Johann Johannsson and Hildur Gudnadottir: Manchester, UK, November 2, 2012
Live Soundtrack of Pandoras Box
November 2, 2012
As soon as the title sequence erupted onto the cinema screen, so too did the quartet's music; all fire and brimstone, recalling composer Philip Glass' most imposing work on Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Piano chords were struck as cello and clarinet weaved dense, looped melodies that grew near-liturgical in grandeur, creating an incredibly taut and tense atmosphere. As the first flickers of onscreen action arrived, the quartet answered with a disturbed and pregnant silence. So started yet another memorable night at the RNCM and Jóhann Jóhannsson's rescoring of GW Pabst's iconic 1929 silent film, Pandora's Box.
No stranger to working in film and theater, evidence by his résumé-particularly the critically acclaimed IBM 1401, A User's Manual (4AD, 2006)-Jóhannsson assembled his own cast, including some of the most celebrated artists on the Touch Label roster. It's no surprise, then, that both Philip Jeck (turntables and electronics) and Hildur Guðnadóttir (cello, voice and electronics) also have a history in both realms, a fact made abundantly apparent in this delicate yet erudite revision of the score. The quartet was rounded out by RNCM alumnus Dov Goldberg (clarinets). The group coalesced to create a rich and evocative chamber piece for the film, combining acoustics with sensitive electronics and textural drones, which embraced these traditional elements rather than detracting from them.
Although much of the music emanating from the quartet was suitably restrained, highlights of the performance where produced in the oft-uncanny marriage between the melodies and the mise-en-scène onscreen. The hurried activity of the musical in which Lulu performs was described by the group with pizzicato strings, prepared piano rhythms and sputtered clarinet notes-small kinetic embers that gave the story a charged vitality.The detuned bell chimes that accompanied the wedding scene eked out the doomed narrative perfectly, the delayed tones swelling into a prophetic funeral dirge which climaxed with the Lulu character's arrest for murder at the end of the scene.
The introduction of the Ripper character on the fogbound streets of London was perhaps the finest moment. The mood chilled to match the chiaroscuro lighting of the cinematography. Guðnadóttir's soprano vocals, layered and dense like the mist on screen, began to melt the atmosphere of the auditorium, glowing with sensuality and melancholy-affecting, like the onset of a beautiful drug. Despite these instances, Johannsson and his group knew exactly how to use silence to devastating effect, wielding it like a sledgehammer whose strike roared throughout the concert hall in the most pivotal and emotionally engaging scenes.
The most powerful aspect of the group's performance was undoubtedly its subtlety. Rather than create a spectacle with its music-a trait all too common in films scores- the quartet preferred to meditate and reflect directly on the onscreen action in a fashion devoid of all the expected clichéd trappings. It was clear that this film was important to all the players, whose reading was incredibly emphatic and considered. Rather than complicating the film with its own personas, the quartet melded as one to embrace Pabst's work, giving the audience a varied and sensory experience. A fitting elegy to the crestfallen life and career of actress Louise Brooks, and a revelatory way to experience the magic of Pabst's cinema.