Wild Sounds for Silent Film

Yasuaki Shimizu / translated by Alfred Birnbaum

The question comes up on a quiz show: “. . .And what is the name of the composer of the film score for The Piano Lesson?” All the contestants scramble to hit their desktop buttons—beeep! An avant-garde composer this popular? Yes, and he’s just played a command performance here in Japan (2 June at Sumida Triphony Hall, Kinshicho.)

And what a wild, powerful performance it was—as expected, of course. If they held championships in mental-weightlifting, Michael Nyman would be a gold medalist for sure, such was his psychological impact. This time, the real showpiece was his synchronised live string score for the Soviet silent film, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Just brilliant!

Much chewed over in recent years until largely devoid of taste or texture, the relationship between film and music was brought back to life for me for the first time in a very long while. Particularly refreshing right from the start was the intuitive buzz throughout the hall that Nyman’s music coupled with this film was going to be nothing short of amazing.

And no phony ressentiment to either the film or the music. The audience was kept on edge by a brisk matching of strength with strength. As if the scene coming up in 30 seconds, the musical passage after the next 16 bars were hailing from the future, nuance-charged motifs plumbed the deepest levels of “this very minute.”

The Soviet Union at the time of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera was fraught with enormous political problems, reflected in a great turmoil in the arts: propaganda films and photos, paintings, theatre, literature, etc. Within the proscribed limits of verbal expression, I imagine everyone was working night and day, grasping for personal techniques, finding loopholes through which to illuminate their truth. Yet out of all that struggle, this one film stands out for its wonderfully enjoyable energy.

Woven out of short clips from citizens’ daily life—workmen, manicurist, shoe shine, pulsing machines—each treading forward at a different pace on the same stage. The man with the camera appears on camera as well, going about his daily activity of filming citizens’ activities. And then citizens view the film at the cinema (also in the film), completing a triangular, or rather an amazingly circulating structure.

But then I noticed a curious disclaimer during the title sequence at the beginning of the film, a notice to the viewer that this was an experiment in cinematic communication documenting the world at large. No subtitles, no staging.

In other words, shown here was an answer to the perennial human query, all explained dramatically without use of text or dramaturgy. Rather the differences between the various states of motion in the images themselves provide the real driving force for communicating. Or maybe, the starting line, the stance from which the filmmaker sought to launch forth.

Nyman is not one to miss this point. He drew a circle around it and played various distortions upon its significance. All by means of Nyman’s underlying baroque complexion and sharp rhythms building ever so minutely da-da-da-da toward a climax Then suddenly, as if an invisible ring-bearing Gyges had stolen into the princess’ chamber—boom!—came the climax. Ah, how to express . . .?