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The Ecstacy And The Insanity

New York
David Rubenstein Atrium
05/16/2014 -  
Carola Bauckholt: Ghosts Before Breakfast (Film by Hans Richter)
Iris ter Schiphorst The Fall of the House of Usher (Film by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber)
Erik Satie: Entr’acte cinématographique (Arranged by Andrew Digby; Film by René Clair )
Hanns Eisler: Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain, Opus 70 (Film by Joris Ivens) – Chamber Symphony (Film White Flood)

Jörg Schneider (Trumpet)
Collegium Novum Zurich, Jonathan Stockhammer (Conductor)

Collegium Novum Zurich (© Susan Schimert-Ramme)

”I would like to take Hanns Eisler,” barked Arnold Schoenberg, “and put him across my knee and spank him 25 times.”

Who knew that the dour dodecaphonist had such a temperament? Hanns Eisler, though, had been Schoenberg’s prize student, and Hanns Eisler was being thrown out of the United States because of Communist affiliations. It was part of the politics of the time. Eisler was the victim, and Schoenberg had no use for such a political scallywag.

Eisler balanced life as a serious composer and an ultra-serious political adherent. He had written the most complex music, as well as the East German National Anthem, and he spent much of his time writing music for films. And like the best composers, he never ever looked down on this work. Even more important, while his style was atonal, often dodecaphonic, his goal in life was to make music simple enough for the masses.

Last night, for a “Zurich Meets New York” program, an audience had the chance to not only hear two rare Eisler film scores, but to watch five rare–and rarefied–films, ranging from the surrealistic to the burlesque to the scary (really scary) to the two “educational” films for which Eisler wrote the music.

They were performed with a splendid Swiss ensemble, Collegium Novum Zurich, conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer, and their expertise was on exhibit for the entire variegated program.

These two Eisler scores were written within one year of each other (1940-41), they were both atonal, both colorful instrumentally, but no scores could be more different. For a 1929 Dutch “poem” about rain in a Dutch city, Eisler was asked by the Rockefeller Foundation to write the music 15 years after. The movie itself, Regen is probably excellent–but watching it in New York last night, while the unseasonable rain was sloshing outside, was not exactly amusing.

Eisler’s music had little to do with the film itself, a very wet experiment in black and white, showing rain in Holland, coming through the grates, onto the river, into a huge assemblage of umbrellas shot from up high.

The next Eisler work, White Flood, was written for an American film, and Eisler took the easier “Mickey Mouse” path. This was a nature film, about glaciers (ending, we now know ironically, “Man must control nature”). The music, taken from Eisler’s Chamber Symphony, was easily put into musical categories: an étude, an invention, a scherzo. But it came out differently. He seemed to compose “lava music”, “glacier-breaking music” (loud percussion), “placid river music”.

Perhaps too literal, but the film called for that.

This was the ultra-serious side of the evening. The eye-popping side came with Entr’acte, the music arranged by trombonist Andrew Digby from Erik Satie. The beginning was actually from Parade, but the rest was new to me. Typical jaunty Satie music, going nowhere, as crazy as the film, which must be one of the most inane movies ever made.

Yes, this was Dada, this was Surrealism, this was René Clair putting together bubbling babblings. Start with a ballet dancer shot from the feet up, a camel leading a funeral procession, an unending group of men chasing a runaway funeral cortege, a magician who makes everybody (including himself) disappear.

I guess that Stanley Kramer got his It’s a Mad Mad...World idea from this, except that had a story and $40 million to fatten it into obesity. This was lean buffoonery, a crazy hodgepodge whose most rational moments comes from a hunter trying to shoot an egg balanced on a stream of water.

Two other scores were original for this evening. Paul Hindemith had been asked to write for a Hans Richter movie in 1928, but the Nazis burned his score. Instead, Carola Bauckholt wrote music for the Collegium Novum Zurich. Its brilliance emanates from the fact that I can remember only sounds, not music. Trombonist Digby flatulating or whistling, the cellist plucking away, the pianist tinkling with other sounds.

The film was pure nonsense–but with the special effects of 1928 which one would have thought could only be achieved today by advanced video and a few hundred million dollars at George Lucas/ special effects factory. It had all the emblems of surrealism–and all tied together by four floating bowler hats which have minds and movements of their own. Like the René Clair film, the images have no logical meaning. Animated bow ties, patterns of guns (many guns: the NRA should show this), trees blossoming and heads revolving owl-style.

If I had my druthers, though, I would plunk for one of the scariest movies ever made, the 1928 film of Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. If you don’t know the story, the film is even more scary with a catatonic woman, sledgehammers bursting heads, spooky shadows and wild distortions.

Iris ter Shiphorst wrote music for the silent film that echoes much of the scary music of today. But her music was more subdued: the hints of waltzes, the hints of shadowy notes.

In a way, I would have liked to see this without any music. But obviously “silent film” was always a misnomer. There was always a piano player, an organist, a little band–or the virtuosi of this Zurich ensemble. Sometimes to complement the movie, sometimes to oppose it, sometimes (as with Prokofiev) to stand on its own.

The director Michaelangelo Antonioni described film music best: “It is one element in a general sensorial impression.”

Even if those impressions include runaway hearses, Parisian camels, and the delightfully dizzy visionaries who imagined everything except holocausts and Hiroshimas. They were blessed, we were blessed to see their work.

Harry Rolnick



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