for piano solo, 33 minutes
Instrumentation: piano solo
Seven short pieces originally written to accompany delightful early silent films by French film pioneer George Méliès. Premiered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 2006.
PDF: » excerpt
Playing Cards (excerpt)
Magic Book (excerpt)
Performers: Molly Orlando Palmiero, piano
In spring 2006, Vicki Toye at the National Gallery of Art asked me to collaborate with the Gallery in choosing a number of George Méliès short films for which I would provide musical accompaniment during the Gallery's Children's Film Series. This screening, entitled "Magical Méliès," was coordinated with a larger exhibition at the Gallery, Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, which ran in summer and early fall 2006. There would be four screenings of this suite of Méliès shorts - two in July, and two in August.
The particularly wonderful aspect of this project for me was that Vicki involved me in the film selection process, as well. And so, on a morning in May, we met at the Library of Congress' Film Division where three of us (another NGA staffer joined us) pulled prints from cans and screened dozens of the French film pioneer's short films. After several fascinating hours, we settled on 9 possible films: later, that number was reduced to 7 (Méliès most famous film, A Voyage to the Moon, was already to be programmed, and so we discovered and chose the other 6 films together by consultation).
Having chosen the films, I then consulted and advised on a good ordering in which to show the films. Each film (with the exception of Voyage to the Moon, 10 minutes) was quite short: 2-3 minutes was the normal length of each. However, it was comparatively natural, after watching and re-watching the films, to create an order which balanced what would be faster or slower musical "movements" (one movement per film) and emotional tione, as well. Voyage to the Moon, partly because of its length, but also because of its extravagant nature, was always envisioned as the finale.
The premiere of these pieces was given by pianist Molly Orlando in July 2006. Knowing that I would not be available for the first weekend of the screenings provided a wonderful opportunity (although, at the time, requiring much more work) to notate each piece fully. The additional benefit of this is that the suite may performed independently of the films as a concert work, which has subsequently been done.
--Andrew Earle Simpson
1. Living Playing Cards (1904, 3 min.) Méliès appears in all of these films as actor. In this short, he is presented to us as a magician, whose magic act is to convert large picture playing cards (a Queen and then a King) into live figures. The on-screen transformation from card to person is the main "trick" of this film.
2. Tit for Tat (1904, 2 min.) Méliès here displays matting, in which he removes his head (!), places it in a glass box, then blows cigarette smoke into the box, much to the head's discomfort (a replacement head appears on his own shoulders the moment he removes the first head, incidentally). This is the "tit" portion. The "tat" comes when the removed head floats up out of the box and lets loose a stream of water onto Méliès head and body.
3. The Magic Book (1900, 3 min.) As with the first film, figures in a large book come alive: commedia dell'arte characters frolic for a time around Méliès, presented here as an old wizard. Eventually, he is able to return each character to the book, at which point the book promptly falls over onto him.
The music for this film is a perpetual motion piece, much in the tradition of Russian 20th-century piano music.
4. The Spiritualist Photographer (1903, 3 min.) Again similar to the first film, Méliès uses, in both, the device of placing a flaming torch in front of the item (in this case, photograph paper spread like a screen over a large frame). Perhaps the distortion caused by the flame permits more credible visual effects.
The music, moderately slow in tempo, evokes an aura of mystery, with oblique allusions to Middle Eastern musical gestures.
5. The Ballet Master's Dream (1903, 4 min.) Méliès, as the ballet-master, falls asleep at the end of the day to dreams of dancing, both pleasant and unpleasant.
The music is a full-blown waltz, with a crystalline trio for the scene in which the dream shows a ballerina gracefully dancing in an icy cave, surrounded by sparkling stalactities and stalagmites.
6. The Magic Lantern (1903, 6 min.) A more extensive film, this features two commedia dell'arte characters assembling a magic lantern (which operates by placing cutouts in front of an opening in the box - light is provided by a candle inside the box), which projects images onto a wall or screen. After some projected images delight the characters, the lantern itself opens to reveal a panoply of things: dancing milkmaids, soldiers, and a large puppet figure reminiscent of a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade float.
The music responds to the episodic nature of the film's events by providing a ritornello (associated with the re-assembly of the lantern); this serves to hold the diverse mini-movements together. The end, in homage to the Mardi Gras image, is full New Orleans jazz.
7. Voyage to the Moon (1902, 10 min.) Undoubtedly Méliès' most famous film, this depicts the trip which several men take in a rocket ship to the moon. Interestingly, their return to earth took place exactly as real trips to the moon ended several decades later: by splashing down in the ocean. On the moon, the characters encounter strange and hostile moon-creatures who capture them and take them to their moon-leader. However, the men escape and manage to leave the moon just in time. One moon-creature who managed to hold on to the ship's tail is seen at the end as a captive in the explorers' triumphant parade upon their return home.
The music features an extended march, mechanistic sounds (for the shipyard in which the spaceship is being built), and chase music.