Showing posts with label It's All About Piano. Show all posts
Showing posts with label It's All About Piano. 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.

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

Friday, March 22, 2013

Three easy ways to get into opera

La Voix Humaine from washmedia on Vimeo.

1. Combine exploring opera with your passion for the piano. If you're heading to the Institut Francais's big three-day keyboardfest, It's All About Piano - starting today and running through Sunday - catch the screening of Poulenc's one-woman opera La Voix Humaine, filmed with the one and only Felicity Lott - with piano accompaniment, in which version it's been recorded for the first time, delivered by the brilliant Graham Johnson. Sneak preview above. The screening is tonight at 8pm - and if you turn up at 6pm you can hear Nick van Bloss play the Goldberg Variations and a four-hands programme from Lidija and Sanja Bizjak at 7pm.

2. Pop over to CultureKicks for my latest post, which is called "How to get into opera in under six minutes". You'll find a quick guide to Rigoletto, a film of its astonishing quartet 'Bella figlia d'amore' and a short explanation of why it shows to perfection what opera can do that just cannot be done nearly so well in any other art form... (Lovely editor there then said "What about Wagner?" to which the response can only be: "Well, what about Wagner...?" Watch that space.)

3. Listen to Andris Nelsons conducting. I've just been in Birmingham doing some pre-concert talks for the CBSO's Beethoven Cycle, which he, their music director, is doing for the first time. Honest to goodness, guv, this guy is amazing. Not sure I've seen anything so purely energetic and with so much warmth since...well, who? Jansons? Solti? The atmosphere in Symphony Hall - which was sold out - really had to be experienced. Nelsons, who hails from Latvia, cut his musical teeth as an orchestral trumpeter and started off, as so many great maestri do, in the opera house, and he's married to the soprano Kristine Opolais, who's currently wowing ROH crowds in Tosca.

He conducted his first Ring Cycle at the age of 26 and is now a favourite at Bayreuth. Hear his Beethoven and you can tell why. The structures are clear, but the emotion is allowed to blaze: there's enough rhythmic strength to build a castle, but enough flexibility to let in the sunshine. The characters and personalities that shine out of each of Beethoven's symphonies are as distinct as those of any opera. Perhaps, in this conductor's hands, music is inherently operatic?

It was an absolute privilege to have introduced this extraordinary concert. Great turnout for the talks, too, especially for yesterday's matinee, where a door-count estimate suggested we had nearly 500. Thanks for your warm reception, dear friends, and I hope you all enjoyed hearing about the slow movement of Beethoven 7 through the narrative of Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement. 

Last but not least, it was a special treat to run into our old friend Norman Perryman, the musical "kinetic artist", whose beautiful paintings and portraits are part of the Symphony Hall visual brand. Here he is beside his magnificent picture suggested by Elgar, Gerontius, which hangs in the foyer at level 4. Glad to say he was in town to start work on a portrait of Nelsons.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading and talking

I've been talking to some interesting people recently...

The unbelievable Edward Watson, who is dancing the lead role in Mayerling at Covent Garden next month. The crazed Crown Prince Rudolf is, weirdly enough, the only ballet prince he's played, other than Albrecht in Giselle, who's not really that princely. A dancer with his levels of drama, flexibility and power would probably be wasted chasing after a swan. Catch him first in the equally incredible The Metamorphosis.

A composer called Nimrod - who, as it turned out, lived next door to me in West Hampstead 20 years ago, except that we never met. The Philharmonia played a work of Nimrod Borenstein's the other week with Ashkenazy conducting, and has commissioned a new piece from him for June at the RFH. He's also writing a violin concerto for Dimitry Sitkovetsky. He's a live wire who thinks big, and talked to me (for the JC) about finding his voice and what he's doing with it now that he has.

It's All About Piano! Francoise Clerc, the one-woman dynamo at the heart of the Institut Francais's classical music programming, has put together an absolute bonanza of a piano festival, which will take place over three days next weekend, 22-24 March. Star performers include Imogen Cooper, Nick van Bloss, Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva, Cyprien Katsaris and Anne Queffelec; there's a chance to hear some rising stars including a raft of the most gifted budding virtuosi from the Paris Conservatoire, a modern American programme from Ivan Ilic, jazz from Laurent de Wilde, talks by Steinway technicians, children's events and plenty more. When did London last have a piano festival like this? Um. Pass. This is for Classical Music Magazine and you'll need to be logged in to read the whole article.

Meanwhile, if you're in Birmingham on Wednesday evening or Thursday lunchtime, I'm doing pre-concert talks for the CBSO to introduce Beethoven's Symphonies Nos.6 and 7. Andris Nelsons conducts them both. Very privileged to be allowed to hold forth about my two favourite Beethovens, let alone to complement such an event: there's a major buzz about Nelsons' Beethoven cycle and Symphony Hall is apparently packed solid.

And next Sunday at 12.30pm I'm at The Rest is Noise to introduce a talk about Korngold in America and discuss the issues around him with the Open University's Ben Winters. In the Purcell Room, and part of the ongoing festival's American Weekend. (We're not in the current listings PDF as far as I can tell, so this may be a late addition!)