Award winning composer Nico Muhly has written for ensembles such as the Tallis Scholars, venues including the Carnegie Hall, and soloists such as Anne Sofie von Otter. A few weeks before the premiere of ‘Sentences’, his new piece for voice and orchestra about Alan Turing, Leo Mercer spoke to Muhly about technology, and setting texts to music.

Much of your work sets text to music, but there’s a broad range of texts from the liturgical to newspaper cuttings and text-speak in a libretto. What makes a text settable – or invite musical settings – for you?

I find that the best text to set is the simplest.  I sort of can’t bear setting poetry — if the poetry is good, it has a music to it already.  Occasionally I cheat and break this rule, but I’ve found that interesting texts to set are not the same as interesting texts to read.  I think the entire bel canto tradition is a good example of this; nobody would ever read the libretto for a Puccini opera on purpose.  That having been said, Da Ponte, of course, wrote extraordinarily beautiful libretti, beautifully set by Mozart.  So who knows.  I think it depends on each situation and each composer’s ability (and each singer’s, surely) to be a communicative artist.

I have found, though, that setting sacred texts is very easy.  The liturgical calendar is a giant opera to which we all know the plot, so all the texts are commentary: thickenings of the knowledge we already have.  Even the tiny parallel text of the Kyrie can be, in its way, deeply emotional, as can the elaborate devotions of Byrd’s settings of the creed, for instance.

Thinking about Da Ponte libretti/Mozart operas – what do you think about the distinction between operas and musicals? Mozart operas seem on so many levels to be closer to contemporary musicals than operas.

You know, I’ve never really worried about this distinction.  I similarly don’t freak out about high/low anxiety or putting a name on anything.  I tell this story a lot, but I wrote a piece a few years ago called keep in touch and it’s basically a solo viola and electronics piece, and we’ve played it at Carnegie Hall, at the Barbican, at a sweaty club in Brussels, at a thrash metal show in Switzerland, and it works in all of those places, and doesn’t need a taxonomy to make it work.  Similarly, take Sweeney Todd.  You can basically do that thing anywhere and it’ll work, and it doesn’t matter what you call it.

Who are your favourite text-setters in music? Do you have any favourite passages of set text?

There are too many to list, and all for very different reasons.  I feel like any Bach passion has some extraordinary text setting in it — particularly those long-ass alto arias that lull you into submission with their brilliance.  All of Purcell is fabulous — that Te Deum! the Evening hymn! All of Gibbons is fabulous.  I love the ecstatic chanting in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, although I am in no position to judge the setting’s relationship to the original Sanskrit.  Howells’s A Spotless Rose is pretty great.  I’ve also found that great singers can turn weird settings around — a great example is the Dawn Upshaw recording of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.  That Auden/Kallman text is basically insane, and one got the sense that Stravinsky 96% understood how English worked in terms of stresses and syllabic weight and counterweight.  Dawn Upshaw sells the shit out of it, though: check out her No Word from Tom.

Is there a text / book you dream about making a musical version of? 

There are approximately 45,000 books for which I have this dream.  The one I’m keenest on is this extraordinary book called Set This House in Order, which, among other things, deals with systematic child abuse, multiple personality disorder, virtual reality, and the Pacific Northwest.  It is … so great.

Do you feel your musical style affected by non-musical influences, such as any contemporary literary figures?

I do — although actually I feel like the relationship isn’t ever quite as literal as to be perceptible.  For instance, at the level of the sentence, I am obsessed with Salman Rushdie’s juicy run-ons and Alan Hollinghurst’s formal and dazzling shapes.  I think about language all the time, but in a lot of cases it’ll be a little turn of phrase deployed brilliantly or strangely in an article or a warning sign or a tube service update or something.  Going back to literature, I keep on telling everybody who will listen that a paragraph that does all the work a piece of music should do is to be found in Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star:

There was no one else in the street that led up to the church, no one in the shabby square that its tower overhung. St Vaast: an ugly old hulk, with a porch tacked on, all curlicues and dropping yellow stucco, with a nest-littered pediment above. It was locked, of course: no last light glimmering from a vestry window–no choral society meeting after work to rehearse their director’s own Te Deum or some minatory Flemish motets. I went on with a shiver.

Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly

In cases like ‘Two Boys’ and ‘Sentences‘, how do you work with your librettists? Do they initiate the concepts and the way you’ll deal with them, and do you find there are things you find yourself wanting change to make them fit your musical style?

Each project is different, and actually, these two that you mention are as different as could be.  Two Boys required a huge, sprawling libretto at times and also a very specific relationship to a policier — which is not, I dare say, a genre explored in opera.  In this case, Craig Lucas and I basically sat down, ordered an omelet, and mapped out the large structure, and then he got to work on the specifics.  Once you’re in agreement about the large shapes and footprints of a piece, the rest should come naturally to both librettist and composer.  The same, actually, was true of Sentences, but in this case, there isn’t really a plot so much as a sequence of meditations on a given body of work, much of which is drily scientific.  Adam Gopnik’s task, then, was to tease out emotional content where possible, and to tamp it down when we needed to make the numbers shine.

‘Two Boys’ feels entirely contemporary in subject matter, being structured around chatrooms. Is *being contemporary* or *capturing the moment* one of your creative aims?

It is very much not.  And I would argue that a chatroom is the same as the way a masked ball functions in 17th, 18th, 19th century opera, or, even, the ridiculous notion that we are meant to believe that people can disguise themselves in a cross-gendered way and nobody would notice — you see this all through the 17th century, but of course also in Cosi fan tutte.  So for me, it’s really not that contemporary at all.  Additionally, these kinds of chatrooms — faceless affairs — are very 1990s.  The fun for me, though, was that even though that technology was dated, whist we were writing the piece, a series of online hoaxes took place: Manti Te’o, for instance.  I am an obsessive collector of online cancer hoaxes, too.

You’ve had an incredible output recently, with premieres just about everywhere. How are you finding this? How does it affect your creative processes?

The output and the creative process are one thing, but the travel is another.  I find the whole thing exhilarating about 90% of the time.  Other times, it is exhausting, alienating, and lonesome.  This week alone has been quite vigorous, with a new orchestra piece in Philadelphia, finishing the orchestration for Sentences, starting sketching for a ballet in September in Paris, continuing work on this Colorguard project with Ira Glass, continuing editing fifteen viola da gamba tracks for an installation piece at the National Gallery, and it’ll keep going through to July, at which point I think I have four consecutive days “off,” which is to say, only writing music rather than doing fifteen million other things.  Even today, for instance, I fly tonight to London from New York, having just gotten back to New York on Monday, and instead of having a lie-in I am up at sparrow’s fart answering your questions and proof-reading a percussion part.

What’s the secret to such high-productivity?

I honestly don’t know.  I fear that the minute I figure it out, I’ll forget how to do it, so I always just try to keep my eye on the task at hand.  One thing is that I am fiercely unambitious.  I have never made a plan that has anything to do with my career, or my “trajectory” or whatever euphemistic phrase I’m meant to use.  Instead, I work — not to repeat the word — vigorously on everything, so that the work itself is the ambition.  It’s never, “in ten years I wish to have accomplished these things and will tick off the boxes as I go.”  So, by not worrying about what anything means (as about [musicals versus operas], above), I find that a day can be spent just in the joy and rigour of work.  The process — the journey, as it were — is itself home!

You’re incredibly alive on Twitter, and have a very distinct tweet-voice. Do you think your music bears any influence of the way you’ve been using social media?

Ha, that’s a funny question.  I feel like the two are interrelated inasmuch as twitter is a language challenge: to squeeze an idea into a tiny format limited not by words but by characters.  There is, for me, an enormous poetry in this.  I also feel like Twitter is a great way to stay engaged with people who do different things — which relates to your next question — but my “feed,” such as it is, is filled with people who do all manner of things and do them well: scientists, cooks, writers, activists, and sometimes even twitter BOTS — for instance, Pentametron, that finds rhyming couplets from adjacent tweets in iambic pentameter, or the bot that is tweeting Allen Ginsberg’s Howl line by line, or another that just describes what is happening in the movie Koyaanisqatsi.

You did literature at university – did you ever write yourself, or was it always going to be music?

I did a really complicated dual-degree program between Columbia and Juilliard.  For me, I wanted to make sure that I studied English / Literature really thoroughly and not as some kind of “supplement” to my music, so having two distinct institutions really helped keep them distinct.  I never really write, except for the five years when I blogged quite actively, but then I lost the ability to focus on that as more and more work involving text came up.

Leo Mercer

More information about Nico Muhly can be found on his website; you can also follow him on Twitter @nicomuhly.

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Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg… It is hard to imagine the string quartet repertoire without the huge legacy of composers associated with Vienna. One route through that extraordinary wealth of riches was provided by the Brodsky Quartet’s concert at the Sheldonian Theatre on Saturday evening, beginning with Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C minor (D 703). Apart from some brief sketches, Schubert never composed the other three movements that would have made up the full four-movement work that he presumably planned and this first movement remained unpublished in his lifetime. Given the sense of Viennese tradition that permeated Saturday evening’s programme, it is notable that it was none other than Johannes Brahms who edited the Quartettsatz when it was first published in 1870. Very effective as a stand-alone work, the innovations of the Quartettsatz are considered by many as a crucial step towards the important achievements of the composer’s late instrumental music. Despite a slight sense of uncertainty at the very opening, this performance soon got into its stride, conveying very effectively Schubert’s great talent for allowing blossoming melodic expression to somehow coexist with driving rhythmic momentum.

Brodsky Quartet

Brodsky Quartet

At the end of the first half came Alexander Zemlinsky’s Quartet no. 4 (1936), composed in response to the death of Alban Berg. Filtered via Berg, but also Mahler and Brahms, one could clearly hear the presence of a specifically Viennese and Schubertian kind of lyricism when heard in the context of this cleverly constructed programme, especially in cellist Jacqueline Thomas’s wonderful, burnished tone in the fifth movement’s moving lament. Juxtaposed with a more ‘modern’ sense of anxiety, agitation and irony – again calling Mahler and Berg to mind – this was a work that fully justified the Brodsky Quartet’s enthusiastic promotion of Zemlinsky, a composer often overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries.

One of those talented contemporaries, of course, was Anton Webern, whose Six Bagatelles (1913) were heard between the Quartettsatz and the Zemlinsky. The thin and delicate texture of these pieces, with ideas moving fleetingly between the players for the most part at very quiet dynamic levels, is just as characteristic of Webern as the oft-cited compression of these extremely short movements, most lasting less than a minute in performance. The Brodsky Quartet met the challenges of Webern’s revolutionary and influential language here with ensemble playing of the highest standard. Each of the small and seemingly insignificant fragments spelt out in dry pizzicato was shaped with care and precision, suggesting teeming expressive depths beneath the surface. ‘Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly’, wrote Schoenberg in his famous preface to the published edition of Webern’s Six Bagatelles. ‘You can stretch every glance out into a poem, every sigh into a novel.’

By way of contrast, Schubert’s instrumental music is better known for what Robert Schumann famously labelled its ‘heavenly lengths’. Unlike the concise Quartettsatz, the ambitious ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet in D minor (D 810), which formed the second half of Brodsky Quartet’s programme, does indeed fit with this image. As something of a warhorse of the repertoire, it is all too easy to find under-rehearsed performances of this work that seem only to go through the motions. As a result, it was something of a relief to hear the freshness and colour that the personal and idiosyncratic approach here brought to the music from the very first bars. The quartet seemed determined to bring out the emotional extremes and turbulence of Schubert’s later music, as in, for example, the sense of shocked withdrawal and stasis created by pulling back the tempo and the dynamic after the initial gestures of violence in the first movement. This is not the only way of playing Schubert, of course, but it was hard to argue with the conviction and commitment of this dramatic reading. In the second movement, a set of variations on a theme from the famous song from which this quartet takes its nickname, Schubert creates an impressive curve of intensity. In a performance that ranged from fragility to imposing power and sweep, the expressive shape of this famous slow movement was communicated very effectively and movingly. The finale, taken at breakneck speed, was simply thrilling.

Leopold Godowksy’s witty arrangement of Alt Wien provided a charming encore for an appreciative audience in the Sheldonian, reminding us of the more lighthearted side to Vienna that had emerged only fleetingly from the more serious tone of the other works on the programme. That seriousness was captured in first violinist Daniel Rowland’s description in an address to the audience between pieces of the Quartettsatz as an ‘explosion’ of both ‘angst’ and ‘tenderness’. With the exception perhaps of Godowsky’s frivolity, such a description seemed an apt way to characterise the whole of this remarkable recital.

Giles Masters

For more information about the Brodsky Quartet, please visit their website.

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Stephen Sondheim’s Passion opens with an archetypal scene of romance. Two lovers, Clara and Giorgio, locked in embrace, sing of ‘so much happiness’, bathed in a lush orchestral aura that ebbs and flows with their expression. However, as soon as this scene of halcyon days has been established it is torn apart. The plot begins its inevitable progress, but nevertheless the song continues, the words and music the same and yet somehow transformed. It is a typical Sondheim twist that tilts us from a world of optimism to one of fragility and anxiousness, a mood that is perpetuated across Curious Grin’s production, currently running at the Keble O’Reilly theatre.

Passion is one of Sondheim’s least performed musicals, a late work that represents a new extreme in his output. There are no musical set-pieces, no uplifting ensemble numbers, no pauses for the audience to applaud except at the end of the acts. Everything is subordinated to the steady development of plot and the emotional turmoil of the characters, flowing seamlessly between song and spoken word. Perhaps this is some explanation for Passion’s lack of popularity; it challenges our expectations of how musicals should be.


This performance, at the O’Reilly Theatre, deals admirably with its various technical demands. The three main characters – Girogio (Alex Ohlsson), Clara (Georgia Figgis) and Fosca (Emilie Finch) – are all as well acted as they are sung. Finch in particular managed to maintain a seamless blend between her acting and singing that was utterly convincing, despite the difficulties of the role. The supporting cast provided a rich backdrop of boisterous soldiers, austere doctors, and conniving counts, even if the quality of acting was not quite on the same level. The staging was simple yet effective, although at times the lack of space seemed to cause a struggle, resulting in an excessive number of scene-changes in the second half. The band rose to the challenge of the score and the difficulties of synchronisation, with members of the orchestra apparently split between two locations, connected by video-link.

Indeed, this score may be one of Sondheim’s best. Taking the most basic and clichéd of romantic tropes and transforming them into something complex and ambiguous, like Fosca’s ‘poisoned flower’. There is an obsessive clarinet figure that keeps returning, but does it represent love or danger? obsession or abandonment? The music often builds to a crescendo of passion, but then leaves us hanging on a dissonant chord, which simply dissipates. The lush scoring is in constant conflict with the martial rhythms and fanfares that abruptly cut through, providing an apt parallel to the script’s play between dreams and reality.


However, the weakness of this musical perhaps lies in the script itself. At times the characterisation feels a little underdeveloped and the motivations rather forced, while the concluding scene lacks the power that perhaps it ought to have. Although Sondheim has never been averse to ending his musicals with a nihilistic gesture (see Company or Merrily We Roll Along for example), this instance was startlingly abrupt. The script is at its strongest when it transcends the realism of the main plot: moments like the ensemble passages, where the soldiers suddenly take on a Greek-chorus-like role, and the dream sequence, where multiple melodies from earlier in the action are stunningly blended together. The strengths of the cast really seemed to come to the fore at these points.

There is much to recommend about this production, and the rarity of the experience alone makes it worth a visit. Don’t expect to be uplifted or to sing along to the tunes, but do expect to be drawn in by its beguiling strangeness. I have found that those compelling melodies continue to echo round your head long after the final bows.

Lewis Coenen-Rowe

‘Passion’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday 23rd May; tickets can be purchased here.

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Simon Wroe is a freelance journalist, former chef, and author of the novel Chop Chop. As a journalist, he has contributed to a range of publications including The Economist, The Guardian, and Prospect magazine. His first novel, Chop Chop, was shortlisted for the 2014 Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize. We met up with him ahead of his talk for The Oxford Writers’ Circle on May 14th.

For those readers that don’t yet know the novel, please could you give a brief account of Chop Chop?

Chop Chop is a rather frenetic, seamy tale of a young English Literature graduate who goes to work in a gastropub in Camden Town, a rather grubby, aspiring pub that is slightly on its last legs and run by a sadistic head chef. The protagonist [nicknamed Monocle] is in over his head. To employ a term overused in publishing, it’s a coming-of-age story, but one that grows increasingly dark and strange as the novel progresses, as we are drawn into this underworld of unpleasant dinner parties and dastardly deeds. Chefs are a mad breed, and the book tries to capture that.

Simon Wroe

Chop Chop is garnished with countless culinary references, and there is even a glossary provided in Chapter Seven. The positioning of the glossary here is rather unusual, with the narrator explaining this as being due to pressure from other characters less aware of literary conventions. What was your reasoning behind this choice?

Two things should be explained at this point. One is that the book does have a somewhat unorthodox structure to it, and part of its unique framework is the device that it is always being edited and overseen by two of the other chefs that our protagonist works with. These chefs are rather unliterary, and are essentially a foil to Monocle’s pretensions and illusions. They continually keep the narrative on track, and keep him tethered whenever his prose is in danger of becoming too purple. As a result of that, there is a certain freewheeling quality to the structure.

When I wrote the book, I wrote it more with tone and voice in mind, and with the speed at which I wanted to move through the book. I knew, almost before anything else, that it had to be breathless. I wanted it to have this quality of turning around an idea, settling on it, moving off it, coming back to it, exploring it with greater length, giving snapshots of  characters, getting carried off with the kitchen momentum, then being reintroduced to them in another form. I wanted the structure to reflect that.

If you put a glossary at the end, no-one will read it. If you put it at the beginning, it’s too formal; it says, ‘This is an essay, or an anthropological study of cheffing.’ I didn’t want either of those things. I didn’t want it to be as ‘correct’ as that – a formal account or rendition of anything – I wanted it to be scruffy and barrelling forwards, moving in an arc of motion, and I felt that that was more important than subtler choices that I could have made.

Do you feel that beyond the obvious – say, the extended vocabulary – knowledge of the culinary has impacted your writing?

I think that cheffing as a profession has definitely had some influence on my writing. In that world, there is an amazing dichotomy between high culture and low. You have this exclusive French terminology – you don’t talk about a handful of watercress, you talk about a peluche, for example – used by this great, roiling underworld. There are chefs that scream at each other, that call each other the worst things under the sun, and you see these things sitting side by side in ways that you don’t in most other cultural situations.

I’ve seen people punch each other in the face over pommes dauphinoise, and a lot of writing misses that juxtaposition. One writer that is good at marrying the high and the low is Pinter. There’s that line in The Homecoming, when he talks about a ‘penchant for buggery’, with the tension between those neighbouring terms.

When I worked in kitchens, I was always an outsider. Like Monocle, I was an English Lit student, and many other chefs would ask me, ‘Why would you go to university to study English? I can speak English.’ One of the chefs said, ‘Why would you write? Writing is like masturbating with a pen.’ Some writing is universally timeless and relevant, but some really is dangerously close to being masturbatory, and I too am guilty of those onanistic urges. If I find myself moving into that territory, I have to stop and think, ‘Am I being showy or pretentious? Am I using long words without due cause?’

I think that cheffing has slapped that out of me; it has taken the preciousness from my writing. Some modern writing is written in a little bubble by gentlefolk to be read by gentlefolk, and misses the marrow of life because of it, or perhaps doesn’t have a wish to engage with it. I feel that cheffing has given to me a foot in the world, and a reminder to keep it there.

Harold Pinter

Many of Chop Chop’s reviews are keen to point out the similarities between you and your protagonist. Do you think it’s useful to attempt to discern fact from fiction, or would you rather you were considered completely separately from your characters?

I have mixed feelings about it. Generally, when you write a work of fiction, it’s the first thing that people ask you: ‘How much is this based on you? Is that what you’re like?’ There’s a desperate obsession with joining the dots and making everything mirror life, and I’ve never understood it really. I wish that it were not so, but I also feel that I have made my own bed on this occasion. I took certain autobiographical parts of what happened to me and transposed them into fiction, so I must live by that and suffer the comparisons.

What I think is interesting is that people are never really happy with the answers that you give on that question. I’ve never been able to tell whether when people say it about my book, it’s praise or criticism, or neither. Some people feel that they’ve been cheated but I would consider that proper fiction writing. I met the people and saw the world, then I wrote about it. I didn’t sit in a room in Berkhamsted and imagine it. Doing the latter leads you to write something that is flat and doesn’t come off the page, that doesn’t feel like you just brushed up against that person in the pub. If you say that your writing is nothing to do with your life, people aren’t happy with that either, because it feels disconnected in some way, like you’re disowning your own work, or as if you’ve put no part of yourself into that book.

Chop Chop was nominated for a Costa Book Award. What are your thoughts on such nominations – ‘Costa-Book-Award-nominee’ – becoming an ever-present prefix for an author?

Maybe I should insist on that honorific. Honestly, though, I don’t mind it. I think that it’s so hard to get any sort of notice as a debut author, even if you’re published by a big publisher. So many books sink without a trace; they have a little flurry of interviews or book events, then they just disappear. That is the fate of almost all books. I feel immensely lucky that Chop Chop got picked up [by the Costa Book Awards], because otherwise it would have been the fate of mine too. On the back of one prize listing, you get others, and it does wonders. Essentially, it’s the best thing that can happen to a book, better than a good review or a celebrity endorsement, and in that respect, it’s really important.

J. Wadsworth

You can follow Simon on on Tumblr, and on Twitter @simon_wroe. ‘Chop Chop’ is out now in paperback, RRP £8.99 pub. Penguin Books.

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For audiences today, A Doll’s House is discomforting for quite different reasons to those that proved so controversial at its first performance in 1879. A play that became instrumental in the movement for women’s rights, A Doll’s House follows the marriage of Nora and Torvald Helmer over a period of three days, during which their marriage is stretched to breaking point by personal secrets coming out into the open. Its original critics were shocked by Ibsen’s conclusion, where Nora leaves her husband and children in order to escape the strictures of a male-dominated society, abandoning her family home to embark upon a process of self-discovery. But watching the play in twenty-first century Britain, it is not Nora’s decision to leave that is unsettling. Instead, it is her treatment at the hands of her husband, in a relationship which to contemporary eyes borders upon abusive.

Clare Saxby & Femi Nylander as Nora & Torvald © Romain Reglade

Clare Saxby & Femi Nylander as Nora & Torvald © Romain Reglade

Poor Player Productions’ rendition, currently running at the Keble O’Reilly, capitalises on these tensions by transporting Nora and her family to the late 1950s. This was an era that saw the emergence of second-wave feminism, a point at which both Nora and Torvald’s behaviour could be viewed with either sympathy or derision. In a fluid English translation by Simon Stephens, Ibsen’s text fitted its new setting well, assisted by meticulous set and costume design (by Miles Blacket and Myfanwy Davies).

Clare Saxby’s and Femi Nylander’s performances as Nora and Torvald were comfortable, but were a little underpowered next to their supporting cast. In particular, Kathy Peacock and Ieuan Perkins shone as Kristine and Doctor Rank. Afflicted by a hereditary illness, providing a physical manifestation of the social ills that Ibsen perceives around him (Eyolf Allmer in Little Eyolf being another notable example), Rank brings some of the greatest nuance to A Doll’s House. Alongside Krogstad (played excellently by Tom Marshall), who uses amoral means to atone for a past misdeed and provide for his children, these auxiliary characters move the play beyond its concerns with gender politics to reflect more broadly on death and debt, ambition and a more fraternal form of love.

Tom Marshall as Krogstad © Romain Reglade

Tom Marshall as Krogstad © Romain Reglade

For the most part the realist set design provided a pleasing backdrop, despite momentary flaws that detracted from the onstage action — the very obviously plastic baby sticks in the memory, as do the abrupt lighting changes whenever Krogstad entered or left the stage. Act III was one of the strongest in this regard, with the lighting design (by John Evans) complementing the atmosphere of intimidating intimacy between Nora and Torvald. Focus was centred entirely on the uncomfortable interactions between the two, from Torvald’s attempt to assault Nora to his proclamation that ‘You’re my most treasured possession. … You’re mine.’

The issues that Ibsen’s text explores — gender politics, guilt, loneliness, illness, debt handling — are as relevant today or in 1959 as they were when A Doll’s House was published. In most places, Poor Player Productions rose to the challenge of Ibsen’s writing: the scenes between Kristine and Nora were particularly sensitively handled, bringing to the fore Ibsen’s exceptional female characterisation; Nylander presented a suitably pompous Torvald, while Perkins and Marshall captured the multifaceted personalities of Rank and Krogstad to perfection. This production will not revolutionise Ibsen performance, but what it does it does well. However for a play that is so often staged that it was the most performed play in the world in 2006 (the centennial of Ibsen’s death), it takes something exceptional to stand out amongst the drama’s rich performance tradition, a level that unfortunately remained just beyond the reach of this staging.

Leah Broad

‘A Doll’s House’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly until 16th May; tickets are available here.

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final entry of writer-director Roy Andersson’s trilogy about what it means to be human, takes the form of a series of vignettes that are both banal and surreal, amusing and disquieting. The film’s enigmatic title is a reference to Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow, a favourite amongst European art house titans from Tarkovsky to von Trier. In the top left of the wintry landscape, a trio of birds can be found seated in the trees, contemplating their surroundings. Andersson’s film aims to adopt such a bird’s-eye view, scrutinising humankind and exposing its eccentricities.

© Filmproduktion AB

Much of the film’s material is tied together by a pair of travelling salesmen called Jonathan and Nils, who trudge from door to door peddling a small selection of novelty comic goods: extra-long vampire fangs (a best-seller for a long time now); cackling laughter bags (they bring a smile to every party); and hideous, rubbery ‘Uncle One-Tooth’ masks (a new item that the duo have a lot of faith in). Their aim is to make the world joyful, yet their sales pitches are as dull and humourless as their pasty faces.

© Filmproduktion AB

While the content, characters and tone of different vignettes vary, most of the film’s screen time and sympathy are retained for males. When women do feature in a given section, they are rarely flattered. An early scene sees a randy salsa instructor sexually harass one of her students, paying no heed to his discomfort. When the pair have dinner in a later vignette, she breaks down and blubbers hysterically after he leaves the restaurant. In another, particularly anachronistic scene, a café’s female customers are driven out of the premises when Charles XII stops by for a drink with some of his troops. The women of the film are subjected to stereotyping and societal violence, and little else.

© Filmproduktion AB

The warmest woman depicted, a wartime bar owner called Limping Lotta, offers shots in return for kisses from soldiers, warbling her proposal to the tune of a traditional Swedish ditty. Seventy years later, a regular remembers this moment fondly, and his subsequent struggle to pull on his coat sleeves when heading home – a mundane reminder of deterioration and impending death – is powerful in its melancholy effectiveness. Lotta, a vibrant woman and by far the liveliest character of the entire film, exists here primarily as the memory of a man. She is reduced to an idealised anecdote, an advertisement for flirtatious fun in times gone by.

© Filmproduktion AB

Far more disconcerting, though, is the film’s treatment of race. Andersson’s characters are caked with pale, pallid makeup, an exaggerated indication of human decay. The vignettes are populated solely by white characters, with a notable and despicable exception. In one passage, a line of chained black slaves is led into a rotating metal drum by English-speaking colonialists, which is then heated by flames from below. The resulting screams of terror are transformed by the drum’s hornlike appendages into beautiful, haunting music, and a group of wealthy, elderly, white men and women shuffle through the French doors of a nearby mansion to listen. Meanwhile, Jonathan skulks about the fringes of the group topping up champagne glasses. The repulsiveness of racial inequality is made all too evident here, but is this extreme scenario really the only stage on which non-white people can act in a film allegedly about humanity?

© Filmproduktion AB

In the scene that follows, we learn that this horror was a dream. Jonathan now sits, traumatised, at the foot of his bed, feeling implicated in the disturbing vision that he created and spectated through his mind’s eye. As viewers of such a loathsome act, we share his shame, and understand him in a way that Nils – who tells Jonathan to stop being a ‘crybaby’ – does not. While this mutual sense of intense guilt and disgust is undeniably powerful, it is unsettling that the shocking actions of the previous scene now serve principally as emotional fodder for Jonathan; even now, we are encouraged to empathise above all with the white man.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence seems less a film about being human, then, and more a film about being a Western, white male, and a middle-aged male at that. Original, perceptive, and provocative as it might be, Andersson’s magnum opus begs an important question: is its claim to universality an excusable one?

J. Wadsworth

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is screening at the Ultimate Picture Palace on the week beginning Friday 22nd May.

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Nanook of the North, a depiction of an Inuit family’s life in the Canadian Arctic, is widely considered the first feature-length documentary film. Prospector-cum-filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty had caught Inuits on camera previously but been unhappy with the outcome; Nanook of the North grew from the filmmaker’s belief that if he were to take a ‘single character and typify the Eskimos’ then the result would be more worthwhile. The chosen individual was Nanook, or ‘The Bear’. Flaherty’s respect for the Inuits, coupled with the reductionist approach he favoured, led to Nanook being held up as a romanticised ideal of his culture, a great man whose daily life consisted of hunting polar bears with only a harpoon to hand and expertly navigating ice fields.

Nanook of the North

A still from Nanook of the North

Coupled with this admiration, though, an underlying condescension is present throughout Flaherty’s film, with the Inuits being depicted as innocent and naïve. In one early scene, Nanook is shown a gramophone – ‘how the white man “cans” his voice’, as Flaherty’s intertitles explain – and he bewilderedly searches for the source of the sound. In Stanley Silverman’s original scoring of the film, chirpy violins paint the Inuits in a childlike light by emphasising the humour of their actions. Nanook of the North is in this sense guilty of presenting an image of primitivism that masks the reality of Inuit modernity, in which rifles were used for hunting, while gramophones were known and understood.

Saturday 9th May saw the accompaniment of Nanook of the North by nu-folk trio Dead Rat Orchestra, performing a quasi-improvised soundtrack at Oxford’s North Wall Centre, an event co-promoted by Oxford Contemporary Music. The group’s score was replete with string harmonics, whistling woodwinds, resonant chimes, and ambient drones: common yet powerful signifiers of harsh, icy landscapes. While these sonic characteristics imitate the natural sounds of wind, snow, and howling huskies, though, they do not mirror them. They pass them through a filter of Western musical expectations, and Western contemporary electronica at that. Dead Rat Orchestra, aware of this culturally informed construction of space, consciously decided to avoid incorporating Inuit music into their score. To attempt to replicate the indigenous musical forms and fall short, DRO’s Dan Merrill explained, would be to do them an injustice.

Dead Rat Orchestra

Dead Rat Orchestra

The film is divided into sections that follow Nanook and his fellow Inuits trading, hunting, building igloos, fishing, kayaking, and getting ready for bed. Dead Rat Orchestra did a remarkable job of ensuring that the soundtrack never felt too monotonous or stagnant, using each new section to experiment with a new instrumental permutation. In one segment, a solo banjo accompanied Nanook setting off alone on the water; in another, scratchy double stops on the fiddle represented the cry of a harpooned walrus. The music of the final scene, in which the trio sang Nanook’s family to sleep with a wordless lullaby, their instruments set to one side, felt an appropriate manner in which to draw proceedings to a close.

Many of the musical decisions were driven by the band members’ personal responses to the film: the hand-clapping percussion of the igloo building scene approximated applause, for example, recalling the group’s excitable reaction when first viewing the film. Other aspects were a result of research, undertaken over the course of a decade, into the background of the film and its director. One scene of Nanook in the North, for example, switches between shots of the Inuits and their dogs eating, and has been criticised for seeming to draw parallels between the two. Dead Rat Orchestra here symbolised the noisy feasting of the dogs musically with the clacking of a camera, forming – as the group were keen to note – a metareading referencing Flaherty’s power as the film’s director, cinematographer, and editor to infer meaning by framing his images in a certain way.

A still from Nanook of the North

A still from Nanook of the North

The screening was followed by a twenty-minute panel discussion, in which Dead Rat Orchestra were joined by Professor Marcus Banks (University of Oxford) and Dr Charlotte Gleghorn (University of Edinburgh), whose contributions, though brief, were highly insightful. Topics discussed included the staged nature of many of the film’s scenes, the challenging of cultural inscription, and Nanook of the North’s continued use as an education tool. Also addressed was the element of performance on Dead Rat Orchestra’s part, primarily their choice to play with their backs turned to the audience, engrossed in the film.

This decision seemed a sensible one, with a conscious effort made to deflect attention away from the act of musical performance and towards the film being shown, but it also obstructed view of the instruments used and the actions undertaken. While this might not be such an issue for most live film accompaniments, in which musicians’ invisibility is taken as a positive, many of the compositional choices made by the group – such as the aforementioned camera clicks – added a fascinating interpretative layer to the film. In preparation for future screenings, Dead Rat Orchestra might consider their roles as performers, and how they might make their perceptive observations more evident, either audibly or visibly, to audience members. By emphasising these elements, which would have gone unnoticed were it not for the enlightening panel discussion, Dead Rat Orchestra would complement their excellent musical score with a similarly astute, recognisable commentary.

J. Wadsworth

You can view Nanook of the North in its entirety, albeit without Dead Rat Orchestra’s score, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4kOIzMqso0

Dead Rat Orchestra will be on tour over the course of the next two months, performing a live soundtrack to James Holcombe’s Tyburnia, a film documenting six centuries of public execution. You can find more details about the events here. The Oxford screening will take place on July 3rd at Modern Art Oxford.

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