'UNDER THE SKIN' WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK BY MICA LEVI
Brighton Dome, Sun 7th May
Plot spoilers afoot
Science fiction is forever heading off for alien planets which on closer inspection turn out to be rather Earth-like. There'll be silver jump-suits or plastic protuberances on people's foreheads or something, but beneath the dressing it will all be analogous to the Middle East crisis or Brexit or something.
Jonathan Glazer's 'Under The Skin' (2013), conversely, presents the Earth through alien eyes. The rather abstract opening scene turns out to represent her eye being formed, accompanied by a barely annunciating voice-over as if she's learning human speech in real time. And from there an alien Scarlett Johansson (unnamed, as are almost all the other characters) sees shopping centres and streetlights as she never has before. While surreal SF sequences are also in the mix, much of it looks like a low-key documentary, as if a fly-on-the-wall team were accompanying her for her first few days on Earth. (And some of the street scenes were shot with hidden cameras.)
Her annunciated RP English contracts with the broad Scottish accents sported by most others. This is intended not only to distance her from them, but suggest at a non-accent, like the modulated service encounter speech in 'Anomalisa'. (I'm not sure how much we do see RP as a neutral non-accent these days, but go with it.)
The film works with the space-femme-fatale, date-rape-in-reverse conceit, familiar from such salacious fare as 'Species'. But this alien framing reverses that reversal, largely through the alien remaining our protagonist. When we see her pick up and devour her victims, we neither sympathise with or condemn them. In fact we tend to regard them as dispassionately as she does, simply because she does. There's a snippet of a radio report of a body being found. But there's no police investigation, no backstory to the other characters.
Of course it's common for characters to be given a theme in soundtracks, which can even be labelled as such. But in Mica Levi's score, here supplied live, the alien's theme pretty much is the soundtrack. It seems to operate at an angle to consensus reality. A frequent feature is different lines which seem to work at different speeds to one another, like planes crossing in an abstract painting. The slow-heartbeat drum pattern should anchor the microtonally shifting strings, but actually adds to the disorientation. It conveys a strange sense of suspension and weightlessness, visually matched by the empty black void her captives find themselves floating in.
But, appropriately for a character who lures her victims, there's simultaneously something siren-like about it. The soundtrack pulls you into watching as surely as she attracts her victims, it's both her theme and her seduction tape. Levi lists it's influences as “Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis and John Cage… these big, music-changing composers. But I also took a lot of inspiration from strip-club music and euphoric dance as well.... It does sound creepy, but we were going for sexy.” It's effective enough to fall confidently silent for long periods, yielding to extemporised speech or simply ambient sounds. In fact it's so effective in placing a destabilising filter over everything, it is hard to imagine the film without it. It may even be integral, the film needed precisely this soundtrack to work.
From a previous viewing, I had imagined the alien gave up her hunting after encountering the man with the facial disfigurement. And there is the scene where she sees her own face in the mottled mirror, briefly de-beautified like his, shortly followed by him legging it across a field. But on re-watch this is actually seeded much earlier, and chiefly represented by her fall in the street.
Because fall it is. One possible interpretation of the film is that it's the helmeted guys on motorcycles who are the actual aliens, and she's a construct they create to harvest humans for them. Hence we see her being built at the start. The ant she finds isn't the first Earth creature she sees, it's the first thing she sees. In which case Pinnochio's plan to become a boy turns out to be a hopeless dream. When she attempts to become human she's unable to connect to anything, wandering without speaking with an almost catatonic expression. Even if you can swap your skin, you can't change your spots. The film pessimistically defines us all as either predator or prey. When she is assaulted herself her attacker even uses her MO, with seemingly aimless chat including the vital question “are you on your own?”
GEORGE CRUMB'S 'BLACK ANGELS'
St. Nicholas' Church, Brighton, Fri 5th May
The Ligeti Quartet's programme of contemporary American and American-derived music is part of the 'Listen America' series staged by Music Of Our Time.
John Zorn's opening piece 'Cat O'Nine Tails' did make for an uphill start to the evening. As it careered crashingly round multiple musical styles, it seemed fragmented for fragmented's sake. It was like having a box of jigsaw pieces thrown over you, as if you were expected to assemble them, only to find they came from completely different sets. (And by chance I'd been listening to 'The Faust Tapes' before attending, so should if anything have been primed for collage music.) I suppose we need to respect Zorn, but I'm not sure that's a reason to actually listen to him.
Things thankfully scaled up from there in the listenability stakes. I particularly liked Earle Browne's String Quartet, not a composer I was previously at all familiar with. Like many others from the programme Browne uses non-standard musical notation, which was projected on a screen as the quartet played. And it became part of the fun trying to figure how such strange abstract art could possibly be read as a score. He certainly utilized the non-standard notation to create some non-standard sounds from such standard instruments. A reliable source of gossip claims two of his main influences are Alexander Calder's sculptures and Jackson Pollock's paintings.
Aaron Copland's 'Rondino' was introduced as representing optimism, and made a change from some of the more challenging works. It's odd the way people will use “American” like it automatically acts as a diss term in art. Copland's big, bold strokes, so evocative of wide open spaces, seem quintessentially American. But it's an optimism which feels not just genuine but involving.
Of all the pieces George Crumb's 'Black Angels' was the only one to extend the natural timbres of the instruments with treatment, to the extent the quartet pulled the sound technician on stage for the applause. But they also chant out (naming numbers in various languages) and calmly walk away from their patented instruments to take to gongs and wine glasses. In fact it had some of the ritualised feeling of fellow classic Sixties composition Cardew's 'Great Learning', if not the same communalism.
The sections are divided into movements titled 'Departure', 'Absence' and 'Return', and the music follows a palindromic structure, suggesting a literal musical journey intended to be transformative for player and listener. The subhead “thirteen images from a the dark land” refers to the troubled America of the late Sixties, with Crumb commenting “there were terrible things in the air... they found their way into 'Black Angels'.” But in it's way it's less a reflection of events than an offer of a means to work them out. It's optimism is less breezily open than Copland's, more placed at the end of difficult terrain, but it's there.
It's a tidy twenty minutes long, but is so sonically rich and dense that it feels longer. (In, you know, a good way.) Each of those thirteen 'images' is itself so swiftly run through you need to struggle to keep up. Having previously mentioned 'Faust Tapes' it less matches the classic liner notes of that album - “part of a whole music that time is pressing them to play” - and more the famous Talking Heads line - “say something once, why say it again?” There's a gnomic precision to it, where it's both expressionist scream and set of perfectly composed miniatures.
And just as Copland had provided a little relief into the programme's first half they returned for a Harry Parch piece which was quite folky in it's lyrical melodicism, the quartet strumming rather than bowing their instruments.
TIM GILL: AVANT CELLO
Kings Place, London, Sat 6th May
I thought to take in this after enjoying Maya Beisor's set earlier in the Cello Unwrapped season, and after hearing Tim Gill played with the London Sinfonietta. As seen several times by my lucky self, including the time they played a Mica Levi piece. (We don't just throw this show together, you know.)
But also... well, I just plain like the cello. As Thomas Ades, one of the featured composers, is quoted in the programme “the cello of all instruments makes one dream of Elsewhere when one hears it. Perhaps because the colours are so rich and wide-ranging.” Certainly I wouldn't travel so far for Maracas Unwrapped.
Eclectic programmes such as this can become something of a grab-bag. The organising principle seemed to be to alternate the more melodic, post-Romantic works with more cutting-edge contemporary pieces. Well, I may find myself thrown out the Modernist club for this, but it was the post-Romantic which won out for me. The contemporary (at least in style) topped and tailed the evening, with works by Anton Webern and Harrison Birtwistle. The Webern in particular I found to be indigestible, and silently yearned for something less strident. (But then he was a disciple of Schoenberg, the guru of atonality.)
Whereas I did take to Thomas Ades, who really did make me dream of Elsewhere. Or Arvo Part's lyrical 'Fratres'. Or Olivier Messiaen's 'Louange a l'eternite de Jesus', where the accompanying piano strummed a few languid notes, a steady hand on the tiller, as the cello bowed it's sinuous way. (It's a movement from his classic 'Quartet for the End of Time', which I saw nearly a decade ago.)
Jonathan Harvey's 'Ricercare Una Melodia' played back recordings of Gill as he bowed. But rather than loops turning into a rhythm track or the subtly shifting fuzzy shapes of Minimalist multi-tracking, the piece was composed of sharp acute lines. These reverberated around Gill, forming a kind of prism of sound. As the piece went on the recordings slowed to half speed, becoming more of a near-drone backing.
Anna Clyne's 'Paint Box' used recordings of human voices and other sound sources in a tape collage/ music concrete style. It was one of those evocative works that sound intimate and numinous at the same time, like it's able to bypass your conscious mind entirely. However, unless I was missing something, Gill's contributions seemed minimal.
After saying I preferred the post-Romantic a glorious exception, and the night's highlight, was Iannis Xenakis' 'Kottos'. In a perfect combination of form and content, it required (and got) both wild and virtuous playing. I wondered if it had been written for a performing spider, only to read in the programme Kottos was a Greek God with a hundred arms. Sometimes it went so far into raw rhythm it could have been a noise artist improvising.
Judging by the general audience reaction, this stirred people the most and should really have been the finale. The night wasn't as involving as Beisor's overall, but had it's highlights.