Showing posts with label Mikhail Rudy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mikhail Rudy. Show all posts

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The piano, the twins and a cockroach

Mikhail Rudy is giving the UK premiere of Metamorphosis, the Quay Brothers' film visualisation of Kafka's famous story with live piano music by Janacek, as part of the Institut Français's long-weekend festival It's All About Piano. The concert/film is on 27 March at Kings Place (the other half will be Rudy's now-famous live music & film mix of animated Kandinsky and Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition). The festival itself promises to be a dazzling array of all things piano - artists appearing also include Peter Donohoe, François-Frédéric Guy, Daria van den Bercken, there's a masterclass with Angela Hewitt, a session on the inner workings of the instrument with Steinway master technician Ulrich Gerhartz, jazz, films, The Carnival of the Animals and, basically, you name it. Piano fans should be turning out in droves.

I took the opportunity to go and visit Stephen and Timothy Quay, the American-born identical twins who have taken the art of animation to places one might never have imagined it could go. My piece about them is somewhere in the Independent today, but here is the longer director's cut, with plenty of bonus material.

Here's a taster...



The Quay Brothers’ studio looks unassuming enough from outside on its south London side-street. Go in, though, and it feels like an evocation of an imaginary eastern Europe. One half is the workspace where the twins film their animations. The rest resembles the second-hand bookshops you might stumble across in old Krakow or Budapest, with a table for coffee and browsing amid laden, dimly lit shelves. A wooden-cased clock abruptly grinds, then chimes and keeps chiming. I could almost swear it strikes 13. Timothy Quay quips: “It only goes off when it hears the word ‘Kafka’.”

The American-born identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay, 67, have long been associated with cutting-edge multi-media projects, often mingling animations with music in a sphere beyond the capabilities of words. Now their interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis – the story of an ordinary young man who finds himself transformed into an insect – is due for its UK premiere on 27 March at Kings Place, in the Institut Français’s festival It’s All About Piano. The Quays’ images meld with music by Leoš Janáček, Kafka’s older contemporary and Czech compatriot, performed live with the film by the Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy.

The Quays eschew contemporary computer animation in favour of, among other things, handcrafted puppets. These adorn virtually every surface in the studio, spooky little presences that might resemble witches, demons and more. The brothers often make the puppets themselves: “The heads might be carved out of balsa wood, with real eyes,” says Stephen, then clarifies, “Real glass eyes. We put olive oil on them so that when the lights are on them they gleam.”

Rudy’s own multi-media projects include a theatrical adaptation of The Pianist (the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman) and animations of Kandinsky and Chagall to which he plays live. He originally commissioned Metamorphosis from the Quays for Paris’s Cité de la Musique. “We had six months to do it, but 30 minutes of music would normally take us about a year,” says Stephen. “We decided therefore on a mixture of live action and puppets, which was something new for us.” From Rudy’s recording of Janáček’s piano music they selected pieces to build the narrative. “In that sense we choreographed to what he laid out for us,” says Timothy.

Shot in sepia and black and white, the film is on the creepy side of sensitive – or the creepy-crawly side, since the Quays have been relatively literal about the insect. “Kafka specified that the book illustrator shouldn’t show the insect,” says Stephen, “but that’s literature. I don’t think you could get away with that in film.

"We decided we'd make a kind of cockroach, because for us that would be the worst thing to be turned into. We grew up with them around in Philadelphia and it was upsetting when you saw one rambling over your utensils in a drawer or darting round the room or, even worse, just a huge one walking down the centre of a street. It's an extraordinarily adaptable insect - a creature like a rat - and we even read that in those days in New York if you opened up the back of the TV they'd be in there, eating the wires..."

Oof. Back to Kafka. “We’ve always adored Kafka’s work,” Stephen says. “At first with Metamorphosis we flinched, because everybody knows it. At the same time, it was no problem to come to the story, and we knew Prague both physically and in our imaginations, especially through the black and white photos by Karel Plicka.”

Here they are at MOMA in New York, discussing their major retrospective exhibition there three years ago:




The Quays’ films are steeped in Eastern European influence, where rich traditions can be found of both puppetry and animation; they pay tribute to figures such as the Czech animator Jan Švankmejer or Walerian Borowczyk from Poland. One of their great-grandmothers was from Upper Silesia: “The twins tendency comes from her family,” they note. “In a sense you feel those ghosts to have manifested in us.”

They grew up and initially studied in Philadelphia, but after winning scholarships for postgraduate work at the Royal College of Art in London, they found themselves “on the doorstep of Europe,” and never looked back. “We got out of America – it couldn’t propose anything for us,” says Stephen. “A friend said that if we could wash dishes in Philadelphia, we could wash them in Amsterdam – and that was sufficient.”

In one celebrated collaboration (in 2000) the BBC teamed them up with the giant of experimental electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, in a 20-minute piece for the Sound on Film series. “It felt like being placed on the train tracks with something the size of Karlheinz rolling down towards you,” the brothers recall. “But he was immensely tactful and very open; he made no restrictions. At one point he asked us to add a touch of blue. We didn’t.” 

They recall that on first viewing their creation, Stockhausen was disturbed by the image of a woman seen only from the back, which they had chosen to represented a psychiatric patient from Heidelberg, whose letters to her husband had been so intensely written and written across that they became a "field of graphite". Stockhausen, they say, thought instead that the image represented his mother, who had been murdered by the Nazis. "He thought we were telepathic," the Quays remember.  "We hadn't known anything about it." 

Their next big project is with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen on his new work Theatre of the World, which will be premiered in Los Angeles in May. Creating animation is a slow, detailed business; the brothers are habitually in the studio before 5am. “We’re exhausted by the end of the day,” they acknowledge, “but that’s what it takes.” At first working together was a practical solution: “At art school, each guy has a piece of paper and a pencil,” remarks Stephen, “but when someone gives you money to make a film, they don’t fund two films, only one. Still, who better to collaborate than two guys who can put their heads together, and their hearts too?”

For the Quays’ audience, the results may be startling, sometimes hair-raising, but always richly rewarding.

Metamorphosis, Kings Place, 27 March. Box office: 020 7520 1490. It’s All About Piano, 27-29 March. http://institut-francais.org.uk/itsallaboutpiano/


Finally, here's a teaser for Mikhail Rudy's latest film and animation project: bringing the ceiling of the Paris Opera to life

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who is this Petrushka anyway?


Puppet or dancer? Entertainer or symbol? If the latter, symbol of what? The premiere of the multi-media Petrushka in Wimbledon the other night, which I previewed here, was an evening to remember.

For pianist Mikhail Rudy it's the culmination of years of dreaming and planning. It began when he took Stravinsky's own Three Dances from Petrushka (piano arrangements made for Rubinstein, who never played them, apparently - too difficult, the story goes...) and set about transcribing the rest of the complete ballet score himself, with lurking visions of what could one day be done with it in terms of visual interpretation. Micha writes of a childhood impression of a puppet show:
"I could tell that behind the curtain there was an unsettling human form, which made my heart thump. I called him The Great Puppeteer. Invested with an extraordinary power, he was able to breathe life into his creations, to make them dance and laugh, or fall in love, but, at his least whim, he could melt them down at will into a spoon, like a character from Peer Gynt, or cut off their heads as if they were poor Petrushka. I was hypnotized by his limitless power, and I identified with his creatures. Were my emotions real or imaginary? I'm still looking for the answer."
"In the little theatre where the drama of Petrushka and the Ballerina is played out, one piece of wood – the piano – brings to life other pieces of wood, at the behest of a magician in a black suit. Perhaps one should play Petrushka in a top hat, surrounded by white rabbits and ladies sawn in half whose reflections keep on multiplying in mirrors… The piano giving the illusion of an orchestra, which in turn gives the illusion of marionettes, who in turn make us believe in human feelings."
Now, realised as a multi-media film by IWMF director Anthony Wilkinson, with dancers from Rambert and Matthew Bourne's New Adventures and absolutely mesmerising puppetry from the Little Angel Theatre, the Petrushka project presents Micha with an almighty challenge: playing this plethora of colourful fairground activity, inner anguish, mechanistic irony and mystical symbolism is quite tough enough without having to coordinate one's every movement with a movie. The result? It works its magic from first snowflake-drenched moment to last.

The puppeteer sees his own impish, teasing, rebellious creation achieve acrobatic wonders, undergo very human suffering, and ultimately elude him altogether. The poor puppet's head is unscrewed, his sawdust emptied on the ground, his carcas left in a cardboard box - only to reappear beyond grasp, argumentative as ever, a spirit in his own right that can never be destroyed.

Micha is aligned at once with the puppeteer/magician, wearing the turquoise and gold cloak of the character throughout his performance (but no top hat, rabbits or sawn-in-two females...). The pianist is the puppeteer; the piano is the puppet. And it escapes. The spirit of art and of creativity is something we think is ours and that we can control. But maybe, instead, it is this spirit that comes to control us. It's more than we think it is: independent, elusive, immutable.

Despite a lifetime of familiarity with Petrushka's music, story, choreography and concept, this dazzling mingling of artforms in a quiet Wimbledon sidestreet was the first time the work truly made sense to me at its deeper level. Bravo Micha, bravo Anthony and bravi bravissimi Little Angels.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Aces ahoy at Wimbledon

Amid sighs of relief and big cheers for President Obama, back home in Blighty the countdown to the International Wimbledon Music Festival has begun. Coins have been tossed, warm-ups enacted, the end of the court selected, Federer is set to play Murr...oh, well, maybe not yet... Actually, Roger Federer (pictured right) is rumoured to be a major enthusiast for classical music. But even without him, there are some aces to be served in SW19 in the weeks ahead. Because we have here a festival director, Anthony Wilkinson, who's determined to move heaven, earth and a lot of amazing people to transform south-west London into a magnet for marvellous music-making.

Now, there's some amazing news about my play A Walk Through the End of Time, concerning Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, the festival's performance of which at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, has been sold out for weeks. (Article about it from the Independent, here.) It seems that such is the demand for tickets that they have decided to offer another performance, later the same afternoon! It will start at 5.15pm. We are immensely grateful to Henry Goodman and Harriet Walter for agreeing to do this, and to Anita Lasker-Wallfisch too. Box office: 020 8940 3633. Website is here - if the extra show isn't on it yet, just call the box office and ask to be put on the waiting list for tickets.... Here's Anthony announcing the glad tidings last night:



The play is in seriously good company. The festival kicks off on Saturday 10 November with a glorious Purcell jamboree starring Susan Bickley, Robin Blaze, Njabulo Madlala, James Bowman and Malin Christensson. And it's beginning as it means to go on, because every concert is a highlight in its own right. Catch the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time itself the night after the play in the expert hands of the Nash Ensemble; thrill to the wonders of Christine Brewer singing Strauss and Wagner (yes, in Wimbledon!); enjoy celebrity recitals by violinist Alina Ibragimova and her family, as well as cellist Zuill Bailey and starry young guitarist Xuefei Yang; and absolutely don't miss Piers Lane and Patricia Routledge in Admission: One Shilling, the story of Dame Myra Hess and the National Gallery Concerts in the Blitz. Twenty-three events in all, and the whole lot are world class. Here's the full programme, so have a browse and book soon.

Perhaps the most exciting, though, is the Petrushka project, specially created by the IWMF with the pianist Mikhail Rudy. "Micha" is one of the last of the true old-school Russian artists, having trained at the Moscow Conservatoire with Jakob Flier and subsequently defected with a flood of international attention, to say nothing of some brushes with the KGB, in 1977. His autobiography (left) is fascinating, and reading it is excellent for polishing your French. In recent years Micha has taken in a big way to multimedia projects - I've already reported extensively on his marvellous theatre version of Spilman's memoirs in The Pianist (soon to return to Britain, we understand) and the beautiful animated Kandinsky film for Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which he brought to Wimbledon last year.

Petrushka goes even further. Some years ago, Micha took the three pieces from the Stravinsky score than already exist in transcription for piano solo, and set about transcribing the rest of the work. Now he, Anthony Wilkinson, choreographer Claire Sibley and the Little Angel Theatre have collaborated to bring together all the elements that feature in the original concept of Petrushka: live music, ballet and puppetry. I've had a sneak preview of the entire film, produced and directed by Anthony, and can bring you an extract, below - and there is some truly extraordinary stuff in it. I will never understand the magic by which expert puppeteers can appear to infuse a piece of wood and string with actual life - and that magic, of course, is what Petrushka is all about. See it on 14 November.



On the night, Micha performs the music live to the film. The costumes, incidentally, are designed by students of the Wimbledon College of Art. And the whole thing was made possible by a grant from the Arts Council England, the Lottery Fund, the Tertis Foundation and a donation from Mr and Mrs Kutsenko. This Wimbledon performance should be the first of many, as the plan is to tour this project nationally, and internationally too.

Next step? What about a world-class concert hall for Wimbledon? I'm not joking. Watch this space.




Monday, November 14, 2011

The Great Gate of...Wimbledon?


Last winter I took a very snowy trip to Paris to see the world premiere of pianist Mikhail Rudy's astonishing venture into musical animation. Having unearthed Kandinsky's original designs for a 1928 theatrical staging of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition - they were quietly awaiting attention deep within Paris's Pompidou Centre - Micha conceived a way to update this ever-musical artist's work for a modern context. Joining forces with an expert animation company, he set about breathing life into Kandinsky.

The result? Micha plays - necessarily in perfect coordination with the film - while Kandinsky dances. The animations don't overload the music with extraneous effect. Different images assemble, deconstruct, kaleidoscope; they're often playful, sometimes ironic, always cool and light in touch. Now Micha is on a world tour with the project: given the blessing of the Pompidou, which is putting out a DVD, he has just taken it to the US and Russia for the first time. And this week you can catch the UK premiere in the Turner Sims Hall in Southampton on Thursday night (17 Nov) and at the Wimbledon Festival on Saturday (19 Nov).

It's a new slant on Mussorgsky. But intriguingly enough, it is far from being the first time a pianist has done his own thing with this music.

Since Horowitz, who coined the term 'pianostrate', many performers have taken as read carte blanche to make their own additions to Mussorgsky's already dazzling score. Partly this is down to the popularity of Ravel's orchestration, which appeared to make people think there was more to the piece than its original composer had put into it himself. So pianists are divided, roughly, into those who stick to the text and those who...don't.

When I wrote a 'Building a Library' piece for BBC Music Magazine a few months ago looking at different interpretations of Pictures, it became clear that Sviatoslav Richter's legendary live recording from Sofia has its revered status for a good reason: sticking faithfully to the text, Richter put in all the colour, magnificence and orchestral effects the piece could hope for through his playing alone. Of the 'pianostrated' ones, Horowitz was incomparable, though Leif Ove Andsnes's Pictures Reframed proved fascinating in its own way. Mikhail Pletnev's, while evoking astonishing, multifaceted, eleventh-dimension sounds that you wouldn't imagine a piano could produce, was cold as ice. Vladimir Ovchinnikov's recording was a sure sign that this excellent former Leeds winner remains seriously underestimated today, and among historical recordings Lazar Berman's remains a personal favourite of mine. I listened to loads of good ones, a few less good, and a monstrous heap of CDs that were well-played, faithful renditions of the score without a hint of interest or originality about them.

Anyhow, that is by-the-by. If you're within batting distance of Wimbledon or Southampton, don't miss Micha's audio-visual treat this week.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Kafka at the ballet

Here's my piece from yesterday's Independent about Arthur Pita's new dance theatre work based on The Metamorphosis by Kafka. One day Edward Watson awoke to find that he had been transformed into a giant insect.... It's at ROH2 all this week.

The Metamorphosis is the book of the moment. I've been in Paris for a couple of days to do an interview and while there I also met up for tea and tarte aux framboises on the Place des Vosges with Mikhail Rudy (he of The Pianist and the animated Kandinsky Pictures at an Exhibition). His next collaborative project, due for premiere in Paris in March 2012, is based on...yes, The Metamorphosis, and will involve film projections by the Quay Brothers to a selection of Janacek piano music. Meanwhile he's bringing Pictures to the UK in November - performances in Southampton (17 Nov) and at the Wimbledon Festival (19 Nov). Well worth the train ride, imho.

Meanwhile, my interviewee - an intergalactic opera star - talked to me for two hours, then sent me home with a red nose. That is a first. I hasten to add that it's made of foam. It is now perching on my desk lamp, smiling at me (in a manner of speaking), while I think of his unforgettable performance as Werther earlier this year.