Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) gave the first performance in a new monthly series called OPTICAL SOUND. This series was conceived by Benjamin Ethan Tinker, working with C4NM curator Tania Chen, and it involves providing live music to accompany the projection of a film. Last night’s film was Ménilmontant, made in 1926 by Dimitri Kirsanoff, who both wrote the scenario and directed the filming. Chen performed from a piano, supplementing the instrument with other keyboards, found toys, and lo-fi electronics. She was part of a quartet whose other members were Bruce Ackley on saxophone, Andy Strain on trombone, and Nava Dunkelman on percussion.
Ménilmontant was an ambitious selection for introducing this new series. It is the name of a neighborhood in Paris that was originally part of the independent commune of Belleville. At the time the film was made, it was a working-class neighborhood with a proud history of defying moneyed interests.
Kirsanoff made his film without any titles. This was a bold move, since the narrative is not a simple one. Donato Totaro’s extended synopsis for Offscreen gives a thorough account of the plot. (Indeed, the account is so thorough that, in retrospect, it is clear that the copy projected last night had several significant cuts, as well as images that may have had more to do with the physical deterioration of the medium than with the director’s intent.) Without going into too much detail, the entire film is framed by two violent acts, an axe murder at the beginning and a brutal murder with a street cobblestone at the end. The victims at the beginning are the parents of the film’s two protagonists, sisters who become part of the factory workforce in Ménilmontant.
Kirsanoff is merciless in depicting the hard life of the working poor, all cast through dissonant images of machines emblematic of detached inhumanity. His Wikipedia page describes him as part of the French impressionist movement in film, but Ménilmontant could have been (but wasn’t) based on a novel by Émile Zola. There is also the tension of both sisters involved with the same man, whose only priority is sexual congress. One of them becomes an unwed mother. Both of them are painfully depicted by Kirsanoff in their respective depressed states. They both survive, none the better for their experiences, while senseless murder continues to occur in the world around them.
Improvising musical accompaniment for such complexity is no mean undertaking. Last night’s combo tended to focus more on Kirsanoff’s cinematic rhetoric than on the narrative itself. (Given that the narrative was distorted by the version being projected, this is probably just as well.) Kirsanoff had a masterful command of visual dissonance, using techniques such as superposition and rapid cuts between images. He could also build up extreme tension, as in a sequence of the unwed mother crossing a bridge with her baby in her arms, stopping to look down on the water. Through the images that Kirsanoff frames, we know exactly what she is thinking but never through any explicit depiction.
The musical response to Kirsanoff’s rhetorical techniques was, for the most part, understanding and effective. As can be suspected, things were at their wildest during the dispassionate images of machines. Indeed, Kirsanoff’s superpositions of rapidly-moving images was nicely complemented by the independence of four voices in free improvisation. However, there were also any number of scenes that were reinforced through a keen sense of the use of soft dynamics. In this respect it is necessary specifically to call out Dunkelman’s keen sense for drawing maximum impact out of the softest percussion sounds. Indeed, she may have the greatest command of soft dynamics for percussion since Morton Feldman composed “The King of Denmark.”
It is unclear how much the musicians prepared in advance for last night’s performance. All four of them are skilled improvisers, and they certainly played as if they knew how to respond to each other. Whether they were aware of the complexity of Kirsanoff’s plot or the diversity of his cinematic techniques is less certain. This may well have been a spontaneous reaction to first impressions of the film. If so, then those impressions were effectively articulated, even if they were probably a far cry from what a composed soundtrack might have yielded.