Stillman’s Leap of Death at the Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival 2014

Our outgoing Newspaper Editor, Matthew Gilley, checked out Robert Stillman’s Leap of Death at the Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival that’s currently being held in Canterbury this week.

In 1928, F. W. Murnau, probably best known for directing Nosferatu, released a film called 4 Devils about the lives of a titular group of trapeze artists. The film has since been lost, but has now been given something of a second life by Robert Stillman, whose new work Leap of Death uses what clues there are about the film to create a suite of music inspired by 4 Devils – basically an imagined soundtrack of sorts.

As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of clues. A short lecture before the performance examines other circus films; articles by and interviews with Murnau; production skills and concept artwork; the book the film took inspiration from and the reviews from its original release. All the evidence points to 4 Devils being quite good. As the introductory lecture said, at the time circus narratives were a cliché, but Murnau’s idiosyncratic vision and his singular realism, combined with the ambiguous and fantastical, allowed the film to transcend its subject matter.

Something similar might be said of Leap of Death. The silent movie soundtrack, after all, has a long history and its typical dramatic jazz is likely to be familiar to most people. In recent years some artists have had a lot of success re-imagining the silent movie soundtrack in more experimental ways – like The Cinematic Orchestra or 65daysofstatic’s re-scoring of Silent Running, admittedly not a silent film, but the principle is the same. Stillman, like both of these examples, takes the tropes of silent movie scores but does something not entirely familiar with them.

4 Devils Film Still

In a silent film, the music has to shoulder more of the narrative burden. Here it has to take almost all of it, although text fragments displayed behind the performers do help. Appropriately then, Leap of Death is wonderfully evocative. It whirls with the four trapeze artists, weeps with them and, when their bond is threatened by the arrival of a mysterious lady, the undercurrent of dread is unmistakable. Stillman’s own saxophone is perhaps an instrument uniquely suited to such myriad emotions. He does thinly plaintive, in a section about the troubled relationship of two of the Devils, light and chaotic parps in the overture, describing the troupe’s first aerial act, and he bellows out dramatic explosions to match the trumpet and trombone sat next to him.

Aside from Stillman, the star of the show is drummer James Maddren. Changing sticks at a moments notice, he keeps the pulse that drives the music/narrative forward, and lends even more tension to quieter moments by its absence – such as Lady Interlude. His real highlight, however, comes as the music reaches crisis. The rest of the band keep a staccato pulse in 9/8, muted yet insistent. And Maddren skitters all over the kit, perfectly capturing the jittering of nerves in bursts of arrhythmia. It’s a technical marvel (it’s a wonder anyone stays in time) as well as perfectly pitched emotionally – the frantic motion building brings a brilliant intensity to what is an anti-climax.

Murnau’s film had at least three endings in its original treatment; in its 1928 version and in a 1929 version. Stillman’s suite has two ‘ending’ movements, based on two of these versions. One of them, Fatality, is darker, the other, Survival and Declaration of Love, is more hopeful. Neither of them are especially conclusive or satisfying. That’s not a criticism though; it suits the ambiguity and uncertainty of the project. 4 Devils itself is an uncertainty, inasmuch as for all the evidence amassed about it, no-one can really know what it was like. Robert Stillman jumps right into this ambiguity, re-assembling the lost classic largely from his own imagination, re-creating in music something that was lost in film. The result is open-ended and experimental, but hopefully that won’t deter unsuspecting listeners. Everyone at Tuesday’s performance in Anselm Studio 1 at least seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves, including a toddler, who came into his own in a movement where Stillman asked the audience to provide “raucous movement”.

The leap of death, the circus feat that is the climax of Murnau’s film and from which the suite takes its title, involves the trapeze artist doing a triple somersault through a ring of fire without a safety net. Stillman pulls off his own ambitious leap with impressive precision.



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