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17 September 2009

Ménilmontant - film score by Christopher de Groot

Perth // WA // 08.08.2009

A still image from <em>Ménilmontant</em> Image: A still image from Ménilmontant  

Western Australian composer Christopher de Groot's live score for the dynamic and sensational silent film Ménilmontant (1927) by Dimitri Kirsanoff was performed recently with a screening of the film at the Astor Cinema in Mount Lawley. The composition was performed by Annexia, a 19-piece ensemble formed by de Groot for the purpose of performing his large-scale film scores. This ensemble features string and brass sections in addition to keyboards, accordion, extensive percussion and electronics. The event itself was spectacular: the black and white film was mesmerising on the big screen, the amplified ensemble with electronics created a huge sound, and the seats were filled with an appreciative audience. One of the key elements to the success of this show was the spectacle - a live film score of this magnitude is a rare event and one that deserves a lot of attention.

One of the earliest films to completely refrain from using explanatory titles, Ménilmontant is a powerful psychological deconstruction and an impressive and beautiful experimental film. The imagery in this film explores a range of textures, atmospheres and moods, defying storyline with its abstract nature. The film also serves as an impression of conflicting day and night characters of Paris - the hustle and bustle of the urban city by day, and the seedy night-time of dark cobblestone alleyways, crime and prostitution. It tells the tale of two sisters who move to the suburb of Ménilmontant in Paris after the brutal and shocking murder of their parents, and traces their involvement with the city's working class, and their encounters with poverty, loneliness and death. The contrast between contemplation and action in this beautifully tragic film provided an amazing compositional opportunity that de Groot took complete advantage of.

De Groot's composition provided some great introspective moments such as the solemn, desolate organ which chimes at the young woman's realisation of the death of her parents. The opening scream, string motif and high-pitched dissonant chords were a powerful setting for a brutal first scene. From here, de Groot evoked the rhythmic flourish and movement of young children playing and the turning of wheels on the streets of Paris. Each of these was captured with a precision that seemed to express the movement of the city with solemn undertones, rather than the joy of the characters. Found sound recordings were introduced, some which acted as sound effects or diegetic sounds, some that enhanced the ensemble parts and others used for atmospheric or emotional purposes, such as the scattered whispers that echoed the doubts in the sisters' minds.

The full ensemble was utilised to great effect throughout the entire score, producing a range of ensemble timbres and fusing electronics with instruments to create music that shifted and evolved according to the needs of the film. This gave the soundtrack an amazing sense of openness. Towards the latter half of the film the contemplative material really came into its own, with drawn-out discordant harmonies, sleazy jazz improvisation-style soloing and recorded material meshing with the live music. In particular, the use of vibraphone, music box and accordion created rich textures and demonstrated de Groot's talent for interwoven ensemble scoring.

In the context of this particular film, it is important to mention the usefulness of music and sound to help to explain and give context to parts of the story. Ménilmontant, a silent film that was designed to be abstract (no guiding titles were provided), benefited from music which at times directed the motion and feeling of a particular scene. This in turn meant that more abstract, reflective scenes were met with more reflective music, and overall the sound world evoked both the concrete realities presented in the film and the psychological narrative of the characters.

While the score didn't follow an overarching form throughout the film, it did augment each scene and imbed itself into the visual material. It both enhanced and contrasted with each moment of the film, giving in to its fast-paced changes and enveloping its listeners in a rich, immersive experience.

Event details

Ménilmontant by Dimitri Kirsanoff, music by Christopher de Groot
Astor Cinema, Mt Lawley, WA
8 August 2009
Event details in the AMC Calendar

Further links

Christopher de Groot - homepage (www.christopherdegroot.com)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Kynan Tan is a musician and sound artist from Perth, Australia. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Music: Music Technology, under the guidance of Cat Hope. He has performed on solo electronics in Berlin and composes music for electroacoustic ensembles, interactive music and installations. His current performances include the Breaking Out Young Composers Concert as part of Tura Totally Huge New Music Festival and the Threads sound installation at the Free Range Gallery, Subiaco (18 September 2009).


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