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Muhly, Nyman, Campion, Daldry at Columbia College

I went to a great event last night at Columbia College Chicago: excerpts from the films "The Piano" and "The Reader", plus three 5 minute student films, all accompanied by a live orchestra. It took place in the movie studio space (big, cavernous, but acoustically good, believe it or not) of Columbia's prize-winning new media arts building. There were three screens, the central one showing the movies, the other two showing the orchestra, via a live relay from two cameras positioned on either side of the auditorium. In front was the 25 piece orchestra -- FulcrumPoint, an ensemble dedicated to new music, and led by the charismatic Stephen Burns.

For "The Reader", they played Nico Muhly's music, which was surprisingly conservative for him, though the fact that it sounded like a tasteful movie soundtrack is not to detract from the experience of hearing it live. The student films had scores composed by Columbia students (who have since graduated and are making their way in Hollywood). As I was watching these shorts, and hearing the music played by real musicians, I thought to myself how great it must be for these student filmmakers to have access to such high-level facilities, and how thrilling it must be to see your work (writing, directing, lighting, sound, music, acting, etc) up there on a screen.

The highlight for me was the Michael Nyman score to "The Piano." My memories of the last time I saw the film are not great - I thought the story was somewhat leaden and pretentious - but the music is just incredibly good. It's full of references to Celtic folk music, which Nyman wove together with the repetitions of musical minimalism a la Philip Glass and John Adams, but always with a feeling for contrast between the musical parts, and the textures of the different parts of the orchestra. Then there's the piano theme, leading to the great melody at the end of the film. The orchestra and the pianist played it brilliantly, and paired together with wordless scenes from the film, there was an emotional power to the images that would simply not have been there if we had just been seeing the film in its "normal" setting, with the music balanced back into the soundtrack. That emotional effect reminded me of when I saw Von Stroheim's "Queen Kelly", a demented farrago of over-the-top twenties sexuality, but with a musical score that sounds like Tchaikovsky, and which pulls the film high up onto the level of an opera.

That special combination of images with live music was what Bruce Sheridan, the chair of the Film Department, talked about both before and after the concert. Another strong theme of the evening was "collaboration". Film is such a collaborative medium, possibly even more so than theatre, and in addition to that, the concert was a collaboration between FulcrumPoint, the Film Department, the Music Department, the Television Department, and the Audio Arts and Acoustics Department of Columbia College Chicago. Its a pity that this can only happen once a year, due to the obvious nature of costs, but I for one will be back if they do it again in twelve months' time.

And I can't resist by ending with this:


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