Dec 102010

As usual, to give you faithful visitors a peek behind my inner workings, I set out below the original email interview with The Observatory, the basis for the TODAY feature, which you can read here.

The Observatory – Dharma, Evan Tan, Leslie Low, Victor Low, Vivian Wang

What was the motivation behind writing and performing a score for A Page of Madness, which is a silent movie?

Vivian: Playing to a film or a visual is very different from just playing music alone. Interacting with another medium involves an extra-sensory approach. We need to be much more aware, not just of one another, but also of what we’re collectively interacting with. Is it in sync? Does it underscore the film narrative, or should we add another dimension to this film? – All these are questions we face and that’s what’s really challenging and fun in a project like this. We are no longer just musicians. You could say we’re like a supporting cast. We have a different job to do, and that is to create a sonic complement to the film, a process which involves a lot more subtlety and about something more than just our own music.

Victor: Besides our interest in writing music for film, we always relish the opportunity to play to a film. So when we were asked to play to a Page of Madness, a Japanese silent film done in the 20s, we were very excited to say the least. Personally, the thrill about playing to a film is the element of chance, that nothing is locked down permanently, compared to recording music to the time-code of the film. Each rehearsal feels slightly different from the other, never exactly the same.

Evan: I have always loved Japanese movies and am intrigued by the modernity of this film that is from the 1920′s. In trying to understand the movie, I read up a fair bit on the director, his influences and techniques and was quite impressed. Given the fact that we like horror films and dark music, this is right up our alley. I am quite excited about some of the scenes in the movie where chaos ensues. This has given us an opportunity to create something really intense for it.

Dharma: Oscar Levant’s familiar adage “There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line” has always intrigued me.  There are many occasions when one may have experienced a certain piece of music (or work of art) and felt that only a mad person could have been able to conceive something so brilliant. At times I have myself experienced the process of creating music that has its fair share of insanity.

How did the opportunity come about? What is it about the movie that is able to inspire the band to write a film score?

Vivian: No words can adequately describe how I felt while watching A Page of Madness. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s film is transfixing, hypnotic, mind-boggling and difficult to make sense of. I cannot even begin to say what it is about it that is ‘masterful ‘or ‘modernist’, other than how curious I feel. There is something mercurial about it, something unknowable but that is also why it compels us to want to know more, and perhaps learn something about ourselves.

Leslie: It has always been a desire of ours to score a film. And Wenjie found us the perfect film. The human condition and its ability to experience a range of mental states from peace and happiness to sadness, depression and eventually madness; who’s to say that we, the medically sane majority never experience bouts of madness in small doses on a regular basis? Anyone of us, if forced to the edge due to circumstances in life, is capable of plunging into the depths of madness. Is this the eventual surrendering of one’s own mental will power? What will my own limits be? These unanswerable questions are what drew me to Kurutta Ippeiji. Being a silent film, this is practically an empty canvas for us to work on. A platform for us to think, react and present our interpretation of a 1926 masterpiece.

Evan : Zhang Wenjie, a friend and film programmer from the National Museum has been talking about inviting us to do this for quite a while. He went through a few films and thought that Page of Madness was suitable for us for its dark surreal images and experimental touch. So we met and discussed and was handed a DVD of the film. We thought it was brilliant and were quite surprised that films like these existed in the 1920s. So we agreed.

Dharma: The idea was from Wenjie (National Museum). He had wanted us to do something like this for a long time. The movie itself is very intriguing and has very interesting images and scenes. Given the opportunity to do the live soundtrack to a silent movie from the 1920s that depicts the goings-on in a mental asylum is very exciting indeed. Many things about this movie are inspiring – the images, storyline, weird footages, the characters.

How is the band preparing for the show?  The band has done a similar performance before – is it different from other similar ventures? If so, how is it different?

Evan : We been heading to our studio at Republic Polytechnic for an intense preparation for this. We were invited in June to Theater Der Welt, a festival in Germany to present ‘Invisible Room’, a commission piece for Singapore Arts Festival 2009. For ‘Invisible Room’, the filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen was directing the film to our music from Dark Folke. Later on however, we decided to do something completely different for it. So in that way, Tzu Nyen was feeding off from our music from Dark Folke and we were feeding off his film for a new score. His film was more visual based with little narrative. For Page of Madness, I guess the difference is we are doing something new and modern for a film that’s already been made many decades ago. There’s a narrative but it’s silent at the same time. It leaves a lot to the imagination to what is happening on screen.

Dharma: For one thing the movie is different. The images are very different. And there is a deranged storyline here. That gives us the opportunity to explore the edges of sanity in the process. There are dialogue parts in this silent movie so our approach to the soundtrack has to put that element into the consideration. So it’s a bit tricky. Also we had to express sounds of daytime and sounds of being out and about in the sun. The preparation is coming along great; we’re all rather excited about this.

What is the process of composing music for another art form, like a film? What are the difficulties? What are the rewards? What are the main differences from composing for the band itself?

Vivian: There is no such thing as a perfect work of art, neither a film nor a piece of music. A work does not have to be finished or complete. It can tend towards infinity.  And with this in mind, we’re thinking of a cinematic approach to improvisation as key to our compositional process, something we will also use in our performance for the actual screening. By this I mean experimenting with sounds and how they relate to visual narrative, with less play on virtuosity and the act of performance. As did Kinugasa with A Page of Madness, we hope to harness our instinct and our state of mind to explore ways to relinquish control and plug deep into the recesses of this film. In creating a highly textured score with a sonic aura of strangeness equivalent to that of the film itself, we want to invoke something larger than ourselves, beyond technique and intellect, something uncontrollable. In a way, to me, it isn’t that much different from creating any type of music or art for that matter.

Victor: Heng Leun once told us during Invisible Room that sometimes the film should steer the music and sometimes the music should steer the film. I thought that was a very valuable insight to how we approach the writing for a film. Film is an extra sense element that we are constantly responding or reacting to, compared to writing music with the band. It is interesting for me to hear the reaction or interpretation from the audience at the end of the show. It can be positive or negative, but it is then that we also learn and have additional insight to our process, which is constantly evolving.

The director, Yasunari Kawabata, is no longer with us, so did the band have to get any approvals from anyone concerning the score or did you have freedom to do as you like? Are there any special considerations? Is there anything that is off limits for the band?

Leslie: The director is Kinugasa Teinosuke. Wenjie from the National Museum did all the communications and cleared permissions with the owner of the film. As far as I know, no one has set any boundaries, so yes, we do have the freedom to explore.

Dharma: Basically we are free to do what we want for the soundtrack.

How long did it take for the band to compose the film score? How would describe the film score? Does it sound like the music on recent album, Dark Folke, or closer to the math rock of yore? Of something totally different for the band?

Vivian: I don’t think you’ll be seeing any math rock in this piece. The idea is to improvise until we get something we’re happy with, although still leaving lots of room for spontaneous music making during the show proper.

Victor: Music from Dark Folke is very much structured. For this film, the soundtrack will consist more of loosely based structures and improvisation. There will definitely be elements of the band’s music or sound that fans will be able to identify with, but there will also be areas the band will explore which drifts away from this identity and expectation.

Dharma: The soundtrack is not totally fixed and composed, there are many improvisational parts. And it is different from all of our albums.

Thanks to Marcia Tan for compiling the answers.

The Observatory perform on Dec 11, 7.30pm at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum. Tickets at $18 from Sistic or National Museum Stamford Visitor Services Counter.

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