Synesthesia III

Synesthesia III was a collaboration initiated by FAWN Opera, who reached out to The Seventh Art.  We saw a series of films with –mostly– live original music.  FAWN found the composers & organized the –mostly–live performance, while The Seventh Art procured film-makers.

FAWN Artistic Director Amanda Smith

The word “synesthesia” can mean many things, but for me is a reminder of the avant-garde of the 1890s in Paris, seeking the symbolist dream of a synthesis of the arts across the senses.  I suspect that FAWN’s artistic director Amanda Smith & the rest of the FAWN team are every bit as ambitious in our own century.

For me this was like a genuine laboratory, a study of the art of film music from first principles.  Just to really make us appreciate what music brings to the equation, we were first given a film without music, Dalsza Modlitwa by Sofia Bohdanowicz.  We heard sneezes and chairs moving and our own presence breaking the illusion.  Music covers up all those noisy people who distract me from my one-on-one relationship with the film, preventing me from falling deeply under its spell.  In fairness Bohdanowicz’s film was genuinely magical, a ghostly trace in honour of a lost grandmother.

Then we began a series of films each of which presented a different set of requirements for a composer.  FAWN artistic director Amanda Smith said as she brought us back after intermission that the collaborations had aimed to bring together good film-makers with good young composers: an aim that I believe was achieved.

Sometimes the music and the film seemed to be fighting.  Two of the early examples displayed very strong musical personalities that seemed to impose new meanings upon the film, in a manner we’ve seen in Regietheater or “director’s theatre”, a common phenomenon in opera.  This is not to suggest there’s anything wrong with that, but rather that we’re accustomed to music in a very compliant & subservient role, a post-production add-on that slavishly upholds whatever the director wants (at least in the commercial realm), rather than adding an additional interpretative layer.   And it turned out I was wrong about one of those films, given what we heard in the brief interviews conducted of film maker Stephen Broomer & composer Trevor Hewer, by Christopher Heron of The Seventh Art.  Where I’d seen Broomer’s film as abstract, Hewer saw something melancholy & even sentimental, and put that into his score; but it turned out this is precisely what Broomer was aiming for,  so they were clearly on the same page.

More often, the music worked in the conventional ways of film-music, which is to say, that it drew upon the images, creating a layer that was supportive & seemed to be a logical outgrowth of what we were seeing.

Conductor & composer Patrick Murray

I was most impressed by a score that wasn’t actually played live.  Patrick Murray, who conducted the FAWN ensemble of five players + a singer, created and recorded an electronic (digital or electro-acoustic? I don’t know) composition to go with BOOTLEG, a film from Liam Crockard.  BOOTLEG is simultaneously the most conservative film in terms of its dramaturgy (I suppose I mean the relationship between film images & music) , yet most daring both in terms of the nature of what we saw and what we heard.  Here’s a quote from the program explaining the premise:

“In an homage to the dodgy concert videos of yesteryear, Crockard distorts his video to a point of pure abstraction, more akin to the textural film experiments of someone like Stan Brakhage.  Interestingly, this effect is achieved through the excessive use and abuse of iMovie’s built in “stablize and zoom” function, designed specifically to transform the most amateur iPhone video into something legible. “

And then Patrick Murray says this:

“When creating the music for Bootleg, I wanted to honour the same artistic process of degradation that Liam Crockard began his film with.  Audto samples from the original “bootleg” videos are severely distorted and overlaid with new sounds created using spectal synthesis of still frames drawn from the processed film.  Disorienting and overwhelming, the music nevertheless enhances the range of emotional intensity inherent in non-representational, abstract film.”

If Wagner himself had been scoring this film he couldn’t have honored it more perfectly in his score.  At times it was loud & raucous, yet this was music, not noise, and matched the abstracted visuals remarkably well.

Sometimes, as in Christine Lucy Latimer’s The Magik Iffektor we were in the presence of profound ironies, bringing me giggles even though they were very poignant.  The Iffektor –if i understand the title, speaking of profound ironies–is in fact a device for processing found VHS footage, enhancing some colours, with the result that we were seeing something both old and new, something grotesquely altered even while being familiar.  It’s a reminder that in some cases the line between adaptation and parody is narrow indeed.  Patrick Arteaga’s score stayed out of Latimer’s way, letting me have the aforementioned giggles.  As Arteaga remarked, it was an open work, which is to say, not overly determined but ambiguous, an effect that the composer preserved & even enhanced.

In Blake Williams’ The Storm the understatement of the film nicely matched an under-stated score by Amanda Lowry.  Williams explained that he’d had the opportunity to shoot in Galveston just after Hurricane Rita, but in landscapes temporarily deserted due to evacuations.  I was strongly reminded of Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

Looking upon the exercise, I couldn’t help comparing this in with Tapestry’s recent “Tapestry Briefs”, a series of brief operas bringing librettist & composer together.  Is it my imagination, or was this more fun & even festive experience precisely because it wasn’t opera?  In this atmosphere everyone was safe to experiment, accepted & appreciated for their adventurousness, something I don’t always experience in the operatic realm.  I think the problem is not so much the medium as the opera audience. And yes, I think opera is much harder.  Why?  Perhaps because these were mostly abstract and oblique connections between the film & the music, where anything goes really.  The live singing actor changes everything.

I hope FAWN will try something like this again.  Of course when I said this very thing to Amanda Smith ( “please do it again!”) she said they had done it before.  This was Synesthesia III after all (and i missed I & II).  I am glad to know that there will be a IV..!

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