Sound and Picture

June 28, 2012

Two Canadian Composers, Heather Schmidt and, Nicole Lizée have used video to help express their music.

Heather is first and foremost a composer and pianist. There are romantic qualities to her music, which lends itself well to film narrative. Incidentally, in addition to being a composer of concert music, she has done some extensive work as a film composer.

Midnight Violin is Heather's foray into film directing. This 5 minute short was created through Bravo!Fact, a granting program formed in 1997 to help facilitate the creation and broadcast of Canadian short films. It's generally intended that these films be created for television, but many of them make their rounds through film festivals, and recently there have been more and more being broadcast online via youtube and vimeo. It's an incredible platform for independent filmmakers who are working in a medium that, for whatever reason, doesn't get a lot of limelight.

As a side note, remember the days when films were preceded by a short film? I think Pixar is the only mainstream company doing this anymore. But I would love, instead of the plethora of car and cell phone commercials that precede movies, if we could instead see a short film! It's really a fantastic medium, and offers a totally different experience than a feature length movie.

Anyways, back to the subject at hand.

In terms of how sound and picture are organized, Midnight Violin bares resemblance to Disney's Fantasia. There are no sound effects, narrative, or foley. When watching the film, all you hear is Heather's music set to picture. The piece used is scored for piano and violin, and in fact, the violinist is in the film, performed by Scott St. John.

The comparison between this film and Fantasia ends there. It is not animated, and the subject matter is a quite a bit more psychological than the epics, fables and dances offered by Disney. The story follows a woman who experiences a hallucinatory, near death experience.

After watching the film, I get the sense that Heather wanted to create an immersive experience in which music plays a supporting role. There is a considerable amount of action (purple smoke, flash backs, flat-lining heart monitors, and elusive/creepy violinists) and when I was watching I found I was more paying attention to what was happening, rather than the music. But since music was the ONLY sound happening, it certainly plays a more prominent role than it would in a traditional film, where it must compromise with voice, ambient noise, and sound effects, on-top of the visuals.

I think it's quite admirable to see Heather branching out to explore other forms entirely; I wish I could say I was brave enough to start painting, writing, or create my own film. In academia, it seems, schools are just starting to grasp the important role music has in film. I didn't find too many film composers in any survey of 20th Century music (read: none) and yet the screen is one of the most powerful and influential mediums in our culture. Beyond this however, there is a historical precedent to what Heather is doing. Any opera is created by a composer, librettist and director, and the outcome of the product is a lengthy process of collaboration. How different is it that Heather collaborated with actor's, sound technicians, effects artists etc. to create a new film with her music as its foundation?

Wagner's massive operatic works, or if we want to get a little more current, R. Murray Schafer's Patria theatre project are dramas that combine theatre, dance, environment, spectacle... and of course there's music in there as well. Both are multidisciplinary productions, drawing from an array of different artists including musicians, directors, actors, and effect artists. They just so happen to have a composer at the helm.

Heather has decided to tackle another medium, the screen rather than the stage, to express her music. It will be interesting to see if she pursues this further, honing her craft as a film makerand tackling more ambitious projects.

Here is Midnight Violin.

The other film is Nicole Lizée's Ringer. It was also funded by a Bravo!Fact. In this, there isn't really a clear narrative, and the picture functions more as a music video, providing visual enhancement to a visceral experience.

Since the performing ensemble is integrated into the scene, the video doesn't really distract from the music. In fact, with camera pulls and visuals that thoroughly compliment Nicole's strange sound world of analogue loops, percussion, and strings, the image actually enhances the musical experience.

Here's Nicole's video, Ringer
Ringer from Philtre Films on Vimeo.

I love the possibility of film maker/composer collaborations. I know there are other examples of such projects, but I would love to hear from other people! Have you seen a short film that highlights a Canadian Composer or Ensemble? Are there any pieces that you'd love to see interpreted as a film?