Music Review: Sounds of the surreal

The Treason of Images
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Music: The Treason of Images

QEH, SBC, London

For a composer scoring a Surrealist film, there are two main options. Try to match the febrile imagery with an avant-garde sound collage, or construct a more coherent musical world to ground the viewer's experience. In The Treason of Images, a showing of three French Surrealist shorts accompanied by the Harmonie Band at the QEH on Thursday, both avenues were pursued.

A man in a hideous T-shirt, wearing bulky "data-gloves", plugged himself into an odd machine. He was Walter Fabeck, and the machine was his "Chromasone", a tilt-and-swivel synthesiser-cum-Theremin that luminesced distractingly with pretty red neon. The first film was Les Astronauts (1959), a charming animation by Walerian Borowczyk, in which a pipe-smoking man with a pet owl builds a spacecraft out of newspaper. Fabeck waltzed melodramatically around his controller, triggering sawing and hammering effects, bubbly loops, and sonar blips across drum'n'bass breakbeats.

This was unambitious but pleasant enough, atmospherically illustrative of the film's whimsy. But Fabeck's "score" for Dali and Bunuel's notorious Un Chien Andalou was just garbage. Opening yobbishly with painfully loud white noise, it also included doodling loops of piano and pizzicato strings, and doleful vocal samples, deployed with no close intelligence. The famous eyeball-slicing, for instance, is preceded by a teasing rhyme of wispy cloud bisecting a full moon, designed to make an audience think that the cutting will not be literally shown; it is, but there was no corresponding musical bluff.

For Jean Cocteau's bewitching Le Sang d'un Poete (1930), Fabeck (now on grand piano) was joined by the rest of the Harmonie Band: cello, saxes, clarinet, percussion, synthesisers and accordion, with a lovely counter- tenor voice (Tim Massa). Paul Robinson's vivid music used recurring melodic themes as a navigational aid to Cocteau's twisty play. To start: an ironically brittle triumphalism, as an artist works on a portrait of a woman. Then the painting's mouth suddenly appears on his hand, and a statue of a woman comes to life. The artist splashes through a mirror to land in the Hall of Theatrical Follies, and the band swerved cheerfully from demented French coffee-house dance music, via a folksy snake-charming arabesque, to a grieving tango.

Robinson's musical imagination also encompassed echoes of minimalism, with a rapid tenor piano riff underpinning wailing soprano saxes, and more abstract, atonal effects, for the appearance of an angel. The film's ending, with the statue's ambivalence towards immortality, was matched by a wide-open suspended chord, over which a glockenspiel line slowly faded from the ear, as a dream fades upon waking.

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