the end Gance blew his entire budget on Part One.

Napoleon the french epic film poster

By the time of its première at the Paris Opéra in 1927 the film had already being cut down by its nervous producers.

Napoleon newspaper review

In the succeeding decades the film was scattered across archives, private collections, and flea markets around the world.

Napoleon book cover

Gance himself never regained his full creative powers: a later, sound version of the film that incorporates some of the original footage has none of the original’s flair. By 1953, when the 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow, already an avid collector of silent films, screened fragments of a home-movie version in his makeshift home cinema, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie histories. The story of Brownlow’s quest to restore the film, and Gance’s reputation, is one of those tales from the back rooms of film history that is as riveting as the film itself.

Brownlow and Gance triptych

The film covers Napoleon’s childhood days at military school, the Revolution and his rise to power, his romance with Josephine, and climaxes with his leading the French army to liberate Italy.  I was lucky enough to be present at the restoration’s first, now legendary screening, at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square, back in 1980.

Napoleon at Empire

It was the only venue with a screen wide enough to accommodate the 3-screen/3-projector finale, and an auditorium big enough for a 60-strong symphony orchestra.  From the start you could tell you were watching something unique.  The effect on the audience was no different from what Brownlow remembers when he first ran fragments of the film on his 9.5mm home projector as a teenager.  “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of.  It was beautifully, brilliantly staged.  It looked like an 18th century newsreel.  You couldn’t believe this had been shot in the 20s.”

Napoleon on ship

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

When the first of many bravura editing sequences unspooled, the audience knew it was in for a rollercoaster.  A snowball fight between two “armies” of young cadets, in which the young Napoleon demonstrates his aptitude for future military leadership by successfully charging and occupying the opposing camp, turned into a pyrotechnical workout for the camera as it was hurled, literally, into the action.

Young Napoleon

It was many years into his quest for lost footage before Brownlow first clapped eyes on this sequence.  He was sitting in the archives of the French Cinémathèque, an organization which had already demonstrated its disdain for what it considered the hubristic efforts of an Englishman daring to restore a French classic. Left alone for a few moments with an unlabelled can of film, Brownlow examined the reel within against the light: “I couldn’t believe it! This snowball fight was like “Rosebud” [in Citizen Kane].  It was constantly talked about as a masterpiece of rapid cutting, but was never seen. And I happened to be very interested in rapid cutting. I thought it had been invented by Eisenstein. When [the archivist] Marie Epstein came back in she was quite upset that I had started looking in her absence, but she had a good heart and coaxed the film through the flatbed viewer, and I always regard that experience as one of the greatest moments of my life.

Napoleon snowball fight

“It was the most astonishing piece of editing I had ever seen, and it was a perfect example of the avant-garde in the mainstream of French cinema.  Gance tried to make the audience into active participants.  You get punched on the nose, you fall over, and you run away.” (The editing throughout Napoleon is all the more extraordinary for the fact that it was done by hand, without the benefit of a flatbed or movieola; Gance would hold the film up to the light to figure out where to make his cuts).

Napoleon snowball fight storming barricades

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Crew filming the snowball fight. Note the camera mounted on a sled. Gance is circled.

Crew filming the snowball fight, with cameraman sitting on a sled.

Later on, during a dormitory pillow fight, Gance not only accelerates the tempo of his editing with cuts that last as little as a few frames, but also divides the screen into multiple segments, all with their own independent fast-cutting images.

Napoleon pillowfight multiscreen

This he considered the first use of what he called Polyvision, which in the final section of the film became three screens – pre-dating Cinerama by twenty-five years.

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Polyvision rig for triptych

Abel Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion, and his editing was as much about conjuring ideas as it was emotions.  Brownlow: “In a scene in which Napoleon was escaping from Corsica in a dinghy, he gets caught in a storm and it intercuts with a riot in the Revolutionary Convention.  Gance wanted to express Victor Hugo’s thought that to be a member of the Convention was like being a wave on the ocean, and the technical director built a pendulum hanging from the ceiling of the studio, to swing the camera over the extras.  I remember Gance saying that the crowd reacted in their cringing very effectively, and you do get the feeling that you’re in the storm at sea, as well as in the storm of the Convention, and you can see a man drowning among his fellow members of the Convention.”

Napoleon in storm

This sequence had a powerful effect on the English director Sir Alan Parker, who was then shooting the big-screen adaptation of Pink Floyd The Wall:  “After seeing Napoleon I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.”

The Wall Geldof in pool

Parker continues: “We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras.  Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.”

Here, from 1980, is a short film in which Kevin Brownlow talks about Gance and his many innovations, with extensive clips from Napoleon:

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

The great American film director King Vidor once said that music was responsible for half of a film’s emotion and effectiveness.  Brownlow is quick to acknowledge that a huge part of the success of his restoration is owed to composer/conductor Carl Davis.

Carl Davis w: score

Davis, who was born in New York, is a true polymath, having grown up listening to and performing every kind of music, from jazz to ballet. His move to London in the early 1960s was prompted by the excitement of the arts scene there, and a desire to write music for drama. “There was a lot of classic theater, there was film and the standards of television were very, very high. What went on English TV was very ambitious, and still is.”

Davis met up with Brownlow and his then producing partner David Gill for a TV documentary series about the silent era, Hollywood (1980) which had grown out of Brownlow’s defining book on the subject, The Parade’s Gone By.

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Brownlow (l), Davis (c) & David Gill

Over the course of thirteen one-hour programs Davis had supplied a huge range of music in a multiplicity of styles and orchestrations.  In preparation he had spoken to numerous musicians of the silent era, and had integrated their techniques of matching borrowed music with original themes.  When it was announced that Napoleon would be their first “live” presentation of a silent, he had just over three months to come up with five hours of music. There simply wasn’t the time for him to compose a completely original score.

Brownlow: “Carl came up with this fantastic idea, an idea of genius, which was to use composers that were alive when Napoleon was alive, which gave the film the most extraordinary authentic feeling, which it has anyway, but it enhances it tremendously.”

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

At the core of this group of composers was Beethoven, who had famously dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, only to scratch out the dedication upon hearing of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor.

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Davis: “Beethoven did four versions of the Eroica theme – the symphony, a set of piano variations, a ballet (The Creatures of Prometheus), and a contredanse.  It was an idée fixe for him.  I also used Egmont, music for plays, marches, minuets.  The idea from an artistic view was not to make it seem random.  If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time.  Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck….“

In typically impish fashion, Gance decided to throw down his own musical challenge. A long, central sequence features Parisians hearing the anthem of the Revolution, the Marseillaise, for the first time, and learning to sing it.  This in a silent film! Davis rises to the occasion with a virtuoso set of variations, and elsewhere throws in other popular songs of the period for good measure.

Learning the Marseillaise

Learning the Marseillaise

However, one important visual and thematic strand of the film did not yet have a musical identity.  Davis: “There was an almost sci-fi view of Napoleon as omniscient, linked to some great force of nature, unstoppable, implacable – an expression of an ideal that had to do with the 1920s as opposed to the 1790s.

Napoleon Dieudonne profile

“There I had to write something myself that was more like a Hollywood kind of theme – grand, noble, immediately accessible, memorable.”

Young Napoleon, taunted by his classmates and disciplined by his teachers, is left alone in a freezing garret.  There he is visited by his pet eagle, and in a vivid inspiration, Gance turns the eagle into the visual metaphor for Napoleon’s destiny, to re-appear at key turning points in the film. It is a moment rife with danger, so on-the-nose that it could easily elicit titters rather than awe from the audience.  But Davis steps forward with his majestic theme to nail the emotion and the idea behind it.  Patrick Stanbury, now Brownlow’s co-producer, but in 1980 just a member of the audience at the first screening, recalls that moment:  “Suddenly it was magic.”

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Behind the scenes at that first performance in 1980, Davis was heroically keeping the orchestra in sync to the film by his wits alone (disdaining technological assists like click tracks), while the performers were wrestling with some unexpected problems.  Davis: “The actual quantity of music that was sitting on the music stands grew and grew, and finally when we got to the third part, which was very long and very stuck together with tape, suddenly all the music fell on the floor.  It was in the middle of the Bal des Victimes – very lively using Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  I suddenly lost three quarters of the orchestra, and there is actually a recording of me shouting “Play! Play! Please play!” And we were down on the ground trying to put the music back on the stands again.”

Napoleon w: orchestra @Paramount

In the following videos, Carl Davis talks at greater length about his score.

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

On that faraway day in 1980 at the Empire, Leicester Square, I — like my daughter over thirty years later — would never forget the overwhelming impact of the last act of Napoleon. Suddenly, the curtains at the side of the screen drew back, and the image expanded to fill my field of vision. The audience gasped as one — an effect repeated even more emphatically at the Paramount, thirty two years later. Before us unfurled the spectacle of Napoleon’s army on three conjoined screens, in crystalline black and white.  Sometimes the screens join to create continuous panoramas; sometimes they fragment into three sets of evolving images.  It’s a spectacle made all the more vivid for its capture by relatively primitive technology. But that does not account for the artist’s eye, of Gance and of his brilliant cinematographers and camera operators. In this triptych sequence the film expands literally and thematically in every direction, juggling static and moving panoramas and montages that gather together all the imagery of the proceeding five hours, hurling it at you with ever increasing density. Those screens are so bright with the projectors’ reflected light it’s as if the theater’s roof has been lifted off and daylight is streaming in on the audience — a cinematic sunrise.

triptych double stacked

Napoleon - tryptich 7

Napoleon - tryptich 8

Napoleon tryptich 5

Napoleon tryptich 6

Napoleon tryptich 11

napoleon_triptich horse on ridge

Accompanying this spectacle are the rousing cadences of the music’s climax, a mash-up of Beethoven in full cry with Davis’s own transcendent “Eagle of Destiny” theme.

Back in 1980, when Napoleon finally came to an end (and at a certain point it feels like it will never end — the film just keeps topping itself), the theatre erupted into bravos as the film detonated into the red, white and blue tricolor of its final frames spread across three screens.

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

For Brownlow, after a lifetime struggling to bring this forgotten masterpiece back into the light, the full force of the experience hit home. In his book he recalls that moment: “I looked at the picture as though I’d never seen it before.  I recalled Lillian Gish talking about the premiere of The Birth of a Nation: ‘I sat at the end of a row with men, and during some parts the whole row shook with their sobs, it was so moving.’  Well, I shook my row, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I was overcome with relief and suffused with joy that the film was at last being seen as it was supposed to be seen.”

napoleon on mountain ridge

For those heading to the Royal Festival Hall at the end of November, that moment can be relived again in all its cinematic glory. Wish I could be there…..

Gance's inscription

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Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow

Gance with dog

The following “review” of Napoleon includes more excerpts from the film, including the snowball fight (though without Carl Davis’s score, alas).

You can read my full interview with director Sir Alan Parker talking about Kevin Brownlow here. And you can view clips from another classic silent, Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, with original music by Carl Davis here.