Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bad cinema, original score make for a great evening with 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'

One might be forgiven for getting the feeling that the hottest show in town Friday night was taking place at the Hollywood Theatre. After all, the line still stretched to the end of the block just five minutes before showtime, a throng of latecomers hoping against hope for a ticket to...Ed Wood's 1959 film Plan 9 From Outer Space?

That's correct, the famed Edward D. Wood, Jr., the cross-dressing actor/director/writer/producer who parachuted into the battle of Tarawa wearing a bra and panties, the man later responsible for such Hollywood "classics" as Glen or Glenda? (a sensationalist picture about the world's first gender reassignment surgery), Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls and of course Plan 9.

What made this showing so special wasn't, in fact, the film itself, although the camp value alone makes it worth seeing. What drew such a crowd to this work (by a director who was famously awarded film critic Michael Medved's Golden Turkey Award as the 'Worst Director Ever') was the live soundtrack (string quartet and synthesizers) and the eleven actors who live-dubbed the script as the movie was playing. Filmusik, a group who "promotes live performance over prerecorded media through presenting new venues for musicians and composers" arranged the evening, with help from Classical Revolution Portland, live voice actors from the Willamette Radio Workshop, and composer and local electronica artist Sugar Shortwave, on hand to man synthesizers, keyboards and all manner of other electronic gizmos.

The idea of 'live film' is brilliant, and the audience was visibly excited, applauding loudly all the way through the Filmusik previews and credits. The composition began with an ambient, burbling spacescape which shortly gave way to the opening film credits. An extended segment for strings and synth followed this, eerie and muted (compositionally speaking) . When the voice actors began speaking, even when they were a full phrase or more behind the mouth moving on the screen, the audience went wild. For all that the movie itself is atrocious in so many respects, it was a great labor of love, a true magnum opus of crap, and the live soundtrack and the giant dose of camp imparted by the actors paid sincere homage to this.

The composition itself was very well-done; it's been said the the best way to tell a good film score is if you don't notice it. I don't know about that, but the point is well-taken: if the soundtrack is intrusive or distracts from the film in any way then the music, at least in its relationship to the film, is flawed. There were only a few moments when I noticed this Friday night, but it seemed the problem was more in the mix: whenever the strings were playing at the same time as the actors were speaking, the music was way too loud, sometimes to the point that the voices weren't even audible. In this sense the music did seem intrusive, but given the volume disparity between voices and music it was hard to tell if it was that dynamic or the composition itself that distracted.

The score cut back and dropped out entirely as was called for by the plot of the film. The most enjoyable part of the evening musically was a long, samba-like montage sequence toward the middle of the movie. It captured almost perfectly the over-the-top, self-important mise-en-scene being portrayed onscreen: vampires, aliens, ufos and government conspiracies require deft treatment musically, so hats off to Sugar Shortwave for her imaginative and insightful work. Also fun was the weird, warped, slowed-down big band jazz that served almost as a leitmotif for the domestic scenes in the movie. It imparted an odd, things-look-normal-but-something's-really-not-quite-right flavor that was unexpected and yet very well-suited.

If you are disappointed that you missed out on all the fun never fear: Filmusik is doing another presentation next week at the Hollywood Theatre: Missile to the Moon will be showing on June 3rd and 5th, with another live performance by CRPDX and the Willamette Radio Workshop as they play composer Scott J. Ordway's soundtrack. (Click here to see the trailer.) For sci-fi fans, classic cinephiles and music lovers looking for a new thrill, you won't find anything much more fun than this. I'll be back in those awful, ancient seats at the Hollywood Theatre next Friday night for some more.
Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CD Review: Daniel Taylor--The Voice of Bach

World-acclaimed Canadian countertenor (and here conductor) Daniel Taylor recently recorded a CD entitled The Voice of Bach with The Choir and Orchestra of the Theatre of Early Music on the Sony BMG label. It is an evocative release with intelligently chosen selections, a sort of ‘Highlights Of…’ compilation by and for those who love and can appreciate the wondrous variety to be found in the music of Bach’s sacred vocal works.

The expansiveness and warmth of Taylor’s voice is marvelous to hear. Accompanied by an almost breathlessly sensitive and expert group of players, his seemingly effortless range and bottomless palette shine while remaining a part of the integral whole. It is not just Taylor who comes to the fore though; included are instrumental interludes, such as three delightful introductory sinfonia from different cantatas, as well as a chorale and the lushly accompanied Motet No. 4, O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht. Arias from the Passions and the Weihnachtsoratorium are included, and soprano Agnes Zsigovics’ sprightly coloration is a welcome addition as she joins for a pair of duets from the cantatas. These performers certainly know their business, a fact that is abundantly clear on this highly polished release.

Cross-posted at NW Reverb.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: John Paul's 'City Girl' Score wows at Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival

The James Ivory Theater at Marylhurst University was full to capacity Friday night, May 8, for a special presentation of the Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival. The film was famed director F.W. Murnau's 1930 silent opus City Girl, accompanied by a brand-new original score by composer John Paul, head of Marylhurst's music department. Paul directed clarinettist Barbara Heilmair Tanret, violinist Julie Coleman, violist Joël Belgique and cellist Justin Kagan.

The film tells the story of beautiful Kate, a tough, hard-working Chicagoan who works at a bustling lunch counter constantly patronized by a horde of leering, demanding goons, and Lem, a naive Minnesota farm boy who is sent to the city by his father with the all-important task of selling the family's wheat crop for that year. Subsequently they fall in love and get married, much to Lem's family's chagrin, and Kate follows Lem back to the wheatfields of Minnesota (actually filmed in 1928 outside Athena in Eastern Oregon) trying to gain acceptance from Lem's family and adjust to life on the farm.

Murnau originally wanted to call this film 'Our Daily Bread,' so in honor (it would seem) of the director's vision Paul entitled the prelude 'Give Us This Day.' The prelude and score for the title screen reminded one of Copland's rendering of Americana: stately and dignified, the music painted visions of the heartland with broad brushstrokes, harmonically uncluttered and straightforward, complementing rather than competing with Murnau's pastoral cinematography.

Paul's composition showed a wide range of textural variation throughout; having only four instrumentalists, he made maximum use of the many timbres available to these skilled players. There were light-hearted moments, such as the moto perpetuo theme depicting a train ride to the city. There were strange pizzicato motifs tossed about between the strings, bearing uncertain tonal relationships to the underlying texture; this represented the Farm Board, and young Lem's attempt to sell the wheat for the price his father demanded. There was true pathos in Paul's scoring of the family's benediction--we never hear the words of the prayer, but both the film and the score leave no doubt as to the dire consequences should Lem fail in his task.

Kate's workplace occupies a large part of the early film, and Paul used a spiky, mechanistic leitmotif driven by the clarinet (an instrument often used for Kate herself) to depict the hustle and bustle of the lunch counter. A menacing, sawing cello theme represented Lem's angry, glowering father, who is very, almost violently suspicious of his new daughter-in-law. Frightening, fortissimo chord sequences accompanied the confrontations between Lem's father and Kate, Lem and his father, and also heralded the arrival of a hailstorm that threatens to ruin the crop before it can be harvested; Paul used these moments judiciously, and therefore to a heightened emotional effect.

The mechanics of conducting this type of presentation seemed daunting. Paul was constantly looking between the screen, the score, and the players, and for the most part everything was synchronized amazingly well, given the difficult logistical nature of the undertaking. In the moments when things didn't quite align, Paul called out bar numbers and, aside from one or two instances, the players segued to the appropriate measure seamlessly. All of the musicians deserve high praise for the skill and subtlety of their delivery. It seemed as though everyone shared a similar vision, from an artistic and a technical standpoint, and great dexterity was required to pull this off.

Before the show Paul informed the audience that during the days before 'talkies,' a pianist or organist would often improvise and/or play various well-known classics or pop-tunes to fit the film. In homage to that, Paul mentioned in the program notes that Berg, Weill, Bartok and Copland (I also fancied (much to my delight)that I heard tiny snippets of Danny Elfmanesque harmonic progressions) were all inspirations for his composition.

The audience went wild afterward: foot-stomping, whistling, cheering, clapping and a hearty chorus of huzzahs greeted the composer after the lights came back on. All in all the entire project was a fascinating and worthwhile experience. Murnau's film was incredibly powerful, the actors (especially Mary Duncan as Kate) were intense, so Paul had his work cut out for him. To his credit, he embraced the melodrama of the film rather than using his composition to critique it: in no way did the 'soundtrack' betray self-aggrandizement on the part of the composer, but rather it showed a deference to Murnau's artistic vision.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

This just in: Seattle's Wall of Sound record store can kiss my ass...

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago and waited to see if I would stop being pissed before I posted it. Didn't happen.


I happen to be one of those movie lovers who can watch my faves over and over and over again. You know those people who have seen 'Star Wars' hundreds of times, 'The Big Lebowski' dozens of times, etc. etc.? Well that's me. [Random side note: the word 'fuck' (including any and all variations and derrivations thereof) is uttered over 260 times in TBL. Don't believe me? Watch it. Keep a stroke tally. I did. It's not as easy as it sounds.]

That always seems to shock some people, especially those of the smarmy 'I don't watch TV/Movies whatever because I've got too many other important things to do' crowd. Nothing wrong with those folks, aside from the slightly condescending attitude toward those of us who burn our candles at all ends and still manage to balance those important things to do with a healthy dose of the old idiot box.

I sometimes want to say to those people: 'I work full time, raise a kid, sing in two skilled choral groups and serve on the board of one of them, I write reams about music, play several instruments, am always reading several books simultaneously and to top it all off I brew my own beer. Can I relax now and watch some TV? Please? Would it be OK with you if I disengaged for a bit and enjoyed the sensation of my usually highly-engaged brain turning to mush?'

I've watched 'Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny' a few times in the last month. My purpose here is not to review that film (although I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in hard rock or anyone who likes Jack Black), so let's just say it set off a desire to reconnect with my buttrock roots. I used to rock hard in the 80s: I loved Metallica, Van Halen, Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Queensryche, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden et al. One I knew more by reputation than by familiarity with his music was Ronnie James Dio, one-time lead singer for Black Sabbath and an extremely successful leader of his own band, Dio. So, inspired by TDITPOD (see the movie) I decided I wanted to get Dio's Holy Diver.


I was in Seattle last weekend to review the opera, so I decided to wander around the Pike Place Market. I hit a few record stores but no luck, so I drove up to Wall of Sound records and went in. I looked around for a few moments, and it was almost immediately apparent that this was probably not the record store I was looking for. I decided to go to the clerk and just ask if they had it.

"I'm looking for Dio's Holy Diver."

The clerk laughs and holds up both hands in the 'sign of the devil' popularized by Dio. Whatever; kudos to him for understanding the pop culture connection. Then he looks at me and says "that's a shitty Dio."

At first I was just mildly annoyed by this; the clerk told me to try Everyday Music up the street. I left, but (true to my nature) began to get steamed the more I thought about it.

For one thing, I'd be willing to bet the guy doesn't know jack shit about Dio; I'd bend over and kiss my own ass if that guy could name one single other Dio album without looking on the internet. This sounds like a case of that music fan---the guy who thinks that everything that anyone else has ever heard of is beneath him? As in, Holy Diver was Dio's most popular album, so it must therefore suck. We've all met this guy; he must be the only one to know it or it's trendy and it blows.

All of that's really idle speculation; maybe the guy does have some idea what he's talking about. This is secondary to the fact that, from a business standpoint, mocking your customers is simply inexcusable. Who gives a shit whether or not the goddamned clerk likes the music you happen to be looking for? I didn't ask him for a commentary on what I wanted to buy. I wasn't buying it as a gift for the asshole behind the counter. It's what I want that counts--I'm the fucking customer!


I can't really speak to the selection at Wall of Sound record. It seemed rather small to me. The thing that irks me most is that I specifically sought out this store due to a good online recommendation. What I can tell you is that I'll never find out what that selection may be like; I wouldn't piss on Wall of Sound records if I was strolling by on the sidewalk and it was on fire.

[I ended up taking Pantload's advice and went up the street to Everyday Music (there's one here in Ptown too) and was greeted by very polite staff, and ended up buying a used copy of Dio's Last in Line (they didn't have Holy Diver) as well as Frank Black and the Catholics' Dog in the Sand.]

In summation: if you want to be mocked by a counter clerk who looks like he wandered in out of the soup kitchen, go to Wall of Sound records in Seattle. If not, avoid it like the plague.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: McDuffie-Dutton-Kirshbaum trio play Ravel, Beethoven, Schubert

Thursday night, Chamber Music Northwest featured the McDuffie-Dutton-Kirshbaum Trio in the last CMNW concert before the summer festival. Kaul Auditorium at Reed College was packed despite competition from the Blazers playoff game versus Houston, a fact which prompted wry jokes from the stage throughout the evening.

In a program featuring duos and trios by Beethoven, Schubert and Ravel, violinist Robert McDuffie, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum demonstrated individual virtuosity and near-perfect synchronicity as an ensemble. The only performer to play in all four of the evening's offerings, Kirshbaum especially impressed; he is without a doubt one of the most gifted cellists I have ever heard.

The unfinished Triosatz in B-Flat Major (D. 471) by Schubert opened the performance. The sighing, murmuring cello, the viola see-sawing a soft pedal point staccato and the singing of the violin seemed to ebb and flow organically, like a serenade to the glorious evening sunshine fading behind the green outside. It was particularly delightful--Schubert at his high-classical best. It felt almost cruel when the music suddenly softened and died without warning.

Up next was the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920-22.) To call Ravel’s weltering sonic dreamscape ‘difficult’ would be a gross understatement. Musicologist Bob Kingston related an anecdote in which Helene Jourdan-Morhange, the violinist who premiered the work, spoke about the frustrations of practicing it in front of the composer. “It must be fun to write such difficult stuff,” she said to Ravel, “but no one’s going to play it but virtuosi.” “Good,” he replied, “at least I won’t be assassinated by amateurs.”

Playing this piece at the level it demands required the utmost concentration and artistry from even these top-caliber performers. McDuffie and Kirshbaum had everything they could do simply fulfilling the technical requirements of this work, and yet they also managed a deft and nuanced interpretation. Harmonically speaking the piece wove in and out of atonality and polytonality; the pair’s ability to seamlessly weave together a murderous array of syncopated melodic motives, navigate a menacing forest of thorny pizzicato chords that flashed back and forth to con arco with blinding speed and still play with such precision was exciting. Hearing two such performers display this sheer unanimity of purpose was nothing short of remarkable. The audience seemed overwhelmed and almost aghast—whether at the audacity of the composition, the brilliance of the performance or both was not quite discernible.

The all-Beethoven second half opened with the Duo in E-Flat Major “Eyeglass” (WoO 32.) Despite a clever, recurring sight gag focusing on eyeglasses, this piece for viola and cello didn’t always display the degree of polish that was present in the others. Some misalignment between players, bobbled notes and lackluster phrasing occasionally plagued this work.

The grand finale was the Trio in G Major (Op. 9, No. 1). Both of the Beethoven works preceded the turn of the 19th century, and so highlighted the grand, noble classicism of his earlier oeuvre. Presenting a full-throated wall of sound that seemed almost impossible coming from only three instruments, they at turns played in a glorious cantabile even when the work demanded rapid, sparkling brilliance. The dynamics swelled and receded resplendently, and for all its technical demands it managed to come off sounding light and easy. The Presto finale was taken at a truly furious tempo, and the trio’s phrasing included an electric, moody martellato that paid homage to the brilliance of the piece.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.