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PERFORMING ARTS : Tuning Up at the Movies : When composers like Richard Einhorn and Philip Glass take on film classics, it's the music--performed live--rather than the image that leads the eye.

August 13, 1995|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

NEW YORK — For years, audiences have watched Buster Keaton fall in love with Brown Eyes the cow in the 1925 silent film "Go West" while sentimental orchestra music sweetened the moment. But that scene has lately proved a lot less sappy, thanks to the laconic guitar playing of Bill Frisell, one of the best new music/jazz guitarists around, who often performs live along with this and other Keaton films.

Similarly, George Benjamin, an intellectual young British composer, has made a specialty of enlivening new music festivals by improvising at the piano to the silent "Ben-Hur," and Jonathan Lloyd, one of today's odder British composers, recently added a suitably weird chamber accompaniment to the silent version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail."

Even the Hollywood Bowl has gotten into the act: A few years back, Peter Sellars put a new gloss on "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," combining it with a live, unsynchronized performance of John Adams' "Harmonielehre," played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Indeed, just about everywhere you look these days, new music and live performances are transforming the old equation of movies and sound into something completely different. It's a radical change from conventional film scores, new or old, live or recorded. The music here becomes the occasion for--and more important, the reason for--viewing the film. It leads the eye, unlike the typical soundtrack, which merely tries to mimic the action.

Now two more composers are taking the trend to a new and curious level--writing opera that is meant to accompany film. On Friday, Saturday and next Sunday, Richard Einhorn's operaoratorio "Voices of Light," intended to accompany Carl Dreyer's famous silent film "La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc," will have its West Coast premiere at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. It will be performed live by the Los Angeles Theater Orchestra, I Cantori and four vocal soloists, conducted by Lucinda Carver, to a pristine print of the film. Then on Nov. 18 at UCLA, Philip Glass' latest opera, "La Belle et la Be^te," will be performed along with Jean Cocteau's beloved film, in place of the film's original soundtrack.

Actually, accompaniment is not the proper term for Einhorn's score, since the New York composer, who has experience both in the concert hall and with film and television, says he intends the music to coexist with the movie, rather than underscore it.

"What interests me about 'Jeanne d'Arc,' " Einhorn said in a recent interview, "is not that it is a silent movie but that it is a work of art that happens to be silent and a movie."

It also happens to be generally regarded as one of the most beautiful films ever made, but one that has long had music problems. Some new ideas were needed, Einhorn believed, in order to solve them.

"The way I decided to score it," Einhorn continued, "was not to score it but to do my own piece that had its own integrity and happened to synchronize."

When Dreyer made the film in 1928, at the beginning of the talkie era, he conceived it with a soundtrack, but he didn't have the technology to realize one. Nevertheless, he produced a remarkable film so sensitive in its startling close-ups of the actors, and its transcendental performance by French actress Maria Falconetti in the title role, that some purists believe that the film is most effective when shown in true silence.

They believe that, in part, because the film has suffered some pretty awful music through the years. Dreyer wanted to use Gregorian chants, but the film's producers hired two hack operetta composers to do a pastiche of the "Marseillaise" instead. Dreyer hated it. Later, the movie got bits of Bach and Albinoni attached to it, and Dreyer hated that as well. Numerous other composers have tried their hand at writing original music for "Jeanne d'Arc," but none has been widely accepted.


And music has only been part of the film's troubles. Its two original prints were lost by the Danish censors; its negative was destroyed in a fire in Berlin. Dreyer made a new version of the film from outtakes, and that too was lost until its rediscovery in 1952, when it was re-edited. Miraculously, however, an original print, complete and in excellent condition, was discovered in 1982 in the cupboard of a Danish mental hospital; the institution's director had apparently requested the film in 1928 to show his patients and then never returned it.

Einhorn happened upon stills from "Jeanne d'Arc" while researching another project at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1987. Intrigued despite never having seen the film, he screened it and was so transfixed that he dropped the original project, eager to give Dreyer's work new life.

Since Joan heard voices, Einhorn heard voices. He turned to ancient mystical texts in Latin, old French and Italian, ranging from mystical medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen to a 13th-Century misogynist poem.

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