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.

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