Barber’s Score Intensifies Exoticism of Silent Arthouse Movie Salomé

29/10/2011

Charlie Barber, Salomé: Nick Baron, Luke Wyeth, Alun Hatthaway, Dave Danford (percussion); Rhiannon Llewellyn, Gareth Treseder, Kelvin Thomas, Sianed Jones (singers); Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, 28.10.2010. (RJ)

Charles Bryant’s 1923 silent film Salomé is one of the first ‘arthouse’ films to emerge from the USA. It was produced by and stars the flamboyant Russian actress Alla Nazimova whose stated aim was to raise the artistic level of American film. Based on Oscar Wilde’s play and inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations, it is a highly stylised piece of cinema, but its extreme eroticism proved far too controversial for audiences of the time and it flopped.

Fortunately it has not vanished without trace like so many works of that era, but has been preserved as an American classic. Recently it has attracted the attention of composer Charlie Barber who has a reputation for innovative productions, having explored African ritual and magic in Afrodisiac and composed music for Jean Cocteau’s silent film Blood of a Poet.

Mr Barber was sufficiently intrigued by Bryant’s Salomé to compose a film score for it in a bid to breathe new life into the film. Interestingly, rather than writing a piano, theatre organ or full orchestral score, he has opted for percussion and voice – the musical forces which would have been available in the Middle East of two millennia ago when the story unfolded at Herod’s court.

Much of the music in the score is inspired by the fixed rhythmic patterns found in early Arab music. Traditional Western percussion instruments (drums, tambourines, castanets, cymbals, etc) are supplemented by the sistra (which originated in Ancient Egypt), the djembe (a traditional African drum) and Tibetan singing bowls. There is no melodic line as such, but chants in Hebrew and Latin intervene at crucial points to heighten the sense of mystery and drama. Four percussionists were positioned on two levels on both sides of the screen and changes in lighting reflected the moods of the film.

The film itself is melodramatic and slow-moving with lengthy close-ups. Mitchell Lewis plays the lascivious Herod who lusts after his step-daughter Salomé while sitting next to his wife Herodias at table; Rose Dione as Herodias comes over as a demented and cruel creature; while an emaciated Nigel De Brulier takes the role of the wild-looking (and doomed) John the Baptist (Jokanaan). But the laurels go to the skimpily dressed Alla Nazinova whose screen presence overwhelms with her provocative poses, pouting lips and exotic dancing.

To modern film-goers the action may seem slow, dated and exceedingly camp; but compare it to other media, such as ballet, where the plot can also take ages to unravel. If you conceive Salomé in these terms, as a work which has been choreographed rather than directed, it starts to make sense. Indeed, given the quality of Charlie Barber’s score, I would hope that ballet companies will be encouraged to use it for their own versions of the Salomé story.

Although Alla Nazinova may not have succeeded in creating an arthouse cinema movement in the USA, this film is a brave attempt to cast off in new directions drawing on influences from European cinema of that era. One hopes that thanks to Charlie Barber’s atmospheric score, Saloméwill win new friends both in the theatre and the concert hall who will be thrilled (or scandalised) by Nazinova’s over-the-top performance and Natacha Rambova’s splendid costumes and sets.

Roger Jones   

Salomé will tour England, Wales and Ireland next year and a CD (though no DVD) is available. Details: www.soundaffairs.co.uk

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