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 [[ March 14 & 15, 2002, New York City ]]
SOUND ON FILM

 Alicia Zuckerman

"We've got everybody from Stockhausen to Portishead," says Josh Cody, who founded Ensemble Sospeso in 1995 with fellow composer Kirk Noreen. The new-music sinfonietta (that's basically one of each orchestral instrument) presents 'Sound of Film' at Columbia University's Miller Theatre in New York City this week‹collaborations between four composer-filmmaker teams: Louis Andriessen and Hal Hartley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Brothers Quay, John Tavener and Werner Herzog, and Adrian Utley (from the trip-hop band Portishead) and Nicolas Roeg.

"It's a little hard to market," Cody admits, "because we're trying to get across the fact that it isn't like taking an old film and putting new music to it, and it's not playing a movie score." He suggests "film operas," or, as the BBC, who originally commissioned the project called them, "new-music films." The "collision of media," as Cody later settles on, is "a really important step forward because I think this is part of where contemporary music is going to go -- is already going."

The project is certainly a departure from the traditional way of thinking about music in the context of film. Even the best movie music usually exists somewhere the background, intended to set a mood or transition to a new scene. Here, music and film are absolute equals. The BBC chose the composers, who in turn chose the filmmakers. It went something like this: "Hi Hal! It's Louie calling from over here in the Netherlands. How'd you like to do this project together?"

After Hartley got that call from Andriessen, he started listening to a lot of his music. "I sort of felt like there was this crazy math in it," says Hartley, who ended up calling the film 'The New Math(s)'. "It kind of just inspired me to think in a particular way about mystical mathematics Š In every level of the creative process, and in this little piece, there is this notion of contradiction of the specificity of math but also the mysteriousness of math."

'The New Math(s),' a silent film, was a chance for Hartley to break out of his signature style -- highly literary and narrative-driven. (In 'Henry Fool' there are moments when one wonders how the actors remembered so many soliloquies.) Here, action prevails. One of the actors is Bessie Award-winning choreographer David Neumann. "In a certain way 'The New Math(s)' is like an excuse for me to have some of my favorite movement-oriented actors fight," explains Hartley, "and so there's a lot of smacking and throwing people over desks." (It's set in a classroom.)

There is text though -- provided by Andriessen in the form of William Blake's 'The Book of Thel,' a poem about mortality, a theme that infuses the overall work. So it exists on three levels: the music (orchestrated for soprano and three musicians), the poem and the film.

In contrast, the Stockhausen-Brothers Quay collaboration, 'In Absentia,' calls for electronics only. The title is itself a metaphor for electronics, and as such, there is no one actually onstage producing the music. Accordingly, acclaimed animation team the Brothers Quay create a surreal world through live action with stop animation to tell the story of an asylum-bound woman writing the same letter over and over as the daylight changes through the window behind her.

It is notable that John Tavener, who has written little if anything other than religious-themed compositions since the '70s, chose to work with German director Werner Herzog. Herzog has also long held an interest in the concept of quests, but he's "more interested in the demonic side of things," explains Josh Cody, Ensemble Sospeso's artistic director. 'Pilgrimage' was filmed at the Mexican shrine, Our Lady of Guadeloupe, and is written for orchestra, chorus and a Persian soloist singing in Farsi (another Tavener trademark is a fascination with all things multicultural). Ensemble Sospeso, being as versatile as it is, just happened to have mezzo-soprano Haleh Abghari on hand.

From all angles, the most pop-oriented piece on the program is Adrian Utley and Nicolas Roeg's 'The Sound of Claudia Schiffer', which Cody describes as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, multi-faceted portrait of the supermodel and her iconic beauty. Utley, a member of the British trip-hop quartet Portishead, ventures deeper into experimentalism, while British director Roeg returns to one of his earliest interests, celebrity (think 1970s: 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' starring David Bowie).

Whatever this program may lack in marketability should be more than sufficiently be made up for in content. With some of the most creative minds working in the genres of composition and film, it is unlikely to fall flat.

Cody has just one request: "If you see Claudia Schiffer, tell her to stop by."

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