Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Sonic Generator in Atlanta

MetropolisposterLast night I, along with a huge crowd sitting on lawn chairs on the plaza of the Woodruff Arts Center, witnessed one of the most important performances ever staged in Atlanta, Georgia with regard both to cinema and to contemporary classical music. The ensemble Sonic Generator, with Parisian conductor Bruno Ferrandis, and audio engineer Frédéric Prin, played a live accompaniment to the recently-restored full-length 2-hour-and-28-minute version of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s monumental silent film Metropolis, first released in 1927. What Sonic Generator was playing is a score by Frenchman Martin Matalon, first composed in 1995 and revised and lengthened after 2010 to incorporate about 20 minutes of interstitial footage that was long lost from earlier cuts of the film and only recently restored. This was the first American live performance of the new score.

You really missed something special if you were not there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a coming together of cultural forces that make me proud to say I live in Atlanta and participate in its fine arts scene.

The performance and production, three years in the planning, was sponsored not only by Sonic Generator’s usual benefactor Georgia Tech (the university more properly known as the Georgia Institute of Technology), but also by the Atlanta offices of the international governmental organizations the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut, and finally by Flux Projects of Atlanta, in celebration of 50 years of cultural cooperation between France and Germany. Monumental and auspicious indeed.

I’ll leave it to the reader to look up more information on Metropolis, what the film has to say in terms of science fiction, philosophy, politics, economics, spirituality and religion, and above all, the Roaring Twenties and what came after. Go ahead now; this blog post will still be here when you get back.

I would also recommend if you are reading this that you get yourself a trial subscription to Netflix’s streaming service and watch the film on your computer. It can be found at this link, at the time of the posting of this blog entry.

Today, after last night’s performance, I went back to my computer and watched the full restored film streaming on Netflix, where it’s been available for at least the last year. It’s presented on Netflix with the original 1927 orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz. More on that later.

The concert at the Woodruff Arts Center started while the sun was still up, at 8:00, when I was delighted to hear Jessica Peek Sherwood performed Steve Reich’s minimalist opus Vermont Counterpoint on three flutes of different range, playing along with a pre-recorded ensemble of many other flutes. This was followed by my favorite Steve Reich composition, Electric Counterpoint, expressively played by Indiana guitarist Derek Johnson, along with the backing tracks of 11 guitars and two bass guitars originally recorded by Pat Metheny in 1987. Each of these pieces are about 15 minutes long, in three movements, and for this reviewer, they encapsulate everything that was the best of the style called minimalism. Electric Counterpoint is particularly (or I might say “comparatively”) tuneful and melodic, with a recognizable and distinctive chord progression (although it’s not a functional harmonic progression in the sense of classical music theory) and a sunnily-disposed and emotionally uplifting final movement. Of course it would be amazing to hear either of these pieces performed entirely live rather than with one soloist and backing tracks, but this is almost never done due to the logistics that would have to be involved.

At about 8:50, after numerous thank-yous, introductions, and short speeches by international dignitaries with charmingly heavy accents, the sun set and the film began.

Here were the performers:

  • Jessica Peek Sherwood, flutes (from piccolo to bass flute; five instruments in total)
  • Ted Gurch, saxophones (from soprano to baritone)
  • John Warren, clarinet (all the way down to contrabass clarinet)
  • Mike Muszynski, bassoon (and contrabassoon)
  • Kevin Lyons, trumpet
  • Douglas Lindsey, trumpet
  • Nathan Zgonc, trombone (and I believe bass trombone but I couldn’t quite see)
  • Charae Krueger, cello
  • Joe McFadden, double bass (with low-C extension)
  • Mark Miller, fretless electric 5-string contrabass guitar
  • Derek Johnson, electric guitar
  • Diedre Henson-Agustin, harp
  • Tom Sherwood, percussion
  • Charles Settle, percussion (including concert marimba, orchestral chimes, timpani)
  • Paul Vaillancourt, percussion
  • Wiley Sykes, percussion

I don’t know exactly who played what in the percussion section, but I must point out that one percussionist made a great deal of skillful use of the Indian tablas, and also played an array of exotic gongs with which I’m not familiar, as well as a jazz hi-hat.

The score by Martin Matalon had as its basis a pre-recorded electronic track that provided at various times mechanical clockwork percussion sounds, swooping portamento monophonic synthesizer leads that were reminiscent of Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, some atmospheric sound effects, and at one point electric organ chords. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis, who was brought in because he has done this amazingly difficult score before, of course had to keep the orchestra in sync with what was in his headset. And in settings like this, the front-of-house sound mixing engineer, Frédéric Prin, has almost as much to do as the conductor himself. The orchestra was heavily amplified and individual instruments were brought out at different times and processed with electronic effects. The top-flight sound system was well-designed and transparent when it needed to be; the audio, while quite loud to those sitting up front, was well-distributed around the plaza, certain architectural echos notwithstanding. The film was projected digitally on the exterior wall of the High Museum, drive-in-theater style.

Matalon’s score is very demanding, thoroughly atonal and through-composed, and must have required superhuman powers of marathon concentration from every musician involved. Not a lot of extended or unusual playing techniques were employed. What stood out time and again was the orchestration of the bass instruments. Frequently, prerecorded bass synthesizers weaved in and out of the fretless electric contrabass guitar playing slippery sliding figures right alongside the more percussive plucked upright bass, the contrabass clarinet, the contrabassoon, and the bass trombone, and the lowest notes of the bass flute in between.

Now I get to the difficult part of my blog. At the risk of pissing off a number of musicians whom I deeply admire, and whose performance I enjoyed listening to and felt privileged to witness, I have to say that I did not like Matalon’s score and I did not think it was an effective accompaniment to this monumental piece of visionary filmmaking.

I have to back up and give a retrospective of all the uses this film has been put to from its release in 1927 until Matalon’s revised score in 2010, a span of 83 years. A film made near the end of the silent movie era, it was originally cut at 2 hours and 28 minutes. It was apparently screened in Germany accompanied by a live orchestra playing a score by Gottfried Huppertz, in the Wagnerian mode, with the conventional use of leitmotifs and grand, sweeping melodies. Of note are the movie’s scenes in the Yoshiwara Club, a symbol of the divide between the haves and have-nots of industrialized society. For those scenes Huppertz uses the jaunty European jazz of the 1920s, their interpretation of what was coming from composers like George Gershwin in the USA. (You can purchase the restored film with a newly-recorded version of the Huppertz score on DVD, or watch it on Netflix.)

Immediately after the first screenings of Metropolis, however, its international producers and distributors cut the film down (“eviscerated” would be a better word) to a 91-minute version that basically ripped up the H. G. Wells-influenced dystopian plot and reduced it to an hour and a half of what were still stunning, unprecedented special effects and startling futuristic images. Doubtless, audiences around the world saw the film with whatever improvised accompaniment was provided by pianists or organists in silent movie theaters.

In the 1980s and after, the 91-minute cut of the movie was reissued to theaters and on VHS with different musical accompaniments, the most celebrated of which was the score put together by disco producer Georgio Moroder, with an ensemble of rock stars. Since the international copyright of the original film fell into dispute, it seems that several composers and orchestras around the world tried their hands and creating original scores that were mostly used only in live performance. You can read the confusing history of all this at the Wikipedia article on the film.

Martin Matalon wrote his score in 1995, for performances accompanying what I understand to be a 2-hour cut of the film. After the newly-restored 2-hour-28-minute version was released commercially in 2010, Matalon revised his score to fit it.

I do not fault Martin Matalon, with his pedigree of work with IRCAM (the world-renowned Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique of France) in wanting to deconstruct everything and compose a fresh 1990’s score with no precedent. However, to this music critic, I cannot see that his score accomplished the goal of providing a successful programmatic accompaniment to the film’s images or its narrative. Watch the film and imagine the perspective of viewers seeing it for the first time in 1927, while you listen to it with the ears of a 2013 music lover who understands contemporary classical music and the avant garde, and to me it just doesn’t work most of the time.

In fact as the film progresses through its three sections (labeled “Prelude”, “Intermezzo” and “Furioso”) the score seems to drift progressively further out-of-sync with the film, thematically and also temporally. The movie starts out with scenes of the dehumanization of workers made to be slaves to giant rhythmic clockwork machines, and in the beginning, elements of Matalon’s score represent this.

If Matalon, through his freely atonal and contrapuntal idiom heavy on complex percussion, is making use of anything motivic, it is lost on this listener. And those scenes in the Yoshiwara club could have used something leaning toward jazz dance music with some recognizable chord progressions. On frequent occasion the composer achieves remarkable things texturally and with regard to orchestration with those notable combinations of bass instruments from different families. The writing and playing in the percussion section could be lauded as a tour-de-force if the whole thing hung together thematically, which to me, it never quite does.

By the conclusion, which involves apocalyptic scenes of massive frantic crowds and riots, explosions, the flooding and destruction of a city — the score grows thin, sparse, and eerily detached in a way that seems to contradict and impede the frantic, massive momentum of the film. Then, bafflingly, at the peak of the violence onscreen, and to no beneficial effect, the orchestral score stops dead and falls silent for about a minute and a half while the film rips along, before the music comes back in and limps to a quite unsatisfying conclusion.

Somehow I think I run the risk of being accused of damning with faint praise, but in conclusion let me say that I was not disappointed by this production. The film is monumental, historic, and amazing in its own right, and stands up very well and is beloved by audiences 85 years later. The assemblage of international cultural forces necessary to mount this production in Atlanta was laudable in every respect. (and I loved hobnobbing with the German and French folk that I met there, and trying to speak a bit in their languages, which I studied years ago.) The musicians were the best that Atlanta has to offer, on the cutting edge, augmented with the out-of-towners necessary to pull of such a hugely demanding project. Everybody played amazingly well. It was innovative and challenging and satisfying in places. While I feel that Matalon’s score just doesn’t jibe with the visuals, I might enjoy it on its own merits if I were to listen to a recording or see a concert performance without the film playing above it. But one way or another, it was a night to be remembered in Atlanta, probably never to be repeated.