Monday, January 21, 2013

PuSh 2013: Cinema Musica

In addition to their always brilliant playing, what I most admire about The Turning Point Ensemble is the thoughtfulness and adventurousness of their programming, which frequently involves crossing disciplines and commissioning bold new work. Both of these elements were on display yesterday in Cinema Musica, a "live conversation" between music and film that unfolded at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Theatre, as part of the PuSh Festival.

As conductor and Co-Artistic Director Owen Underhill announced in his curtain speech, the program involved some "epic" technical demands. That said, the afternoon opened simply, with the only work not involving live musicians. Stan Brakhage's "..." Reel 5 (1998) is a hand-painted 16 mm film edited to composer James Tenney's Flocking, a work for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. While Brakhage's films are often silent, in this case the slightly dissonant call-and-response between the pianos enriches the dialogue between the two dominant visual styles of the film, which moves between images that alternately put me in mind of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and Mark Rothko's multiforms.

By contrast, it was Paul Klee who came to mind in watching the piece that followed. Chromo Concerto (2007), a collaboration between composer Michael Oesterle and animator Chris Hinton, brought Underhill and a chamber-size portion of his musicians on stage, and featured a gorgeous piano solo by Chris Morano that added a different kind of tonal colour to the simple circle and line drawings by Hinton. This portion of the program concluded with Regen (1929), an early silent "city symphony" film by Joris Ivens for which Hans Eisler wrote a live score some 12 years later. Turning Point has been "instrumental" in researching the correct synchronization of sound and image, and yesterday the results were truly beguiling.

Following the first intermission was the world premiere of Good Night Vision (2013), a collaboration between visual artist Judy Radul and Turning Point that featured live and prerecorded video and performance. The piece begins with actor Aryo Khakpour commenting on a series of YouTube clips featuring thermal cameras (which operate on heat rather than light to produce their images), before noting the coincidence that the composer Ferruccio Busoni and the filmmaker Billy Wilder happened to live in the same Berlin apartment complex (though not at the same time). This, then, is the jumping off point for Radul's theoretical ruminations on film and death, music and elegy, turning two thermal cameras of her own on the Turning Point musicians as they play Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque, the ensemble's heat producing the equivalent of a negative film image.

Next up was Stan Douglas's Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin B.C. (1993), a video installation that was originally accompanied by a computer-controlled piano playing an adaptation of Arnold Schönberg's Begleitmusik. For this screening of the film, a mash-up of early silent and film noir aesthetics that also serves as an oblique commentary on racial and environmental politics, Turning Point performed a chamber version of the score by Schönberg, who for many years tried and failed to write music for Hollywood cinema.

Finally, the afternoon concluded with another world premiere, François Houle's Suspense (2013), a rumination on the great symphonic film scores from the 1940s that was counterpointed--visually and sonically--with stop-motion images of various members of the Turning Point Ensemble projected onto a rear projection screen. Additionally, projected onto a white scrim at the front of the stage were images of gymnasts flying through the air captured with high-speed cameras by American video artists David and Hin-Jin Hodge. Visually this was all very stunning, but I'm not sure in this case the suspense created by the images went with that evoked by the music.


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