As might be expected, Light has emerged as a particular focus of this year's White Light Festival, now in its third week at venues in and around Lincoln Center. The importance of light is often overlooked in the music world: in concert halls, house lights typically go down and the start of the show, then back up at the end. Popular music - with its battery of colored lights and cross-fades - employs a far more elaborate lighting scheme, but often to the point of distraction.
But, when used properly, light can serve to illuminate the inner meaning of an artist's creation. Last week, the silent dance piece Necessary Weather prominently featured Jennifer Tipton's lighting design, creating various shapes and hues onstage to which a pair of dancers responded with movement. (Tipton will also provide the visuals for this weekend's Spectral Scriabin, with pianist Eteri Andjaparidze.) On Monday, Lynnette Wallworth's Duality of Light installation opened in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall, inviting visitors to enter a dark, narrow corridor where they are surrounded by an interactive display of light.
Then, there is the medium that depends on light for it's very existence: film. Contemporary composers have had a field day in recent years providing live music for silent films, such as Michael Gordon's collaborations with the filmmaker Bill Morrison, or the Alloy Orchestra's scoring of historical films such as Metropolis. The combination of light-driven image and sound is incredibly powerful, drawing your attention away from the sedentary musicians onstage, who probably would prefer it if you didn't look at them anyway.
On Saturday night, the White Light Festival presented a screening Carl Theordor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) at Alice Tully Hall. Based on the historical transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial and execution, Dreyer’s film is one of the most intense, emotionally charged films ever made, filled with closeups of actors in various stages of distress - most memorably Maria Falconetti (Joan), with her short-cropped hair and bulging eyes filled with tears.
Even if the audience was largely unfamiliar with the film, they were clearly excited to hear the live musical accompaniment, composed by Portishead's Adrian Utley and Will Gregory from Goldfrapp. As with last year's performances by Antony and Jonsi, the White Light Festival seems eager to give musicians from the world of popular music a stage on which to explore their less conventional sides, with benefits for both parties involved.
While Saturday night marked the U.S. premiere of Utley and Gregory's score, this was not the first time The Passion of Joan of Arc has been seen in these parts: in 2006, I saw a screening at the World Financial Center with a score by Richard Einhorn that employed a full chorus and orchestra, along with the Rennaissance vocal quartet Anonymous 4. While I don't remember the particular details of the performance, I recall it being a visceral, overwhelming experience.
Utley and Gregory took a different approach to the film, replacing all but a handful of string players with a battery of electric guitars (led by Utley), which alternated between drone and furious repetition. Gregory was also onstage, playing synthesizer and the Chinese oboe, which sounded like a cross between a shofar and a dying animal. Also onstage were a small chorus, a handful of string players, and two drummers, all led by British conductor Charles Hazlewood.
At the climactic burning of Joan at the stake, the guitars strummed a deafening drone, followed by a series of massive power chords played in unison. As the crowd witnessing Joan's execution erupted into chaos, the orchestra stirred into a frenzied roar. It was a dark, deeply unsettling moment.
In a conversation with Richard Peña after the performance, Utley and Gregory said they were initially attracted to Joan of Arc by its linear storytelling, allowing for much longer exposition than either of them were accustomed to. "It's very interesting to be out of the context I'm usually in," Utley said. "It's filled and fulfilled something in me."
More pics on the photo page.