1. The Goddess

So here’s the very first installment of the James Whale Orchestra blog. We’ll be blogging about a whole range of things including music, productions, movies, tech stuff, concerts, tours and plans, analyzing the whole creative process, talking about the people we work with and taking plenty of detours into stuff that inspires us.

I’d thought I’d be spending the first blog post writing about our new production which we’re making.a trailer for at the moment…..but since it’s firmly under top secret wraps and Panos is overhauling the website and too busy to work on the samples I’m going to begin with a nice detour instead.

The cello got its own seat…

I went on a concert tour to China a few months ago with a chamber orchestra that I work with – Sinfonia Rotterdam ( http://www.sinfoniarotterdam.nl ) . The tour started in Beijing then headed to Changsha, on to Qingdao and finished in Harbin up near the border with Russia ,where amongst other things I bought a bar of Vladimir Putin brand chocolate (picture is below somewhere) I think I’m going to put it in a frame and hang it on the wall so I’m afraid I can’t comment on the quality of Putin chocolate, but we can assume that 99% of people would vote for it in a fair election. If any Russian speaker can tell me why there is a picture of a bee on it I’d be more than grateful.

We played a lot of Haydn (in some amazing concert halls…take a look at the Harbin Grand Theater below… ) and as encores performed some Chinese music including a beautiful piece called ‘My Motherland’ from a famous Chinese movie titled ‘Battle on Shanggangling Mountain’ from 1956. According to a Chinese colleague, a rendition of My Motherland is guaranteed to melt the heart of any Chinese person as though it were a bar of Putin chocolate on a hot day, and judging by the reaction we got every time we played it, it’s true.

Grand Theater Harbin, China

I confess I still haven’t seen the movie but it’s on my to do list. It’s about a group of Chinese soldiers that hold a position called Triangle Hill against advancing American troops. It’s all very heroic and in the song ‘My Motherland’ the Americans are referred to as ‘wolves with hunting guns’ -which is a wonderful poetic image – but when Chinese pianist Lang Lang played it at the White House to honour a visit by President Hu Jintao it caused a small diplomatic fracas. Obviously.

The whole China tour experience made me curious about Chinese cinema so I started trawling through 1920’s Chinese movies and was rewarded with some fantastic finds. It turns out that silent movies were still being made in China in the early 1930’s and there are some real gems. Spring Silkworms (1933) and Little Toys (1933) are certainly worth visit both for the atmosphere of rural life in the 1930’s and for the acting.

(‘Worth a visit’ means worth seeing if you have time. ‘Worth a detour’ means you really shouldn’t miss them.)

But The Goddess (1934) – and I’m surprised I hadn’t come across it before – is worth a detour without doubt. The premise is fairly simple: it’s about a prostitute trying to raise her child in the face of inevitable social prejudice. She has to deal with a parasitic gangster she can’t seem to get rid of, and an endless stream of people eager to judge her for the way in which she tries to provide her son with a better life. This movie somehow really hits the spot, partly because Ruan Lingyu (who also stars in Little Toys) grabs your heart and your sympathy from the very first minute, but also because of the extraordinary realism of the movie. There’s no melodrama of the kind often found in silent films. Everything is played down and the result is that there are no caricature bad guys – just unpleasant people who aren’t even aware how awful they are. I have to admit that I already started thinking about writing a soundtrack for The Goddess…

Perhaps the movie became a little too realistic however, because in 1935, the year after ‘The Goddess’ was released, Ruan Lingyu, aged just 24, committed suicide. her funeral lasted three days and was attended by tens of thousands and I read – not sure if it true – that three mourners actually killed themselves during the funeral.

Probably one of the reasons I enjoyed the film so much is that the character Ruan plays in ‘The Goddess’ is in many ways the flip side of the Louise Brooks character Thymian Henning in Pabst’s ‘Diary of a lost Girl’ (another movie I’ve always thought about writing music for). Whereas Thymian is na├»ve and not really aware of the bad intentions of the people around her, Ruan is all too conscious of what is going on and has to try to keep her dignity.

I’m still browsing through Chinese cinema but it’s quite possible that I’ll be coming back to ‘The Goddess’ in the future when I’m looking for a next project. At the moment – because of the new production that we’re working on I’m listening to a lot of Bernard Hermann and Franz Waxman scores (that should give a fairly large hint of what kind of movie we’re doing). I’ve discovered Bernard Hermann’s soundtrack to the 1952 ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ which I can’t get enough of. Gregory Peck has a gangrenous leg and the vultures are circling in a very Heming-way, but the music just rolls gloriously on. It’s almost like an early version of the Vertigo soundtrack (1958), but the writing is more lush and romantic. You can learn an incredible amount istening to Hermann’s music. He’s got a knack of using the same short unresolved phrases repeated obsessively to create a kind of cumulative hypnotic effect which I think is quite unique. A sort of late romantic minimalism. I can’t really think of any ‘classical’ composer that uses the same idea.

I often think that one of the main drawbacks with movies with dialogue is that it’s very difficult to make long sections develop in your music. In a way Hermann solved this by just repeating shorter phrases with some variation which build into longer lines.

I’m happy to report that Bernard Hermann was quite into electronics as well. Apparently he played Theremin and Moog on several of his own soundtracks. I’m sure if he’d have got his hands on a few sample libraries he could have done wonders….

In any case our new production is actually going to be scored for orchestra with three featured soloists: Bandoneon, Violin and Bass, which some of you might recognise as a classic Tango trio, and the music will indeed have something in common with tango music. But I’m going to leave that for the next post…..

Rehearsal of The Free Company radio drama with conductor Bernard Herrmann. April 6, 1941.