Riffing on Music from Films and Cowboys

United StatesUnited States Ian Dicke, Nicole Lizeé: Kathleen Supové (piano, typewriter), Ian Dicke (piano, electronics), The Cell, New York City, 23.4.2017. (KG)

Ian DickeCowboy Rounds
Nicole LizeéHitchcock Études, Kubrick Études

At a cozy spot called The Cell, Tribeca New Music offered a matinee of piano and electronics, delivering processed and reworked American folk songs, suspense movie scenes and soundtracks, with varying results.

The film works were performed by the sensitive and insightful interpreter, pianist Kathleen Supové. (Her 2016 album The Debussy Effect is well worth seeking out.)  Supové will rise to any challenge, and on this occasion the challenge was a pair of  filmed supercuts with new scoring, based on the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.

The film excerpts, original soundtrack alterations, and piano scoring were all by the Canadian composer Nicole Lizeé, who has been named as one of Kronos Quartet’s “Fifty for the Future.” Lizeé is fascinated with source materials from just before she was born, having on other occasions repurposed 1960s psychedelia and modernism. In the two sets of études, Lizeé created abstract montages from recognizable foundations: Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds, and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

Lizeé used the opening score and credit sequence from Psycho to begin her Hitchcock suite, looping the stylized credit sequence in uneven circles, building the anticipation for seeing Janet Leigh driving through the rainy night. At points in the 20-minute suite, she dropped herself into scenes, sitting next to Tippi Hedren at a piano bench, then on a park bench – choosing not to smoke with her but mimicking her motions.

It was surprising how instantly recognizable Bernard Hermann’s music for Psycho was, even through filters that made it sound like it was being played on a 1980s Casiotone keyboard. (Interestingly, Hitchcock opted to make The Birds without a musical score, so Lizeé was on her own for that one.) From a drowsy, driving Leigh, Lizeé cut to claustrophobic repetitions of Hedren at the piano in The Birds. Supove’s piano – playing repeating lines that bounced off the electronic score – grew louder in the mix, overpowering the original (altered) score. Bits of Norman Bates’ dialogue provided some found sounds for the piano to mimic, not in the manner of Steve Reich (à la Different Trains), but like her fellow Canadian René Lussier – or the British electronica duo Propellerheads.

The composer didn’t shy away from iconic imagery but used freeze frames and black screens to punctuate the slower scenes, repeating them over and over with heavy piano clusters growing increasingly dense. Leigh’s shower scream was looped on top of itself again and again until it began to sound like some sort of Satanic mass while the piano oddly got more lyrical at the end.

The Kubrick Études opened with the young Danny and the iconic twin girls from The Shining as Supové played a nice accompaniment built from the girls repeating “play with us,” but that didn’t last long. The boy’s resultant terror was magnified by a rubbery bass line built from the original score, and heavy piano chords responded to the sound of his scooter moving faster and faster across the carpets and wooden floor of the hotel. Then came a quick cut to A Clockwork Orange, and a drunkard singing in a drainpipe, broken phrases for which Supové provided broken accompaniment. In these études, Lizeé had plenty to work with, from variations on Alex’s vicious interpretation of “Singing in the Rain” to his love of Beethoven, the staccato of the typewriter scene in The Shining, and a lament for the death of Hal, the computer in 2001. A dirge on the “Redrum” scene from The Shining was the strongest of either set, and Lizeé’s music was more integrated with the film here than in the Hitchcock portion, with bright piano lines and more interesting melodies. (Weird flashbacks to Norman Bates’ mother during the Kubrick set, meanwhile, must have been some strange technological mishap.)

It’s hard to say how well the music (and altered soundtrack) would stand on its own, but then, it wasn’t meant to. It was also difficult not to see the whole as disjointed when switching from one movie to another. Lizeé is obviously aware of that dynamic, though, and presumably anticipates such distractions.

The Lizeé pieces were preceded by Ian Dicke playing his own Cowboy Rounds. Using selections from over 600 recordings made in 1939 in Texas, Florida and the Carolinas, Dicke built a blurry suite in six parts. He called it a “remix,” and appropriately, sported a pair of oversize headphones with one ear exposed like a club DJ. He played the selections off a tablet, looping parts and glitching them in real time. Then, with a fair bit of reverb and delay on the piano, he began singing the songs himself.

He juggled these tasks without a hitch – singing, playing, live mixing – even if his talents weren’t equal for each. His mixing of the old songs didn’t do much to give them new life, and his own singing voice had a soft theatricality; he was better at staying on pitch than relaying story or emotion. The most interesting aspect was Dicke’s treatment and processing of the piano, where he built soft, percussive repetitions, as well as fluid, integrated loops and a strong sense of dimensional space. One wonders how his song cycle might fare with a more compelling cowboy to sing them.

Kurt Gottschalk

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