Drowned Out By a Silent Masterpiece
June 4, 2001 , The Washington Post
I confess up front that I didn't listen much to the music I was supposed to be reviewing Friday evening. The National Symphony Orchestra was performing a work that can be thought of in two ways. Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light" is an oratorio made popular by the singing of the women's early-music quartet Anonymous 4; it is also a newly composed soundtrack for Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 work of cinematic genius, "The Passion of Joan of Arc."
I went to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to review the former but, with Dreyer's film playing on a screen above the stage, I ended up listening, in that mindless and inattentive way that film music inspires, to the latter. Einhorn's music was already familiar; it has been recorded and that recording has coattailed on the enthusiasm for the pseudo-mystical and medieval-redux aesthetic popular a decade ago. But when heard simultaneously with the Dreyer, the music simply disappears; Dreyer's film, a harrowing bit of anticlerical history told entirely through a warts-and-all symphony of facial close-ups, overwhelms any attempt to engage with the music as music.
Perhaps this is a virtue of the score. Perhaps it is intended merely as accompaniment. But if so, it might all be presented a bit more modestly; the term "oratorio" seems a bit grand, and the composer's appearance for a bow after the film felt just a tad odd. Dreyer's film leaves one in shock, suspended between despair at the human condition and awe at the director's ability to provoke and control that despair; it was tempting to leave in silence, but there were musicians and a composer to reward.
Einhorn's music solves the classic problem of the silent film -- the disconcerting gap of its silence -- in a conventional way. The music, mostly repetitive figures that sound a bit like chant but are, in fact, more simple-minded, follows the film's action not slavishly, but closely. It speeds up when Dreyer's rhythm of images speeds up; it gets louder (there is a full orchestra, plus chorus and four vocal soloists) when the drama intensifies; and it goes into despairing reveries when Joan faces the abyss of spiritual isolation.
In short, it "covers" the silence with music that is simple but respectful. Yet Dreyer's silent film demands to be "listened to" in ways that are far more subtle than Einhorn's soundtrack. The imagination provides a sound for the voices, which goes well beyond simply reading in one's head the sparse inter-titles. "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is very talky for a silent film; we see lips moving, we lip-read Joan's "oui" and "non" as she's interrogated, we have the impression that this is a very loud film because people are clearly shouting at each other. Dreyer shows us, in the beginning of the film, the musty documents of the trial; we fill in the rest. And the film's visual rhythms, heads bobbing to one another in conversation, crowd scenes interspersed with close-ups, create a cinematic sense of meter that transcends Einhorn's music as well.
The film theorist and critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote that Dreyer's film, "unfolds in a no man's land which is neither the past nor the present." It is a historical tale almost entirely denuded of any historical props; Dreyer uses only the transcripts of Joan's 15th-century trial, plus some very real, very contemporary faces on which a small drama of tears, spittle and effluvia plays out. Its "realism" is vastly more terrifying and horrifying than the play of violent ephemera -- explosions, decapitations, living vivisections -- that passes for realism in Hollywood today.
Einhorn's score also belongs to a no man's land that is neither the past nor the present. It is meant to sound "old," with its medieval texts, its simple melodic formula heard against drone figures or repeated diatonic accompaniments. Very often, alas, it sounds like a poor man's Alan Hovhaness: melancholy, contemplative and slightly overbaked. It is very much of our time, music made for a Sony Classical (its term, not mine) release. And it has been, of course.
But unlike Dreyer, Einhorn finds nothing radical, nothing transformative or shocking, in his no man's land. Dreyer's film is as groundbreaking as Schoenberg's opera "Moses und Aron" or Berg's "Lulu" (both documents of the same era); Einhorn's music is as trailblazing as "Titanic."
But it comes with all the right messages. Given its appearance in the NSO's Women in the Concert Hall Festival, its texts by and about women fit the bill; certainly there was no other reason to perform it in this particular series (though no excuses are needed to see Dreyer's film).
There was a lovely violin solo from the NSO's associate concertmaster, Elisabeth Adkins; mezzo-soprano Ruth Cunningham, formerly of Anonymous 4, produced the most soothing vocal sounds; and the Washington Chorus sang with full-bodied gusto. The orchestra, which couldn't see the film while playing, was kept smartly in sync by conductor Marin Alsop, who let the soloists treat their lines with expository freedom. The mix of amplification and studio balancing heard on the recording couldn't be reproduced in the concert hall, but the various elements were kept clear and distinct.
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