Chaplin Operas, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

"Film, now, is an entertainment industry offering the composer little beyond pocket money, usually at a cost to his spirit." The words of the British composer Benedict Mason, whose Chaplin Operas were performed by the London Sinfonietta to as mixed a bag of an audience - oldsters, youngsters, film-buffs, contemporary music aficionados - as I've seen in some time.

The lure of the silent, black-and-white film is tempting to a composer. He can take charge, take ownership, and come out with a new product firmlyhitched to an old. Philip Glass and Michael Nyman have hitched their stars to this past era but their own indelible styles lard the visuals, ironing out the subtleties of the screen action rather than contributing another dimension. Mason is different.

Taking three Chaplin masterpieces of 1917 from the 12 that he made for Mutual Films, Mason demonstrates his affection and admiration for these films. He is not hijacking the past to flatter his artistic ego, but what he does serves as a comment on much of today's film music: "Hollywood film music always seeks to rally everyone round one emotive banner, leaving the audience very little space for their own imagination and individual interpretation."

In takingEasy Street, The Immigrant and The Adventurer, Mason has written what he calls a "semi-operatic filmspiel". All three scores are complex. Written for about two dozen players including a lot of percussion, some subtle electronic effects and two singer/speakers, Mason has thickened and, in some cases, darkened the plot.

The strength of these films is the wit of the absurd - the chases, the fights, the denouement. Mason superbly catches these moments adding complementary sonic activity but with exactly the right ironic twist: marvellous is the moment in Easy Street when the head thug is bopped on the head by umpteen truncheons to a feeble "plink".

But Chaplin offers comp-etition from the screen. How to live up to a moment in The Immigrant when a fish lands on a sleeping migrant, the one suspiciously eyeing the other? It would be hard to remember because the visual so hilariously grabbed the attention. And there were many moments like that.

If there is weakness in Mason's work, it lies in over-complexity. The addition of text often simultaneously in different languages, added a mainly incomprehensible layer. Even if Mason eschews Mickey Mousing, the simpler moments - marvellous "seasick" music, a major chord for smiling happiness - proved the strongest.

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