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An article written for The Guardian

This was written for The Guardian and appeared in July of this year. May thanks to them for their permission to reproduce it here.

Tonight, in St Margaret’s church in York, and the following day in Tewkesbury Abbey, the Orlando Consort, a vocal ensemble that specialises in medieval music, will take to the stage and sing a chanson by Guillaume Dufay with lyrics by Christine de Pizan from her 1429 poem about Joan of Arc. Dressed all in black, small earpieces in our ears, the glow of two laptops casting ghostly shadows on our faces, we will look more like Kraftwerk c.1975 than an early-music group. Above our heads a silver screen will leap into life and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent-movie masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, will begin to roll. Our purpose – a live accompaniment of music taken entirely from the period of Joan of Arc’s brief life – will now become apparent.

Silent movies were almost always accompanied by live music, and the two premieres of the movie, held in Copenhagen and Paris, duly featured specially composed scores, though Dreyer himself, like most directors of the time, had no say in the matter of the actual music. Since then works by a dazzling variety of musicians – from Nick Cave to JS Bach – have accompanied screenings, and the original score for the Paris premiere (by Victor Alix and Léo Pouget) is still occasionally performed.

Alongside these various approaches a contrary view has emerged: that Dreyer wanted his movie to be appreciated in chaste silence. The myth’s origins lie in a passing comment made to Eileen Bowser, the curator of Moma in New York, one year after a retrospective of his work held at the museum in 1964, and subsequently reinforced by David Bordwell in his 1981 study of the film-maker. But it transpires that what Dreyer actually said was to Bowser that he hadn’t yet heard a score of which he wholeheartedly approved. Certainly the Danish film director despised the 1952 version created by the film historian, Joseph-Marie Lo Duca (co-founder of the influential French journal Cahiers du Cinéma), not least for butchering the film’s careful framings by cropping the image on one side to provide room for the sound-strip.

Yet Dreyer’s correspondence reveals that he initially welcomed the proposal of adding a score to his film; only later did he complain that the choice of Baroque music was anachronistic. In that, at least, we may have answered Dreyer’s objection, for our soundtrack is constructed entirely of music composed or performed in the early 15th century, the exact period of Joan’s brief life. Our version is also, as far as I’m aware, the first entirely a cappella soundtrack, a particularly appropriate mode of expression given that voices instructed the proto-feminist French saint.

Meanwhile the history of Dreyer’s movie is no less chequered than that of its musical accompaniment. The original negatives were destroyed by fire in the 1930s, forever, or so it was believed, and after several attempts to recreate it, a perfect print surfaced in 1981 in the unlikely venue of a Norwegian mental asylum. Given how disturbing the movie is and how moving is Renée Maria Falconetti’s central performance, the place of discovery is strangely fitting. In the film there’s a deliberate, sometimes perverse disruption of screen space, particularly in the harrowing scenes of interrogation, where rapidly cut sequences punctuate painfully long close-ups. Moreover, the choice of genre – the courtroom drama, with its roots in theatre and its reliance on dialogue – is an odd choice for a silent movie. Yet its power is undeniable and The Passion of Joan of Arc regularly features in top 10 best film lists.

Like Robert Bresson in his 1962 film, The Trial of Joan of Arc, Dreyer wasn’t interested in Joan’s triumphs – raising the siege of Orléans, accompanying the Dauphin to Reims to see him crowned King of France – and left that story to Hollywood. Instead he focused on the show trial, the purpose of which was to prove that Joan was a heretic, and that the English had divine right to the French crown. The screenplay condenses the four-month trial and subsequent execution into a single day, and the movie states its commitment to authenticity in the opening scene, where a hand leafs through the pages of the original court records kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Fully one-sixth of the enormous budget went on a complete reconstruction of the castle and courtyard in Rouen, yet the architecture all but disappears in favour of claustrophobic framings. Instead the set, built at Boulogne-Billancourt in the suburbs of Paris, became a virtual home for cast and crew so that they could immerse themselves in the experience. The film was shot in sequence, and those playing priests (including the theatrical visionary, Antonin Artaud) were tonsured. Stories circulated about Dreyer’s cruelty to his actors, but the worst that can be said that it really was Falconetti’s hair that was shorn and that it is real blood that gushes from a stunt double’s arm.

To musicians like ourselves, familiar with repertoire from the medieval period, it was but a small imaginative leap to hear the background music to several of the scenes in The Passion of Joan of Arc, music which Joan herself may have heard, notably in the scene where she is taunted and tempted by the staging of the Catholic service before it is suddenly terminated. Similarly Dreyer’s parallel between the passions of Christ and Joan immediately suggested key texts such as Ave verum corpus (Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary). At the moment when Joan’s body is bled by the doctors, we are singing (in Latin) the words “whose pierced side flowed with water and blood”. As an unlikely straw crown is thrust on her head by mocking English soldiers, the audience hears the Agincourt Carol, a moment of musical triumphalism that celebrates the famous English victory some 16 years earlier. And when the crowd riots, the medieval motet – polyrhythmic and polytextual – provides the perfect underscoring of violence and confusion.

Due to the church’s careful commitment to recording and collecting manuscripts there is considerably more sacred than secular music from which we were able to choose. But many poignant, heartbreaking chansons made by the same composers survive, usually in private manuscripts, composed for wealthy patrons to honour kings or dukes. In our soundtrack, these serve as expressions of Joan’s suffering, and underline a frequent parallel in the courtly love tradition between depictions of the Virgin Mary and the perfect object of desire. However old the music, though, it is not there merely as a sonic backdrop; the music serves the film, not the other way round, and thereby follows the well established practices of most narrative film music.

Whether Dreyer would have approved of our score we will never know. But one thing is clear: it wasn’t an option available to him. The performance of medieval music is a relatively modern phenomenon, and in 1928 there were only a handful of pieces from this period that existed in modern transcriptions. Fortunately all that has changed, and there are now many pieces by French, Burgundian and English composers available in any university library. Now I wonder what they’d have made of Dreyer’s movie?

Dreyer and music

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is one silent film that doesn’t suffer by being shown without music.” David Bordwell Filmguide to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Indiana 1973) (p.79)

As a student of film I was quite happy watching a silent movie in a state of rapt concentration. Scholarly pursuits weren’t, after all, entertainment and anyway the university couldn’t afford an accompanist. Screenings therefore took place in an atmosphere more common to a library than a movie theatre, but then that was appropriate; we were there to study not to enjoy ourselves.

These days it’s rare to see a silent movie without some kind of music, and in that we’ve recovered something of the experience of the cinemagoer in the silent era. Sometimes it was a simple piano or organ (the Mighty Wurlitzer was designed in 1914 specifically for cinema exhibition), in larger institutions an ensemble of piano and violin, right up to the Roxy in New York City which, with over 6,000 seats, boasted an 80-piece orchestra. Scores fell into two broad camps, depending upon the size of the film theatre and the inclination of the promoter: a collage of popular tunes, classical music pastiche and quotation, assembled by the musical director; or a specially composed score. In the case of the former, production companies provided cue sheets which provided immediate associative musical fragments that could be made to fit with particular scenes.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc had two premieres, one in Copenhagen and one in Paris, and was accorded two quite different scores. In the case of the former at the Palads Theatre in Copenhagen in 1928, the musical director of the theatre, Jakob Gade, provided the former type, one assembled from existent cues. We’re told that the orchestra played throughout the film and rounded the evening off with a rendition of the Marseillaise to honour the French guests in attendance. The Paris premiere on 25th October 1928, by contrast, received a commissioned score by Victor Alix and Léo Pouget, the score for which still exists.

Yet despite this musical heritage, there still exists a myth today that Dreyer didn’t want any music at all. I say myth advisedly, because the history of this received idea turns out to be rather convoluted. Indeed, I would go further and argue that Dreyer very much wanted music to accompany it; he wasn’t able to find it.

First, though, a little further background on the peculiar history of the print of the film, which has contributed to a particular insistence on authenticity around any screening. Film stock in the silent era was composed in part of cellulose nitrate, which was highly flammable; only in the 1930s was ‘safety film’ developed. As a result it was relatively common for prints to be destroyed by fire, which was the fate of not only the original negative of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (in a lab fire at UFA studios in Berlin in December 1928) but also Dreyer’s reconstruction a year later. In 1981, a perfect print was discovered in the unlikeliest (or most apposite?) of places – a Norwegian asylum. In itself this particular and peculiar narrative was probably enough to cement the film’s status as an object of art suitable more for contemplation than pleasure, and the appropriateness of silent veneration to such pursuit is obvious. Throw in Dreyer’s status as an auteur (to use the term applied by critics of Cahiers du Cinéma to those directors whose work displayed a unity of theme and style making them worthy of a literary epithet) and the conditions under which Bordwell made his observation quoted at the beginning of this piece are clearly established.

The idea that Dreyer didn’t want music with his film had by then already been bolstered by comments made in the years between the loss and subsequent discovery of the authentic print. In 1951 Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, a co-founder of the aforementioned Cahiers du Cinéma, found a 16mm print of the movie and wrote to Dreyer asking for permission to create a new print, this time adding music by J.S.Bach.

Lo Duca asks about Bach

Dreyer wrote back saying that he very much liked the idea, though that detail has tended to be overlooked in subsequent histories, which have focused instead on Dreyer’s objections to the music used.

Dreyer responds to Lo Duca

But if you look at Dreyer’s original reply (see above) he describes the idea of adding Bach’s music to be ‘excellent’. Finally, in 1956, Dreyer got to see Lo Duca’s bastardised version when Gaumont sent him a complimentary copy. His letter of gratitude expressed strong reservations, particularly about Lo Duca’s misguided decision to replace the intertitles with subtitles: ‘The editor has tried to make the film more accessible to the general public – by appealing to the public’s bad taste. Since you appreciate art films, it would indeed be a worthy act on your part to make a copy of the silent version with the intertitles on a simple, black background, as I did in the original. An old film ‘classic’ is a museum piece that should be restored to its original form. In my opinion to modernize such a film is an absurdity.’

In that same correspondence Dreyer also complained about the music, saying it was anachronistic, though he made no such objection when Lo Duca first suggested baroque music to accompany a film set in the medieval period, his only stipulation being that no sounds be added. ‘Trust me,’ he wrote, ‘the silence of the silent version would make a much greater impact on the audience than the violent fortissimo of the music chosen here.’[1]

It’s possible that this sense of music as corrupting received further support from a misreading of comments made back in 1928 by Falconetti, the actress who played Jeanne. They came in an interview with a Danish journalist.

You didn’t use music?

No. Carl Th. Dreyer wouldn’t have it. He was of the opinion, and I agreed, that it would give a false impression of the atmosphere.

This interview was published in My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer, by Jean Drum, Dale D. Drum. It does not, though, have anything to do with musical accompaniment of the film when shown; rather, it refers to the practice of playing music on set to help establish a mood for actors. Bear in mind that, with no sound being recorded, you could make as much noise as you wanted. (There was, until recently, an interesting clip of Sergio Leone using the Morricone score for Once Upon a Time in America on set in the final scene in exactly this way. Sadly it’s not longer available).

Whether there were any further soundtracks added to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc between the Lo Duca version and the discovery of the print in 1981 is unclear, though it’s likely that film institutes around the world would have occasionally asked their resident accompanist to provide something. In a major survey of Dreyer’s work curated by MoMA in New York in 1965, the movie was certainly staged without music, as were all of his early silent films, but, again, silence undoubtedly amplified the atmosphere of studious veneration that such retrospectives invite. It’s to this event that we can trace the origins of Dreyer’s specific view that he preferred his movie to be watched in silence. It comes from a comment made by Eileen Bowser, the former curator of film at the MoMA, and it has since, mainly through the internet, come to take on the status of an instruction. It transpired, in her words, that when she spoke to Dreyer back in 1965 that he had not been quite so adamant in his view. She wrote to me as follows: ‘I think that it was one of the others … who asked about music for Jeanne d’Arc. And my impression is that he did not exactly mean that he wanted it shown silent but rather, he did not like any of the musical solutions so far that had been used and had not found the music he thought was right for it.’

All of this argues for musicians to come to the altar of silent film and offer their own interpretations rather than leaving the film to be viewed in chaste silence. It wasn’t until the 1980s, by which time the new, ‘authentic’ print had come to light, that the process really got underway, joining a veritable industry of composition and performance of scores specifically crafted for silent movies. Wikipedia, never the most reliable source but almost always the best place to start, lists 18 for Dreyer’s movie, including ones by Nick Cave, Richard Einhorn, Cat Power, Adrian Utley and Will Gregory, and our own ‘Voices Appeared’.

There will never be a definitive version, of course, not least because Dreyer is no longer with us to cast judgement. But in the variety of scores that the movie has received in recent years we have, at least, recovered something of the diversity of silent-film exhibition that one would have experienced when the film was first in circulation.

[1] Quoted by Casper Tybjerg in an essay accompanying the Eureka Entertainment edition of the movie ‘Two passions – one film?’

Beat it

Here are a few thoughts prompted by a chapter from Lea Jacobs’ book, Film Rhythm and Sound, entitled ‘Mickey Mousing Reconsidered’.

‘Mickey Mousing’ refers to the more obvious ways that music interacts with the moving image, either ‘onomatopoeically or by coinciding physical action with musical tempo. It is a phrase that is often used pejoratively when applied to live action narrative film, usually because it too closely mirrors what is happening on screen and is thus deemed redundant. In animation, in which the term has its obvious roots, it is used frequently, but then animation is often seen as the poor relation to its live action counterpart.

The close relationship between narrative and purely musical forms has its roots in late Romantic music, to which film music owes such a debt, notably in programme music. Richard Strauss, Liszt and others championed the Tone Poem, this being an orchestral work which, rather than following the standard symphonic form, used narratives to shape and structure the music. Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, for example, opens with the hero’s theme, and features, amongst others, a love theme, a heroine’s theme, a carnival, and a stabbing trumpet cue that described the hero’s death. Very ‘film music’, then, in its use of leitmotifs and the scoring for an enhanced symphonic orchestra. Indeed, the film composers of the so-called Golden Era – Korngold, Waxman, Rosza, Steiner, Tiomkin – were clearly influenced by Strauss and others from the late-Romantic tradition (Strauss was Steiner’s godfather, and there were other interactions between Strauss and the younger generation). And, if one chose, one could pursue the striking similarities between the hero’s themes in film music from Steiner to Williams, and find clear antecedents in the Tone Poems of the late C19th. But there are more overt uses of orchestration to mimic narrative events such as in Strauss’s Don Quixote, another tone poem, where the composer instructs the brass to flutter-tongue to approximate bleating sheep. Such effects are often condemned for reducing music’s higher aspirations to abstraction by anchoring it firmly in the literal. What, after all, can be cheaper than asking a musician to imitate an animal? It’s part of the reason, indeed, why film music (and to some degree the Tone Poem) is so often regarded as the inferior cousin of classical music, which isn’t yoked to anything as banal as a story.

three little pigsGenerally, live action narrative film music avoids aping the image with onomatopoeic effects. And that applies too to rhythm, the focus of Jacobs’ book. Whereas the tempo of music in live action narrative film is determined by the mood of the scene and further refined by scene length, musical tempo and character movement are inextricably linked in early animation. The temporal unit of the second, which is subdivided into 24 frames (this the standardised speed of projectors after the introduction of sound) offers a happy coincidence of the most common musical meters of 3 and 4. 24, after all, is divisible by both, not forgetting 2 and 6, of course. Jacobs shows how virtually all physical movement in the frame was subject to a form of musical overdetermination: action is bound to musical metre. Thus cartoon characters, to use the language of the animators, ‘walk on 12’s’, meaning that their footfalls occur twice a second. All of this suggests a very predictable form of movement, though the system wasn’t quite as rigid as that might suggest, for it was generally a team of composer and designer who worked on the process side by side. But what is undeniably true, even if the music ultimately serves the narrative (as it does in live-action film), is that the rhythm of the music plays a far greater regulative role in animation.

Jacobs’ brief history describes the move away from a very tight subordination of action to the musical beat and towards a more fluid, contrapuntal system. Already, though, within the earliest cartoons one could discover a more complex alternation of bar lengths. That a musical sequence could occasionally throw in an extra beat to accommodate the action comes as something of a surprise to Jacobs, and to animators of the time, but it’s something that still regularly happens in film music today, and even more supposedly regulated musical forms like the popular song. (I’m thinking here of Bacharach who often adds extra half beats and odd bar lengths, all of which sound remarkably consistent, an effect undoubtedly aided by the lush orchestrations, careful phrasings and meticulous production).

The particular nature of movement in cartoons is undoubtedly the reason for the very clear relationship between the musical pulse and character action, and ultimately the early pioneers realised that a greater subtlety was required. Animation, after all, involves a very stylised form of movement – clipped and abrupt, measured and abbreviated in a way that human action isn’t. (Jacobs’ account of Disney’s 1932 Santa’s Workshop shows how this applies to multiple figures in sequences.) One of the notable advances in recent years of CGI (an extension of animation) is using human and animal movement as the template for computer-generated figures, a process which produces a notably more naturalistic and metrically chaotic articulation of movement. Andy Serkis as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the best known example. By placing reflective pads on joints and limbs and then tracking the movement in what is known as ‘performance capture’ a movement template allowed the animators to overlay an imaginary figure.

indexLive action is considerably more forgiving of musical metre than animation. When a person walks down the street, their arms and legs do not move together in perfect time unless they’re marching. And when they do, such as“>the opening scenes of Saturday Night Fever when John Travolta struts along the a Brooklyn street, swinging a can of paint to ‘Staying Alive’ by The Bee Gees (“Well you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk”) it is more of a dance than a walk. (Famously, Travolta insisted that the original footage, with a stand-in, be re-shot as “I don’t walk like that”). And note that the footfalls in that example are not in time with the disco beat, though they seem to be.

I once showed a group of students some students the opening scene of The Ipcress File. The composer is John Barry and the scene shows Michael Caine carefully preparing his breakfast. When I asked my students for their thoughts I anticipated comments either about impossibly exotic routine for the early 1960s of grinding coffee beans, placing them in a cafetierre and pouring boiling water over them, or perhaps something about the cimbalom, which acts as an eerie signifier of Eastern Europe. One of them surprised me by saying that all of Caine’s movements are matched rhythmically by the music. We watched it again and, though it was easy to see where that impression came from, it wasn’t true. It suggests, though, that we unconsciously align physical movement with musical pulse, that the spectator desires and, if necessary, creates a coincidence of sound and image. It’s no less true in real life. How many times have you found yourself walking along in an airport, say, your footsteps matching exactly (and annoyingly) with some background music? And the effect is put to somewhat better use in a recent app that provides a playlist based on your running cadence.

When developing a soundtrack of early C15th music to ‘fit’ Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc I’ve often been struck at how often the relative randomness of the proscribed metre has fitted exactly to the image. I say ‘exactly’, though even here there is more leeway than might at first be expected. To take a specific example, consider three different musical approaches to the same scene. It occurs about two-thirds of the way through the movie and describes the moment when Jeanne realises that she has been condemned to death, even though she is innocent. Intercut with close-ups of Joan are the now-sympathetic faces of her tormentors, one of whom is crying. The physical moment that interests me is the slow close of Joan’s eyes, somewhere between falling asleep and blinking. It lasts almost a second, in distinct contrast to the rapid blinking of the priest in the previous shot, and is the more notable for the fact that we don’t see Falconetti blink at all.

In the Eureka Entertainment Blu-Ray edition there’s . It consists of single chords and a gentle dotted rhythm, and the moment that Joan closes her eyes coincides with a suspended chord. When assembling a promotional video I took a recording and attached it to the same sequence. In our version, the same moment coincides with the final syllable of ‘desplaisance (‘displeasure), which is also the final word of the first line of the first stanza and an obvious ‘resting point’ in the music. For a lecture I gave on the project I contrasted the essentially empathic use of the Libert chanson with a more aggressive piece of early C15th music, , the purpose being to show how music could inflect a reading of the film and effectively anchor the meaning of a sequence. My argument was that it was possible, despite Dreyer’s depiction of Joan’s suffering, to express anger with music and invite that (valid) emotional response in the spectator. Whether or not you buy that reading is irrelevant here; what’s of interest is that the same specific moment here coincides with the final syllable of the word ‘Sanctus’ (Holy) and falls here on a cadence.

The word I’ve used throughout these three examples is ‘coincides’ for although I’ve aligned music and image I haven’t done so with the care and attention that the results would suggest. Moreover, if you examine the sequences more carefully you’ll see that they are not perfectly synched at all. The languorous eyelids allow great perceptual leeway which, together with the musical and syntactic logic of the accompaniment, creates a strong impression of simultaneity.

The tendency of animation, as Jacobs points out, is towards exact synchronisation of action and music, though very soon animators and musicians began to develop more varied forms of organisation, liberating both animators and composers and enriching the film text. But such an interest in musical rhythm manifest in the various chapters of Jacobs’ fascinating book provokes an interesting theory: there are plenty of examples of commentators talking about the warmth that music adds to the otherwise cold, silent screen, but few of them talk about a parallel desire for rhythm. And if the observations of the student who insisted on the simultaneity of action and music in the opening of The Ipcress File, and the three instances of coincidence in the examples from La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc suggest anything then it’s that there is an unconscious desire for rhythmic interaction and alignment that explains the continuing fascination with the interaction of film and music. It also means that the simple act of placing music to a silent movie already puts one on the side of the spectator, furnishing them with something they want, and perhaps need.

I got…rhythm

conversation7It often surprises people that the coming of sound should have been greeted with anything other than delight. After all, for us in the C21st for whom the default setting is sound, a silent movie surely lacks something? But talk to any cinephile and it won’t be long before they begin to, well, sound like critics at the end of the 1920s, who saw the addition of sound as the corruption of a pure art form. Film was like opera, an example of the gesamtkunstwerk, a synaesthetic triumph of drama, music, the pictorial image and, crucially, montage. And film was universal. All one had to do was change a few intertitles to the local language, or even do away with them entirely. The coming of sound brought with it the threat of Babel, where language became a barrier to comprehension, not an aid.

Lea Jacobs situates her survey of film rhythm at precisely this historical moment, citing several contemporary commentators who lamented not just the arrival of sound but, more specifically, the effect sound had on the tempo of movies. The complaint made most often was that speech slowed down the pace of the movie, a direct consequence of primitive sound recording devices that forced actors to enunciate their lines, focusing on clarity at the expense of naturalism. Skip forward fifty years and lightweight devices such as Nagra tape recorders allowed directors like Altman and Scorsese to experiment with overlapping dialogue and usher in mumblecore dialogue delivery that makes the centre speaker in a 5:1 set-up essential. The limitations of sound recording were also felt in terms of sound effects and music, a lot of which in the early days had to be recorded on set. Jacobs focus remains film rhythm which here, and throughout the book, encompasses dialogue, music, editing and movement. Refreshingly, there is an emphasis on acting and performance, an awareness of theatricality that is obvious an her earlier book (co-written with Ben Brewster)  (Oxford, 1997):

To demonstrate this moment of transition, Jacobs compares two scenes of Frank Borzage’s 1930 Song o’ My Heart, one made with sync-sound (i.e. the entire soundtrack recorded on set), the other with post-synchronised effects and music, though without dialogue, this being carried in the traditional form of intertitles, making it suitable for foreign release. A picture tells a thousand words, of course, but being able to compare the two clips side by side, as Jacobs does by directing the reader to the University of Wisconsin website, is invaluable. ( In concise terms she traces the various ways in which the pacing of the two scenes differ, showing how an otherwise abstract sense of rhythm and pace is achieved through a combination of the various elements. She is not above conjecture or invoking intentionality. When she surmises that ‘the filmmakers had to forgo the cut around the door in the sync version, despite its obvious dramatic punch, because it would have entailed too long an interval of silence’ (p.19), she places herself in the editing room rather than in the seminar room, and gives us a glimpse of the practical problems that confronted the early pioneers of sound.

Equally on the side of pragmatism, in the next chapter she considers Eisenstein’s writing on film sound in the context of his collaboration with Prokofiev on, amongst others, Ivan the Terrible. I have to confess that I’ve always found Eisenstein’s theorising rather earnest and at the same time annoyingly vague. This is most obvious in his writing on music where he resorts to the kind of metaphors and abstract descriptions of sensation that give a lot of writing about classical music a bad name. (It’s sacrilege to say that, even in the context of film studies which, for all its anti-auteurist theory in the 70s and 80s, was quite happy to champion and venerate Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin, et al.) nevsky-diagram-400-bTake, for example, his famous analysis of twelve shots from Alexander Nevsky. He invites the reader to ‘describe in the air with your hand that line of movement suggested by the movement of the music.’ He then proceeds to lead the reader to water, as it were, insisting that the reader’s response will be. The resultant shape mirrors the rising bass line and then the falling violins, which may well be the dominant melodic movements in the four bars in question, but can hardly be so glibly assumed to be the response of every listener. He does the same thing with the movement of the eye in the image and, hey presto, that shape matches the music! It’s all rather airy-fairy and self-fulfilling, and it doesn’t endear me to Eisenstein at all. Jacobs is considerably more precise in her language and methodology, and less tendentious. She criticises Eisenstein for his romanticisation of Prokofiev’s initial response to Eisenstein’s film (Eisenstein insists that Prokofiev is intuiting the hidden rhythm of the movie and then reveals it in his score), and for his ‘vague and atomistic’ notion of the ‘visual accent’.

To use her phrase, she ‘reverse engineers’ the segment in Final Cut Pro and is keen to emphasise how much she learns from that process, pointing out the various ways in which movement, gesture and dialogue sync – or coincide – with Prokofiev’s music. The force of her understanding is evident (and infectious), and shows the reader the depth and texture of the film text, and also the importance of rhythm and tempo as organising principles.

The conclusions she offers at the end of the chapter are methodological guidelines for further chapters in the book. Think small, she insists, which is to say that units as small as a quarter second have meaning. To a musician, for whom that represents perhaps an entire (fleeting) chord, that isn’t small at all, and Jacobs is right to insist on its weight and importance. In support, she cites arguments over the synching of film with music that came down to the sprocket hole, an extraordinarily small fraction of time. I’m less convinced by this as a guiding principle in all narrative film, and I suspect it’s about very exact synchronisation between music and image where the music directly represents the action (Mickey-mousing), to which Jacobs turns her attention in the following chapter. More on that in a later blog. Secondly, she suggests that one must look at all aspects of rhythm as found in the mix: ‘music, dialogue, other sounds, figure movement, camera movement, shot duration.’ Rhythm is everywhere in the film text. Thirdly, there is no single tempo, however much musicians might want to insist that pulse is felt subliminally by the spectator. Rather, it shifts across the various elements of the scene. Fourthly and finally, narrative pace is different from film tempo, and the perception of duration cannot be reduced to the rhythmic elements or the mix. At least that is what I think Jacobs is saying. Perhaps because she references a book by Gérard Genette that I haven’t read, and also an earlier article on Hawks where she addresses the issue in more detail, I find this final section a little hazy. I take it that a sequence may advance the plot only a little but the various filmic elements can be frenetic. Take for example the shower scene in Psycho: Marion is killed by an unidentified assailant, which, though a dynamic plot twist, is but one in a series of other narrative events. However, montage, music, movement and action are extremely rapid and in Jacobs’ terms the mix is extremely fast-paced. She provides as an example the banquet scene from Ivan the Terrible, Part II which has little narrative consequence yet features a great deal of rapid editing and on-screen action. The opposite is also true: temporal ellipses advance the narrative quickly but can be achieved without rapid cutting or other complexities.   275px-VitaphoneDemo

Preliminary thoughts on semiology and film rhythm

I studied Film and English in the early 1980s at Kent, one of only three universities in the UK that embraced Film Studies at the time. The course was heavily slanted towards theory, particularly structuralism. By contrast, the English department showed a fear and ignorance of most things theoretical.

The semiotic project, at least initially, sought for objectivity. Words like ‘scientificity’ were commonplace and the interpretative gesture was, if not, shunned then secondary to rigour. If you look at Barthes’ Elements of Semiology (1964), for example, you’ll discover a prominent use of paragraph and subject headings that derive from scientific papers: II.5.2, etc. In 1967 Barthes wrote probably his most famous essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ which signalled the abandonment of structural analysis in favour of a theory of the text. He put his theory into practice, as it were, in S/Z (1970) which was as much as anything a demonstration of the process of reading and understanding, deliberately refuting any claims to scientific proof and celebrating the act of interpretation. The first semiology had concentrated on structure and the enounced, essentially static models, whereas the second semiology, prompted by psychoanalysis, addressed the (ephemeral) production of meaning, focusing ono structuration and enunciation. Broadly these are performative concerns and describe the unfolding of the text. We have moved from locating the sign to the realm of signification. And the proliferation of present participles in such discussions is , well, a sign of that new orientation.

Together with this emphasis on the realm of the performative there were also occasional forays into the subject of performance itself. Barthes’ ‘The Grain of the Voice’ originally published in 1972, is probably the single most quoted essay in New Musicology (New Musicology is the movement within musicology that is marked by an equivalent immigration of post-modernist ideas as that experienced by film studies.) Taking as his starting point two singers – Charles Panzera (who briefly gave Barthes singing lessons) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German baritone to whose liquid sound I aspired) – Barthes describes the pleasure he gets from Panzera’s voice, a pleasure that is based on a physical relationship to the singer. The grain, as he describes it, is ‘the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs’. This is very much the realm of the second semiology, the coming-into-being of meaning – significance – and in a later essay Barthes insists that the grain cannot be defined ‘scientifically’ but only through metaphors.

Film_Rhythm_cover_JacobsThat might be a long and irrelevant preamble to Lea Jacobs’ book, Film Rhythm after Sound, but the context is important, not least because it declares my own background and inclination. More relevantly, Jacobs’s book is concerned with performance in film in its most obvious forms – musical performance, acting, etc. This is clearly signalled in the remaining title of the book: Technology, Music, and Performance. But an underlying orientation towards recent debates on meaning in music and film informs the book and shows that Jacobs is also concerned with the realm of the performative.

The two most obviously lacking areas of film analysis that struck me when I studied film were those of film music and acting. (That’s perhaps inevitable in that I was and am a musician, and, at the time, I was heavily involved with theatre.) There were several reasons for the absence of those areas of study, a lot of which has been corrected over the past thirty years by the increasing amount of interdisciplinary work. Writing about music often requires an act of transcription by the writer and a knowledge of notation on the part of the reader, and not everyone reads music. Description alone was no substitute. As Carolyn Abbate, an exponent of New Musicology, puts it, no less eloquently and with more than a nod to Barthes’ own prose style, “[i]nterpreting music involves a terrible and unsafe leap between object and exegesis, from sound that seems to signify nothing (and is nonetheless splendid) to words that claim a discursive sense but are, by comparison, modest and often unlovely.” I once inserted a couple of bars of music in an essay on Fritz Lang (the movie in question, Human Desire) and was awarded with a ‘brilliant!’ in the margin by the lecturer. It turned out he couldn’t read music.

The specific requirement of reading music was certainly an impediment though there were others. Film and music both exist in time and bring with them problems of quotation. Studying film in the 80s offered us access to the physical reality of film – all our movies were screened as 35mm prints with seminars conducted in a room with a Steenbeck machine, a flatbed editor that allowed one to advance a film in single frames – though access to the moving image outside the classroom wasn’t possible (VHS arrived gloriously and suddenly in about 1983). Film theorists could only ‘quote’ individual frames and describe the action as it unfolded on the screen, transcribing dialogue, noting sound effects and, in very rare instances, providing musical notation. All of those acts had the paradoxical effect of halting action and fixing it in the past, rather than in the experienced present that film normally affords. With the digitisation of movies all that has changed. Students are now more likely to view movies on YouTube than in a lecture hall, depriving them of what one commentator called ‘dreaming in a social space’, but at least it means that they can view film in real time and not as a series of stills. Given the problem of quotation in both film and music it’s easy to see why the first book-length study of film music from a broadly semiotic standpoint wasn’t until 1987 – Claudia Gorbmann’s Unheard Melodies. Since then, of course, there has been an extraordinary expansion of writing on the subject.

theatre semioticsIn the case of acting it wasn’t until 1985 that Screen dedicated an issue to the subject though, to be fair, there was little supporting work from the field of theatre studies. It too was in its infancy, likewise struggling with the leap from performance to mediated description, theatre semiotics dominated by turgid taxonomies of theatrical codes that left one struggling to remember what play it was they were analysing.

Musicology was also surprisingly quiet on the subject of performance. Again there are practical reasons. Music notation, a given within the field, was far from lossless. One might recover something of the temporal unfolding of music by reading a score or bashing it out on a piano, but it would inevitably be stripped of timbre, subtle temporal variations, dynamics, all of which fell under the rubric of performance. Look in the 1980 edition of Grove edition and you will find a long article on Performing Practice (tucked between the ‘Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, The’ and ‘Performing Rights Society, The’) but nothing on Performance per se. Performance practice – the historical study of the conditions of musical performance – is there described as a sub-discipline of musicology not, as common sense might suggest, as a sub-discipline of performance. In 1980, then, the study of music – the study of what is by nature a performance-based art – was not concerned with performance other than as a branch of music history. By 2001 the situation had changed. In Grove there was now a long entry on Performance, as well as two related sections under the general heading of Psychology – on performance and skill, and theories of performance expression. Work on the study of recordings has played its part and the availability of digitised recordings has made things considerably easier for academics and students alike. There have been several key players here and several institutions, notably CHARM which was formed in 2004, the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music. Amongst many other notable figures it’s Nicholas Cook who stands out. He’s written a series of articles over the past twenty years (and it’s worth noting that some of his work has been on the combination of music and moving image) culminating in Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (Oxford, 2014).sonic visualiser

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that both Cook’s and Jacobs’s books are accompanied by companion websites that afford the reader demonstrations of the authors’ respective arguments. In Cook’s case he uses software called Sonic Visualiser, developed at the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London, and free to download. With a startling array of tools and options it’s a way of viewing and analysing audio files. Jacobs doesn’t trouble with reader with such a complex tool. Rather, she presents her analysis with her segmentation in place, the bars and accents given visual form as an accompaniment to the unfolding images. She offers us an in-time comparison of music notation and the actual movie. The advantage here is that the non-musician can at least trace the shape of the music as s/he hears it, which at least removes an otherwise excluding aspect of analysis. She also uses Final Cut Pro to analyse sections of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible these are not shared online as the user would be required to spend around £200 to buy the software to view the files.Ivan The Terrible

The internet thus renders the act of description secondary to argument. Now it is as if the writer is looking over the shoulder as a reader, pointing things out as they occur in time. 30 years ago a large part of a book like Film Rhythm after Sound would have had to be taken on trust by the interested reader, perhaps subjected to some investigation in a seminar setting and responded to only on the broadest level by any critic. Now the reader has easy access to Jacobs’s arguments.

I’ll consider the book in more detail over the coming weeks, perhaps bringing to it my recent experience of creating a music score to Dreyer’s 1928 La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. If in the meantime you want to read an excellent review, then go to David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog:

Sweeney Todd

imagesI saw the recent production of Sweeney Todd at the ENO the other day. I know the musical well, from the televised Len Cariou/Angela Lansbury of the original 1979 production, and the 1993 Alun Armstrong/Julia McKenzie, not forgetting, of course, the Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham-Carter 2007 movie. (I thought I’d see the Dennis Quilley/Sheila Hancock performance, but that was in 1980 at a time when my knowledge of musicals was limited to The Sound of Music and West Side Story.) Despite my familiarity with the material and my inability to forget the various plot twists, I was delighted to find myself as emotionally battered as the first time I saw it, all of which is testament ultimately to Sondheim’s genius.

I’ve never, though, felt Sondheim always cracked the structural challenge of second acts, that the exploration of the first half always promised more than the second half delivered. Take Into The Woods, for example, which really should work. The first half’s narrative complexities are all resolved by the interval, but the second half immediately question that. 240px-Into_the_Woods_posterDeliberately of course, because, as the argument goes, desire is never satisfied and the happy ending is a myth. But unravelling something and then putting it together again is as problematic as the unconscious itself, the very subject of the musical, so it’s perhaps no accident that it can’t be contained. Sunday in the Park with George suffers, it seems to me, from the first half being so perfect – both love story and an exploration of creativity, and satisfying in itself. The second half, set in the present day, demands of the audience an acceptance that the work of multi-media art created by the descendant of George and Dot is worth seeing, which it often isn’t. I could go on, but note that Assassins dispenses entirely with the second act, as if Sondheim himself is uncomfortable with the theatrical form.

Sweeney, though, is the exception. The first half ends with the joyous, macabre waltz that describes the various flavours of pies made from different practitioners of various professions (priest, poet, etc) and the second half absolutely delivers. It begins with the roaring success of a business premised on murder and the recycling of corpses as food. London really is a place filled with shit, as Sweeney comments so harshly. Is it, though, possible that the balance between the two halves comes because Sondheim has, on this occasion, a successful play on which the piece is based, Christopher Bond’s original 1973 Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street?

Still, drama was not the essential point of this production. It was, after all, semi-staged which, in case anyone took it to mean half-arsed, was immediately dismissed by the participants extravagantly dispensing with their scores in the first few minutes. It worked, then, as a dramatic performance, though clearly one of the draws here was to see and hear Bryn Terfel. Here was a heavyweight opera star on the stage of the ENO, with Emma Thompson there to offer dramatic credibility and dramatic flair. In the event Terfel opted for gravitas and brooding anger rather than any more subtle displays of interpretation, which was a wise move, or at least it seemed so after seeing his rather limp effort at despair when he learns whom he has killed towards the end of the play. He was the still centre around which Emma Thompson and other thesps revolved.

But when it came to singing, there was no doubting his ability. There was no need for amplification at all. Indeed amplification had rather the opposite effect than that intended: it restrained him and contained his vocal power. His loudest notes were matched by Emma Thompson’s, which was physically impossible were it not for the technical intervention. ‘Gated’ is the phrase that sound engineers use for this effect and it aptly describes the limitations placed on him. To experience the physical presence of his voice was one of my reasons for going to see the show, to ‘feel’ his voice, or at least to be within reach of what Barthes calls the ‘grain of the voice’, the corporal trace of vocal production. It was a dimension of which I felt robbed.

Having said that, I’m not sure what the solution would be. It’s standard practice to amplify voices in musicals given that such singers aren’t trained to sing over the sound of a full orchestra. And having Terfel sing without amplification, while clearly able to project over such forces, would undoubtedly have caused the listener difficulties, forever made to shift their mode of listening from one source to another. In the final analysis, though, it was unfair on the baritone. Consider, for example, if some similar technical limitation were place on Thompson’s dramatic expressivity, if her acting talents were reduced to those of the supporting cast. Effectively that’s the fate that Terfel suffered, his emotional range dampened in the interests of acoustic egalitarianism.

One other thought occurred to me as I watched the show (and if you don’t know the musical then I suggest you look away now as it contains a plot spoiler). Sondheim describes it as a musical thriller, but it’s a more complicated beast than that. The obvious model for it is the Jacobean revenge tragedy, Sweeney being the wronged man who is out for repayment with Mrs Lovett as his accomplice. It also has the two young lovers, though whereas Jacobean drama had a separate and sometimuntitledes comic subplot, the humour here is warped and distorted and placed dead centre. Mrs Lovett is given the funniest songs and the funniest lines, light relief to Sweeney’s earnestness. At worst she’s an entrepreneur, or so it seems, simply making use of something – dead meat – that would otherwise go to waste. She, after all, has no investment in the murders. As such we identify with her more than with Sweeney, or the vapid young lovers come to that. She’s entertaining and her desire of a place ‘by the sea’ seems genuine. Additionally she’s the missing mother in the play, guardian to the ever-trusting, ever simple Tobias, who himself gets to express our darkest fears – that Sweeney might ultimately murder her. The truth, as it turns out, is much worse. All along she knows that Sweeney’s wife still lives and the entrepreneurial spirit is but part of a darker plan. She’s as capable of killing as Sweeney is, though for no motive other than self interest.

275px-Veronica_Lake_and_Joel_McCrea_in_Sullivan's_Travels_trailerI’ve been wracking my brains for a similar character in any other dramatic forms, one that makes us entirely rethink what has happened before to quite such a degree. Sand I can’t come up with anything. The only thing that springs to mind is a quite unlikely comparison, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a 1942 film that starts out as a comedy and that abruptly lurches towards darkness. The title refers to Gulliver’s Travels and it’s perhaps that Swiftian ethos that envelopes Sondheim’s musical as much as anything. Swift, after all, wrote (satirically) of the Irish eating babies as the solution to famine, and his poem ‘City Showers’, with its obvious spoonerised pun, is close to Sweeney’s view of London.

Voices (finally) Appeared

Back in June of last year I wrote in this blog about a forthcoming project, specifically a live soundtrack of music to accompany screenings of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 movie, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. The performing ensemble is The Orlando Consort, with whom I have sung since it was formed in 1988. I promised back in June to chart the progress of designing the soundtrack, a task that fell to me, but it’s been so time-consuming and so demanding that I don’t really feel I’ve had the time to sit down and report. I’ll try to remedy that in the coming months, sharing here some of the thoughts and preoccupations that it’s prompted. In the meantime – and if you’re interested – you might want to have a look at The Orlando Consort webpage where you will find details of past and forthcoming performances.

The Magnificent Ambersons


I went to see Orson Welles’ second film at the NFT last night. Setting aside the fact that it’s a ropey print and that at one point it actually broke (there’s always a slight frisson when that happens, the reality of celluloid laid bare), it was fantastic to see a movie I know a fair amount about but have never seen in its entirety.

The story goes that Welles’ first cut ran to 135 minutes, which he was intent on trimming, but that, being absent in South America, the studio, RKO, took if over and reshot a ridiculous ending. That much is evident: the final scene looks awful and feels as if it’s been tacked on. Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorhead look disengaged, not surprising given that it seems to have been shot in a studio corridor. But the thing that really gives it away is the music. Famously Hermann insisted on having his name removed from the movie when half of his score was cut. Hermann’s cues are obvious by their quirky orchestration (an almost-trademark use of bass clarinet and low flutes) and the harmonies, all of which signal later, more famous scores like Vertigo and, for me at least, Marnie. And equally obvious are the cues that were added, by Roy Webb, pulled from the bottom drawer of movie-music clichés: high syrupy strings for the love scenes and the finale. Still, at least the music signals clearly the bits that Welles himself would have been dissatisfied.

For all that, there are some strange moments that one must lay at Welles’ own door. The film is very dark indeed, and though one can justify the use of silhouettes and shadows on aesthetic grounds, a preference for masking of the frame and one odd iris shot sit rather less comfortably. The set too, at least in this bastardised version, is underused, there being only one shot where the three storeys are shown together. It’s admittedly startling, but one does rather yearn to see the space used more. There’s also no denying the sight of the camera tracks in one long tracking shot as the buggy drives along Main Street, a glorious shot spoiled by a simple error.

The acting, though sometimes ratcheted up to 11, is nevertheless engaging, and the play between the velvety voice of Anne Baxter, Joseph Cotton’s soft baritone and Welles’ own lilting voice-over is a further delight. I must see it again, but then that goes for most movies. And there are just too many movies to see.

‘Voices appeared’: Silent cinema and medieval sound – La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and The Orlando Consort

The Orlando Consort, the medieval vocal ensemble with which I perform, are about to embark on a new project, an imaginative and intriguing crossover between early music and early film. The movie in question is Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s acclaimed masterpiece,  La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, released in 1928, a movie that often is included in critics’ lists of the top ten films of all time. It features what is generally accepted as one of the finest performances on film, by Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the title role.

From its very first screening, various forms of music have accompanied this silent movie; works by composers as diverse as Nick Cave and J S Bach have been yoked to the director’s arresting images. Surprisingly though, for a film that takes its duty to history so seriously – the film spends its opening minutes insisting in its authenticity, describing how the dialogue is taken from the actual transcripts of the trial, while Dreyer was also painstaking in his recreation of the locations – no-one has provided a soundtrack of music of the period that the film depicts, namely the early fifteenth century.

The narrative focuses on the trial and execution of Joan of Arc by French clerics between 1429 and 1431. Dressed in men’s clothing, Joan had led the French to victory over the English.

 An uneducated shepherd’s daughter from Donrémy, she was either a visionary or delusional, depending on your reading of history. Certainly at the time that the film was made, she was very much the former, particularly in French eyes. She had been canonised only as recently as 1920 and supplanted the countries other patron saints in the popular imagination.

Dreyer condenses events into a single day and the film unfolds as a series of confrontations between Joan and her tormentors. We as spectators are unsure where we stand, not least in relation to narrative space itself, the style almost self-conscious, embracing its status as art movie. The film refuses the usual comforts of spatial orientation, throwing the actors against abstract background shapes – arches, crooked windows, the set designed by Hermann Warm, the art director on the Expressionist  Cabinet of Dr Caligari – their bodies flattened and distorted by odd framings that refuse the laws of perspective. But it is Joan herself who is treated the harshest, inviting our sympathy and understanding. Her face is stripped of make-up, her body bled, her hair shorn with us very much as witnesses (this was no trick effect), the camera unflinching in its relentless investigation of her suffering. Unsurprisingly, the iconic image from the movie is that of Falconnetti’s face, wearing the pained innocence of the martyr.


Our task will be to enhance the experience for the audience while eschewing any inclination to draw too much attention to ourselves. We will be shrouded in darkness below the screen, much like cinema orchestras were in the past. The music, though, will not be the familiar late romantic style, or a compilation of clichéd cues (William Tell overture for the chase, solo violin for the love theme, etc.). The function of music that accompanies a live screening is very different from that that is written for the sound movie. There music is carefully ‘spotted’ by composer and director, moments chosen where music will fulfill various functions. Someone like a Steiner, for example, would carefully hone particular themes and link them to characters or situations; a genius like Herrmann went his own way, with an emphasis on quirky combinations of instruments. The presence of the performers who create the music for a live screening means that immediately the music is far more of a commentary on the film than an integral part of it, a relay between spectator and screen which undoubtedly fulfils some of the same functions of emotional underscoring, but stands a little way distant from it. Rather like Dreyer does in relation to his subjects.

And voices are the perfect vehicle. Joan claimed to be guided by three angels – Michael, Catherine and Margaret – and though the film doesn’t depict these visions, her own voice is continually silenced by the hectoring clerics who have put her on trial. Conflicting discourses, alternately cajoling and condemnatory, stage an unheard aural polyphony that finds an echo in medieval motets, antiphons,  plainsong and discant, and it will be fascinating for us to assemble this collage for a modern-day audience of cinephiles and music lovers alike.

The repertoire will be drawn from a very specific period, namely the first thirty-one years of the fifteenth century. Joan was a French prisoner of the Burgundian Court at the behest of the English Crown, and each of those three powers had its own rich musical tradition: Philip the Good of Burgundy was one of the great musical patrons of the medieval period, bringing luminaries such as Binchois and Dufay to his court; Philip’s sister, Anne, was married to John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI of England and, at the time of Joan’s trial, governor of Normandy; Bedford was the fortunate patron of the most famous and influential composer of the fifteenth century, John Dunstable; Henry VI, like his father before him, was a keen student of music, founder of Kings College, Cambridge and Eton school, both with their famous chapels (and thus instigator of two musical establishments that still exist today).

In the coming weeks we’ll be developing the soundtrack, experimenting by trying different pieces against the same sections of film, gauging its impact, and working out the (very) specific tempi that we will have to follow. I’ll share my thoughts here.

New York Polyphony

Recently the Orlando Consort gave a concert in New York for Miller Theatre at a familiar haunt to us all: the Church of Mary the Virgin on 46th St, colloquially known to one and all as Smoky Mary’s. It got a great review in the New York Times, always a boon, but perhaps the most warming thing – after the hospitality of Melissa Smey – was that three of the four-voice group New York Polyphony were there. Of course, that was frightening too; no performer likes to perform for another performer. But it was heartening more than anything, the more so because few Brit singers show other groups similar respect in attending other groups’ concerts.

Give or take a few snobbish and competitive musical directors, this is less about a failure of collegiality than it is about busy diaries and laziness. A Saturday night, should one ever be free, is likely to be spent with the otherwise abandoned partner and kids, perhaps in front of Strictly Come Dancing or, if the kids allow it, a decent HBO boxed set. But in general we performers tend to learn of other groups through word of mouth rather than through direct experience, though there are always exceptions.

New York Polyphony were known to me. They’ve been on the scene for a little while now and I’ve heard very good things from promoters and agents alike. I’d never, though, been to one of their performances or bought a CD, only viewed them on YouTube where I had admired their fluid movements and refined voices. Their performance is interesting to me in that I doubt  you would get many British groups feeling confident and selfless enough to allow others to indicate the shape of both individual lines and group motion. Perhaps it’s British restraint, perhaps it’s the fact taht NYP have been friends for a while now (rather than thrust together as colleagues), but if you indicate anything other than an agreed tempo then the suspicion is that one is trying to grasp the directorial reins rather than allow a collective dynamic to emerge. I know that certain groups (not the Orlandos) have had members refuse to take the stage for such ‘crimes’.

Anyway, NYP kindly offered to send me a couple of CDs, which duly arrived. This weekend, on the way to some gigs, I got the chance to listen to them. And loved them. The line-up is four male voices ranging from countertenor at the top, though Tenor and Baritone to Bass. The quality of the voices is uniformly excellent and the rich sonority of Craig Phillips’ bass voice is a particular treat to someone like me: a wimpy baritone. They know the music well and perform it with conviction and understanding. Particularly impressive are the graded dynamics and their co-ordinated moves from a tiptoeing piano to a resonant forte. The vowels are brightly Italian which offers a clarity to the complex polyphony.

The programming is interesting as well, showing an intelligent juxtaposition of old and new. Times go by Turns, their fourth album, offers three masses: Byrd Four (as it’s known), the Tallis four-part mass, and one that’s unfamiliar to me: Plummer’s Missa Sine Nomine, which I look forward to getting to know better. Interleaved with these early-music compositions are commissions by Richard Rodney Bennett (what an honour that is!) and Gabriel Jackson, a fine British composer who knows voices and choirs better than anyone else around.

endBeginning, their first album for Bis, with a very 80s title if I may say so, follows the same successful pattern, ending with a piece written by Jackson Hill modelled on Machaut’s Ma fin est mon commencement. (Minor gripe: it would have been great to hear the group perform that piece alongside the Hill). The album also features a gorgeous Requiem mass by Brumel, and Crequillon’s Lamentations. I know the former, but not the latter and I’m glad to have the chance to acquaint myself with it. There’s also some nifty parallel organum thrown in for good measure. Good for NYP for highlighting a possible way in which plainsong may have been performed even in the C15th. Oh, and they also give us Absalon fili mi by Josquin or De La Rue, or perhaps someone else, a piece which might have been written for them. (I love the fact that the Josquin scholars reject such a fantastic piece, and then the De La Rue scholars come along and say their man didn’t write it either. Crikey, I’ll take the credit if no-one wants it.)

Add to this their obvious marketing skills, smart dressing and generosity and you’ve got the perfect group. And they’re American! I say this not because they’re the first to do it – think of Anonymous Four, amongst others – but because it’s fantastic to see a group emerging from the American scene that gives British groups obvious reason to look nervously across the pond in much the same way that British brewers have found the need to respond to the American microbrew revolution. We’ve had it our own way for too long and I hope that our reviewers are as complimentary as many American reviewers were about us back in the 80s.

They’re at the Wigmore Hall in June and I’ll be going; I advise anyone else to do the same. And buy yourself a CD for Xmas. I guess I should be urging everyone to buy the new Orlando Consort Machaut recording, so buy both.