The concluding work on coLABoratory, the American Composers Orchestra’s April 5 Zankel Hall concert, was an extremely effective symbiosis of music and film called New York: A City Symphony by Troy Herion. Throughout its roughly fifteen-minute duration, audience members occasionally gasped or laughed—not a frequent occurrence at a performance of contemporary classical music. I know I was at the edge of my seat for most of it. And at the end, the audience gave the most resounding applause that I had ever witnessed following an ACO performance. So was that reaction due to the music, or was it because they were watching a movie? Ultimately, it was a little bit of both.
Admittedly, it is not out of the ordinary for films to make us laugh or cry or to keep us completely riveted as we anticipate what will happen next. But often part of what makes the cinematic experience so effective is the musical soundtrack that accompanies the visual images we are watching on the screen. The most celebrated motion picture directors were extremely aware of this and chose the composers they worked with very carefully—think Eisenstein and Prokofiev, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, or Federico Fellini and Nino Rota. In more recent times, it would be difficult to imagine Stephen Spielberg’s adventures being as quite as epic without John Williams’s exultant orchestrations or David Lynch’s narratives being nearly as creepy without Angelo Badalamenti’s deceptively serene harmonies. Peter Greenaway famously cut his films to the music that Michael Nyman wrote for them and, in that reversal of the usual process, further solidified the painterly quality of his work. Directors from silent era icon Charlie Chaplin to horror filmmaker John Carpenter occasionally created their own music for their films, further heightening how crucial the sonic element was to their particular cinematic visions, and French nouvelle vague pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s approach to sound in his films has been so idiosyncratic that he has been frequently dubbed a composer in his own right as well.
Troy Herion, however, approaches this creative fusion from the other direction. When we visited him in his Brooklyn apartment, a pair of vintage keyboards immediately caught my attention as did piles of CDs. Other than an extremely well-crafted table, a large provocative painting on the wall, and an art object that was a cross between a camera and a can of soda (a gift from a friend), there was little evidence that this was the pad of someone who made films in addition to making music. Largely self-taught as a filmmaker but heavily trained as a composer (he has an MFA from Princeton and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program there), Herion’s interest in making movies grew directly out of making music. It was a way to further extend the possibilities of what music can be:
I definitely think of myself as a composer first. I’m a composer who works with sounds and images. I’m learning the techniques of a filmmaker, but I work 95% with the instincts of a composer….I start with the musical impulse and everything else comes from that, even though they end up affecting one another. If I have a musical impulse that makes me think of an image, then I capture that image and it’s different from what my imagination was. So the real image will then change the music that I originally thought of and it becomes this feedback loop….By doing it myself, things stay in this intuitive state….But I think that music can be really anything. It’s an attention to a certain type of balance, a certain type of consonance and dissonance of material….Anything can be a musical appreciation; it’s how we direct our attention.
The first large-scale manifestation of Herion’s concept of “visual music” is his Baroque Suite, in which a group of dancers filmed in a series of tableaux that evoke Baroque-style paintings is fused with similarly Baroque-inspired music, albeit scored for a band including synths, electric guitar, and drum kit. As a result, although its five movements sport such period titles as “sarabande” and “gavotte” and were derived from these centuries-old dances, the work feels very contemporary, particularly in its sonic kinship to neo-prog rock. A signature device in Herion’s musical language that comes directly from his immersion into filmmaking is to subvert expectations by playing with people’s familiarity with various musical genres.
One of the things I ask myself—I’m critiquing my work as I go forward—is, “Do I care what happens next?” Even though I don’t know what happens next yet. This is something that I think that makes syntax very important. If you’re working in a style, you have an expectation of what will happen next. But if you don’t have any syntax from a previous style that people have already become accustomed to—Baroque music or classical music or rock music or whatever it is you are using—you have to generate your own, generate some sort of momentum so people can predict what’s going to happen next and then you can divert or fulfill that….I’m influenced by cliché almost. I look for opportunities to set up a cliché on purpose. I’ll try to make something almost boring. Boring is when you know what’s going to happen next but it takes too long to get there. I try to find that point right before you tune out, but you have an extremely strong projection of what’s going to happen next. At that point I feel like I have a common experience with the audience, and that’s when I like to twist it. And I think that resembles a joke, but it’s really something that holds your attention.
Despite Herion thinking of himself as a composer who makes films, some of his recent films have featured the music of other composers. He and his girlfriend Elan Bogarin fashioned what could best be described as a music video around the pianist Michael Mizrahi’s recording of Marc Dancigers’s The Bright Motion. The Dark City, a poignant rendering of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (also created in collaboration with Bogarin and which was featured in The New York Times’s Metropolitan Diary), used Franz Schubert’s music.
“I’m interested in advocating for music,” Herion explains. “It was really exciting for me to take Marc Dancigers’s music and Michael Mizrahi’s playing and create a film around that that was interpreted by a musician and composer—I felt it was an analysis of the music visually. While I didn’t generate the music, I felt that I was very close to the music and I put on my composer hat [to think] about the deeper meaning of phrases. Those are the details that are often not prioritized by people who are just filmmakers and not musicians.”
New York: A City Symphony is clearly the most ambitious synthesis of his musical and cinematic ideas thus far. For him, the visual and sonic elements form a seamless whole and are really not intended to be experienced independently. Even his use of the term “symphony” is multidisciplinary. Though the term carries significant weight in music history and Herion’s symphony calls to mind such elaborate programmatic works as Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or—closer to our own time and place—Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony, Herion is also very mindful of the tradition of “city symphonies” made by filmmakers around the world since the 1920s:
Using a term like symphony I realize is a loaded term. It means a lot of things in the musical world and I sacrificed a little bit of what it means in the music world for what it means in the cinematic world. A city symphony is a whole genre of filmmaking. Why did filmmakers in the 1920s call their films symphonies? Was it for the epic quality of their films, because they were associating that with the term symphony, or was it because they were trying to conjure a musical interpretation?
The other tradition that Herion had to make peace with was New York City itself. Originally from Philadelphia, he’s only been living here for the past three years. At first, being a relatively recent transplant made conveying New York City seem too daunting a task, but eventually his enthusiasm for his adopted home took over and it shows. New York: A City Symphony captures simultaneously the overwhelming grandeur and non-stop energy of this town in ways that only a handful of other pieces of music do—scores by Gershwin and Bernstein, perhaps, or Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark.
“I was nervous when I was making the piece,” Herion confesses. “I’d go back between being very confident—that’s a really great shot, I nailed it—and then another part of me would be like, ‘How dare I comment on that! I’ve only been in New York for three years; I don’t have enough New York cred to get into the dirt here.’ But there is a whole culture of New York which is immigrants. Everybody’s an immigrant to some extent. So I focused on the idea that anyone is a New Yorker as soon as they get here. Nobody cares how long you’ve been here. If you’re taking up space, you’re a New Yorker almost. And the other thing I tried to focus on was how impressive New York is when you haven’t lived here so long that it starts to melt into the common experience. It’s spectacular to your senses—the architecture, the sounds, the activity; it’s almost maddening if you pay too much attention to it, so it’s in our interests to tune it out a bit. But I tried to say, ‘Let me keep this heightened awareness for as long as possible.’”
That heightened awareness of visual images as well as sound and how these two sets of sensory information can feed off each other makes Troy Herion’s creations some of the most interesting “music” I’ve heard (and seen) in quite some time.