FILM / Orchestral manoeuvres in the dark: Meltdown explores the difficult marriage of sight and sound in films. Kevin Jackson is given a conducted tour of soundtracks by the composers George Benjamin and Benedict Mason

ALL ART, Walter Pater declared, aspires to the condition of music; but then, he was writing before the days of Melies and the Lumiere Brothers. In the 20th century, it might be more appropriate to say that some music aspires to the condition of cinema. This, anyway, is one of the possibilities suggested by Meltdown, a week- long festival devised for the South Bank by the British composer George Benjamin. Meltdown will encompass a wide variety of work, including concerts, dance and installation pieces, but one of its main concerns is to reflect on and illustrate the various ways in which film and music may complement, criticise or compete with each other.

Benjamin, who says that the cinema has exercised a powerful influence on his work 'ever since I was seven years old, went to see Fantasia and then came home and threw away all my pop records in disgust', will be conducting the premiere of one of his own compositions - a piece he describes as being shaped by the novel apprehensions of time which the cinema has made possible through its use of slow-motion, freeze-frame, reverse action and so on - and also improvising a live accompaniment to the silent Japanese film A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926).

On a similar Japanese note, the National Film Theatre will be presenting a season of films scored by the prolific composer Toro Takemitsu, who has established an international reputation with his concert works, but who has also become his country's equivalent of Ennio Morricone or Bernard Herrmann. A life-long movie fan, Takemitsu has scored more than 80 films, from Oshima's The Ceremony (1971) to Kurosawa's reworking of the King Lear story, Ran (1985) - 'a marvellous score', Benjamin says. 'He was asked by the director to work in a Mahlerian vein, and much of it sounds like Das Lied von der Erde.' In addition to all these credits, Takemitsu is probably the only eminent composer to have written a book of film criticism.

Finally, the Ensemble Moderne will present the first British performance of Benedict Mason's ChaplinOperas (1989), a vocal and orchestral piece which, while written to be played in tandem with three short Chaplin films - Easy Street, The Immigrant and The Adventurer - has nothing in common with live 'orchestral silents' events. Mason says that 'ChaplinOperas is critical of the usual practice of scoring films, but it's also critical of the modern practice of putting large orchestras in front of silent movies'. He explains that in this case the live music is not intended either to bolster or to upstage the on-screen action but, inter alia, to ask questions of it, or (in The Immigrant) emphasise its dream-like qualities, or to give its own version of events 'either in the film or not'.

Benjamin shares Mason's scepticism about what the latter composer calls the 'comfortable, anaesthetic, trivialising and condescending' nature of the music which is used in most feature films. He also feels that, in most instances, the single element of a film which will be least likely to inspire musicians is its score. Despite his admiration for Takemitsu, Hermann, Prokofiev, Walton and other eminent composers who have worked for the movies, Benjamin says that he would never be tempted to write scores himself.

'Firstly, I'm a very slow composer and couldn't work in that way, but I also think it's dangerous for composers to work in film because the purpose of film music is either to be wallpaper and fill over silences or to manipulate the emotions subliminally, and that's not the most noble attribute of music - it means that music is feeding off external things rather than its own argument and its own language. And then, of course, the film director is always the boss, and directors can play havoc - cut pieces, turn them inside out and so on.'

Rather than their musical settings, it is the distinctive visual and narrative qualities of certain films that have played their part in Benjamin's work. 'My first piece for orchestra, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, was very influenced by two films in particular. The first was called Days of Heaven (directed by Terrence Malick), which was set in the middle of America in the most wonderful corn and stormy landcapes - fantastically wide vistas with sunsets and storm clouds - and the second was Apocalypse Now, with its idea of a journey through different landscapes to a centre of darkness.'

Mason has also been more or less directly affected by films and other visual media, but cites different cinematic lessons for his work: Jacques Tati's use of sound has, for example, affected his own use of aural imagery, and he has long been impressed with the 'wonderful combination of humour and intelligence' in Jean-Luc Godard's films, citing particularly the varied and original ways in which the director 'plays with all the possiblities of sound and image'.

ChaplinOperas itself occasionally uses musical references somewhat in the manner of Godard - 'not always ironically', Mason notes, 'but often as a reflection on the whole process and practice of quoting in musical composition'. His score for The Immigrant, for example, uses Russian poems by Anakhmatova, Balmont and Mandelstahm on the themes of home- sickness and deracination, alludes to 'Dvorak as if written by Steve Reich' for the scene of arrival in New York, and glances at Eisler's Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain for the rain-sodden ending. (Mason, incidentally, admires some of the music Eisler wrote for films, particularly his score for Brecht's Kuhle Wampe.)

Of the two composers, Benjamin is more optimistic about the prospects of cinema continuing to make a healthy contribution to music: these days, he is particularly keen on films by David Lynch such as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, and continues to admire Francis Coppola. Mason is less sanguine: 'I have problems with the cinema, because it's such a commercial medium.' It certainly seems unlikely that John Williams will be brooding about Eisler's stern book on film composition the next time Spielberg gives him a call. Still, Meltdown is a useful reminder that film and music have enjoyed a deeper and stranger relationship than is sometimes acknowledged, and should offer enlightenment as well as provocation to anyone who would like to know the score.

Meltdown runs from 18-25 July at the South Bank Centre (Box office: 071-928 8800) and from 17-24 July at the NFT (Box office: 071-928 3232)

(Photograph omitted)

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