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22 September 2017

Insight: Vivre Sa Vie, Composer’s Cut

Felicity Wilcox Image: Felicity Wilcox  

Felicity Wilcox writes about her work Vivre Sa Vie - Composer's Cut (2017), commissioned by the Australia Ensemble and premiered in the Sir John Clancy Auditorium at the University of NSW on 16 September 2017 - along with music composed for film by Andrew Ford, Arthur Benjamin, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota and Dmitri Shostakovich. Wilcox managed to secure permission from the famous French film director Jean-Luc Godard to create her own 'composer's cut' - here, the composer explains her musical choices and the difficulty of turning a full-length movie masterpiece into a 15-minute short film. The music broadcast from this concert can currently be heard as audio-on demand on the ABC Classic FM website. See also: more 'Insight' articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.

When Paul Stanhope asked me to write a piece for the Australia Ensemble to a film of my choosing, I had a picture in my mind of close-ups and stark black and white images, full of contrast, and an overarching chic aesthetic. I am not sure why, no doubt the instrumentation he had specified - flute, clarinet, percussion and piano - dictated these vague images at some subliminal level, as much of what I do, as a composer who works with images, is conceived in a cross-sensory manner. Despite initially exploring tangents that would lend themselves more practically to the task, such as old silent films released more than 70 years ago (i.e. free of copyright restrictions), it was this initial impression that haunted me and to which I returned, and I found the aesthetic I had dreamt of in the films of the French New Wave.

I had to go through a rather long series of channels to request permission, not only to rescore Godard's 1962 film Vivre Sa Vie (originally scored by French composer Michel Legrand), but also to cut it down to a shorter version that suited the specific purposes of this commission. It was with amazement that I received a personal email from the assistant of Jean-Luc Godard, giving me the great director's blessing to proceed. And so Vivre Sa Vie, Composer's Cut was born.

The film, Vivre Sa Vie is a tale of its time. The young woman at the centre of the drama is Nana, who, bored with married life (and perhaps in response to the modern ideals of feminism entering into public debate in France in the early '60s), leaves her poor musician husband to go off and 'live her life'. However, as many young wives of that era, she is something of an ingénue, and has not factored in how to earn enough money, or how to maintain a roof over her head on her own. After resorting to petty theft she is picked up by the police who give her a warning. A stunning beauty (Nana is played by Anna Karina, then wife of Godard, and the film has been described as a love-letter to her), Nana seems to effortlessly fall into prostitution. She finds a pimp, Raoul, and starts life as a busy escort, working the hotels of Paris to earn the money she has always desired. In a subtle parallel that Godard strikes with the 1928 film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc ('The Passion of Joan of Arc'), by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Nana is portrayed as the sacrificial lamb, the young woman striking out on her own who becomes increasingly out of depth in a hostile man's world, and eventually meets a sad end at the hands of the men who control her.

It is this aspect of Vivre Sa Vie that spoke so eloquently to me. Godard's perceptive treatment of a young woman seeking independence in the early '60s and stumbling onto a dangerous path asks no forgiveness for the society that lies at fault, and portrays Nana's situation in a story as stark as the beautiful black and white images that tell it. It celebrates her beauty, of body and spirit, never judging her for her choices, and makes crooks of the men for whom a young woman's death means so little. There is anger, uncertainty, determination and whimsy in the characterisation of the protagonist, played so compellingly by Anna Karina, whose beauty shines throughout like a beacon, in close-ups where the camera is practically stroking her luminous skin. It's hard not to love this film.

My version reduces an 85-minute feature to a little over 15 minutes. I had to make some difficult choices about which scenes I kept, to remain true in my quest to preserve the narrative thread, in order to honour the strength of Godard's point of view. When writing film music, even with such an abstract approach, a composer's concerns become focused on narrative themes; how to support and communicate them. One of the first themes that emerged as I wrote this score was the hymn-like chorale you hear in its purest form under the scene from La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. It has a simple, repeating sequential melody, as so many hymns do, and symbolises the purity of St Joan, of Nana as she watches her, and the tragedy of their entwined fates. This melody became the primary theme, which works its way throughout the fabric of the whole film. It is followed in that scene, and in many others, by a refrain containing arpeggios, grouped first in triplets then in duplets, sounding like the peeling of many church bells. These allusions to religious music are intentional and placed in my score to remind the listener of the Catholic moral values that led to the condemnation of both of these women.

The Montaigne quote at the beginning of the film: 'Il faut se prêter aux autres et se donner a soi-même', which translates to: 'I lend myself to others and give myself to me', sparked some compositional ideas. If Nana's wholeness is expressed in the simple chorale melody, the idea of her 'lending herself' to others might be expressed in the duplication, fragmenting and scattering of the chorale melody. This occurs first in the title scene, to accompany the Montaigne quote and establish something of the film's key themes (both narrative and musical). The same idea returns when Nana first hooks up with a stranger in the street, it returns briefly in the vibraphone part towards the end of the scene where she is working the hotels, and in the final scene where both plot and music spiral out of control.

Once I had latched onto the notion of different treatments of the chorale melody representing Nana, on the one hand as a whole woman and on the other hand as a woman fragmented and slightly out of control, it was a simple matter of casting this melodic material in many different lights to express her in different moments in between these two extremes. This motif and fragments derived from it can be heard in the vibraphone, flute and clarinet parts accompanying the fast, angular, low-register piano motif that recurs under each 'Boulevard' scene; it becomes the basis for the elegant and seductive alto flute solo that accompanies Nana through the scenes when she goes to work, and also provides material for the clarinet's countermelodies in this lyrical section. In what I hope is an authentic attempt at leitmotif, rather than simply recycling a theme in its original form, I have manipulated and layered the chorale melody with other musical ideas to entwine characters, shift mood, and express different aspects of the narrative, in a way that hopefully allows the film to resonate with Nana's presence.

Other musical ideas that recur include the aforementioned fast, low-register piano ostinato with its emphasis on minor seconds and tritones recurring under each of the three boulevard scenes, which reveal gritty shots of Parisian streets. For me these scenes show the underbelly of that beautiful city, and gave me a chance to express the anger that boils in the belly of this film. This outrage comes out in full force in the scene immediately after Nana falls into prostitution. I chose to underscore her slightly bewildered presence in the bar, as she smokes and clutches a cup of coffee, with what I have called 'an internal scream', a gesture made from using extremes of register and timbre, with all instruments layered in rapid polyphonic trills.

The idea for the low piano ostinato, let's call it a riff, developed when I heard the original soundtrack for the Jukebox scene. In the original film, Nana puts on a record, and an instrumental swing track fills the bar, like a kind of rhumba, with a stop-start rhythm to it. I liked the idea of twisting this rhumba out of shape, and wrote the piano riff, placing it with other elements in the boulevard scenes to convey a jazz feel. We first hear this in the record store scene (which for obvious reasons I wanted to link to the Jukebox scene). In the Jukebox scene I took things further. I have taken the piano riff and used additive and reductive meter to twist it further into a parody of both itself, and the original rhumba twist track. Not only is there humor in this treatment, as the additive and subtractive rhythms mess with the groove, but via this technique I was able to establish an increasingly unpredictable mood in this scene, which speaks directly to where Nana is as a character at this point in the film.

The kind of meta-dialogue occurring in that scene between the original soundtrack and my rescoring is a feature of the three dialogue scenes as well. In each of these scenes Nana speaks with a man, and each man - her husband, a police officer, her pimp - represents the controlling patriarchy. Nana's voice is 'spoken' by the alto flute and the male voice by the bass clarinet. In composing these parts I laboriously transcribed the speech rhythms and pitch inflections of the original French dialogue into musical notation. In these scenes, the piano and vibraphone provide the non-diegetic score to the 'diegetic' woodwind dialogue. This play between levels of narration: music-for-speech substitution, percussion-for-sound effects substitution in the first bar scene, occurs in each of the three dialogue scenes, representing the points where I challenge my listeners the most, in terms of musical language and approach, but also where I challenged myself most as a composer. Although I speak fluent French, transcribing speech in a foreign language is no easy undertaking, and it took me days to firstly find the pulse the speech adhered to, then to notate dozens of very irregular subdivisions to represent the speech rhythms, microtones to represent pitch inflections, and extended techniques to represent subtle tongue and throat effects.

Finally, the structure of the film lends itself perfectly to a live performance of the score, as Godard edited the film into 12 short vignettes, separated by inter-titles, which somewhat arbitrarily list the characters and plot points of the upcoming vignette. When contemplating projecting a film without dialogue, I made the decision to retain this structural element, and to use these inter-titles to convey important narrative clues to my audience. I used these spaces between scenes to insert 2 bars' clicks for the musicians to work to, which give them the tempo of the upcoming section of music and cue the ensemble into alignment with the picture at regular intervals. This allows the tightly scored musical elements to underpin the precise moments in the drama for which they were composed.

AMC resources

Felicity Wilcox - AMC profile

Further links

Felicity Wilcox - homepage (http://www.felicitywilcox.com/)

Australia Ensemble (http://www.music.unsw.edu.au/australia-ensemble)

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