Syracuse: Lights, Camera, Action

What’s more important: the movie or the music? Movies are visual creations, where flashing lights and tightly edited sequences capture our attention and transport us into the world of the director and screenwriter. But it’s the music, often forgotten about in the background, that targets an emotion, tells a story, and sets an atmosphere long before the visual components of a movie, and it can often drastically change how we interpret the story. For the third annual Syracuse International Film and Video Festival, the Syracuse Society for New Music brought the music of the movies to the foreground with live performances played to background film clips. This unusual reversal of roles was both an enticing and unique way of bringing attention to music that often goes unappreciated.

The concert opened with Laura Karpman’s five-movement composition, Rounds (2001), for viola and piano. Karpman is a four-time Emmy award winning composer who has worked with Steven Spielberg on a mini-series, Taken. A believer that video game music holds creative potential, she is the current composer-in-residence for Sony Online Entertainment. For those video game addicts out there, Karpman’s music can be heard on Sony’s Everquest II. Though Rounds was not accompanied with film clips or visuals, the music was so visual that a film could have been made as accompaniment to the score.

The piece began with hardly audible figurations on the viola, rising in volume as if something in the distance were approaching. The piano pushed along the rhythm with clear accents, both instruments rising in volume until a driving rhythm took over. The second movement was calmer, imitating rippled water with a reflective character. The third movement took off in a hurry, but the fourth movement returned to the rippled water, with more pensive and exotic melodies. And, in a full circle, the fifth movement returned to distant figurations, rising in tension and activity. However, the ending was so anticlimactic that it was almost lost. There were some ensemble issues, the two performers not exactly lining up, but the over-all impression was effective because it brought scenes and action into my mind as I listened, the way any good film composer knows how to do.

Featured next was a trailer of alma mater, one of the films from the festival, by Uruguayan director Alvaro Buela with music by Sylvia Meyer. The film traces a girl through religious and mystical experiences which ultimately give her a deeper understanding of her own motives in life. However, the trailer turned the girl’s depression into an artistic statement. The music helped with the artistic, pensive spin by illuminating the silent film editing with a cute Spanish vocal song with raw harmony in the piano. Composer Sylvia Meyer, who was also performing, sang not as an opera singer but as a Spanish folk singer, which gave the film added character and inspired me to want to see the full-length version.

In between set-ups, clips from the one of the Festival’s documentary films, Bright Circle, was shown. The film tracks American Indians in sports with music by Brent Michael Davids. The music wandered around with unresolved dissonances, but was very much a background event so as to not drown out the narration. The film proved to be an interesting account of the cultural cleansing that forced the American Indians to adapt to the social-rites of a Europeanized America, all while American Indians dominated the sports scene in the early 1900s.

Davids, of American Indian decent, also rescored the 1920 silent film, Last of the Mohicans in 2003 for full-orchestra and quartz flute. It’s a captivating score that perfectly lines up with the action in the movie, from the tension between the white man and the Indians, to the love between Cora and Uncas, and even the brutal fight scenes. For the Society for New Music concert, Davids pared down the score for a large chamber ensemble and he joined the action, playing the quartz flute and singing. The piece was held together with the film by using a somewhat audible click track. It was slightly annoying, but when the wood flute being played on the silent screen sounded loud and clear in exact time, it was chilling and worthwhile. Rumor has it that discussions are taking place with Daniel Hege, the music director of the Syracuse Symphony, to program the full orchestral score.

Kazuhiko Koyama gets the award for traveling the furthest distance to be at the concert. Express from Japan, lavished in bright blue silks with white socks and flip-flops, he came to share the sounds of his shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument. For those who have not seen one up close, it looks like a cross between a bass guitar and banjo. The sound box looked and sounded as if it were made from solid clay. Koyama used a metal handle that could grab the string, plucking it upwards with a tingy sound, but could also hit the strings against the clay, making a loud clank. He played tracks from the movie Adan, which was also screened at the film festival. A score made up of Koyama’s playing makes me think that the movie must incorporate both traditional and modern elements.

The concert came to a dramatic finish with a clip of Episode 110 from the Spielberg’s Taken, with the second piece of Laura Karpman’s to be featured on the program, a score arranged for two violins, two violas, cello, and double bass. It was a huge contrast compared to Rounds. This piece was romantic in style, but never gave into clichĂ©d dominant to tonic cadences, keeping the dissonance prevailing throughout. The tension created by the clashing of those compositional techniques was carried throughout the entire episode. Taking in Spielberg’s overly-dramatic Hollywood directorial style combined with the sci-fi edge of the series, Karpman’s sounds melded well and helped hold the dramatic tension through the long scene where the daughter of a young couple was lured away by spaceships hovering above the Midwestern plains. Because of the live accompaniment, the spoken words from the episode were turned off, so it was difficult to understand the action on screen, but the music gave enough information to hold the audience in suspense as the scene played out.

Listening to new music with International Film Festival reels attached was as magical as a new music concert can get and opened a new chapter for the Syracuse Society for New Music. Despite the unique nature of this concert, it seemed to be a technical beast to put on logistically. Except for the click track for Last of the Mohicans, the performers had to wing it, often times leaving the music lagging behind the end of the clip which resulted sharp cuts of film instead of nicely timed, edited endings. For a group such as the Syracuse Society for New Music, this was a humongous project, much larger than their usual fare, and perhaps it didn’t get quite enough preparation. The Society will do all it can to put on new music, even if it means short rehearsal times. Perhaps they’ll gain more recognition, and funding, through their relationship with the film festival, affording them more rehearsal time in the future. If music sets the tone, the Society sets the tone of a growing community with artistic potential.