Classical: Noodling with Kelly McGillis

Sight Readings: The fatalistic beauty of Jon Sanders' Painted Angels is complemented by its delicate soundtrack by Douglas Finch - proof at last that film music needn't be bland
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WHAT MAKES a good sound-track? Transplantability, say the music promoters, pointing to the Titanic concerts that pack their halls. Saleability, say the record companies, pointing to the swelling sound-track sections in the stores. With such rich pickings, it's no wonder that the composers play along, but the artistic price is a deadly sameness. That is why the scores for films such as Wilde, The Woodlanders, Wings of the Dove and Mrs Brown - the list could go on ad infinitum - are virtually interchangeable.

Next week sees the opening of Jon Sanders' Painted Angels, whose sound- track is a wonderful portent, despite running to a mere 18 minutes of music. Why so? Because the score and its film both represent an extraordinary triumph of artistic will. Sanders' angels are five prostitutes in a 19th- century Saskatchewan brothel: Mizoguchi's Street of Shame, set in a Tokyo brothel in the Fifties, was both its inspiration and its template. Dwelling on faces, voices, and the harshness of the landscape, Sanders presents humanity scraped bare; his film's fatalistic beauty is perfectly echoed in the delicate flute music of its score.

But since it sees men through women's eyes - and in this house of "pleasure" they're a stomach-turning sight - the film has made enemies, including the directors of the London Film Festival and the Canadian-based company which co-financed it. Sanders was ordered to shorten and soften the film, and when he refused, it was recut behind his back and the sound-track was replaced by Riverdance-style pap. Mercifully, the recut was so execrable that Sanders' film was eventually spared, and after a deliberately sabotaged release - an unadvertised three-day run in an obscure Canadian cinema - Painted Angels is now entering the British art-house circuit.

Douglas Finch is head of keyboard studies at Trinity College of Music, and a modernist composer with no previous experience of film. He was hired by Sanders because, as a Canadian, he fitted the project's contractual obligations. Sanders didn't want a score that bolstered the action in the conventional manner; he told Finch to emulate the way Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky used music in their films - sparingly, appearing in the interstices of the action.

"He told me he wanted a lot of different wind noises," says Finch. "So I had a series of flutes specially made, including a Mongolian one with overtones. I went for a sound which wasn't absolutely in tune, more an extension of the sounds in nature."

Discovering that Finch was a celebrated improviser, Sanders decided to pester the score out of him through a process of suggestion and response which, in the final rushed moments of editing, had to continue over the telephone.

Finch rejected all advice to hire film-music professionals and instead brought in his own ensemble, with wonderfully fresh results. Moreover, in this film all the music we see played on screen is really being played - not a single note was dubbed in afterwards.

This was somewhat daunting for the actress Kelly McGillis, who had to officiate at the piano for some Victorian home-theatrics, since she could neither play music nor read it. Finch solved the problem by providing her with a graphic score bearing instructions such as "big clusters on black notes only" and "start noodling with fingers, gradually getting higher up the keyboard". After six weeks' intensive piano instruction - shades of Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie - McGillis gave an entirely adequate performance.

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AT A much more exalted level, an adequate performance is what Sir Claus Moser will be praying for when he plays Mozart's Piano Concerto No 23 at a charity concert at St John's, Smith Square, London on Tuesday.

For Sir Claus - whose public duties include running the British Museum Development Trust - is a musical amateur. In his home town of Berlin he started piano lessons at the age of five with a pupil of Liszt, and when his family had to flee from the Nazis to Britain in the Thirties, Moser was sent to a boarding school where he immediately carved a niche for himself as a pianist.

"When I was 18," he recalls, "my piano teacher, to whom I was devoted, said something which upset me very much: `Claus, you're a good pianist, but you'll never become one of the top 10 pianists in the world, either technically, or by temperament.' That was shrewd of him: he correctly sensed that I didn't have the nerve to be a soloist."

He went on to become one of Britain's top statisticians, and was chairman of the Royal Opera House in its earlier, better days.

Twelve years ago, Moser persuaded the great Hungarian pianist Louis Kentner to give him lessons, his first in four decades. "And at that point I realised that over the years I had been, pianistically speaking, going downhill." Meanwhile, as warden of Wadham, he had begun to play in college concerts, and four years ago had the satisfaction of playing his first date in St John's in Smith Square. "I felt that, aged 72, I had proved my piano teacher wrong: I was a concert pianist. That was the happiest evening of my life."

Now aged 76, and with a quadruple heart-bypass behind him, Moser has no qualms about being able to play the notes.

"Age is no excuse for a decline in technique, so long as you keep on practising," he says. "The mental challenge - being able to concentrate fully for 30 minutes - is much bigger than the physical one. No, I just hope that, as I'm beginning to grow up, my performances may become more truly musical."

Then he quotes Artur Schnabel's famous dictum about Mozart being too easy for children, and too difficult for adults.

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