The four concerts in the “Brahms and the Art of Film” week are the opportunity for the OSM to present four new creations: three works for orchestra, commissioned to three different composers – Blair Thomson, Zosha Di Castri and Régis Campo –, and a film created by the young filmmaker Mathias Arroyo-Bégin. The musicologist Gabriel Paquin-Buki conducted interviews with each of the creators.
Gabriel Paquin-Buki’s interview with the composer Blair Thompson, conducted in Montreal, January 16, 2019.
You had to choose between several NFB short films, and you chose Pas de deux, a 1968 movie by Norman McLaren. Why?
At first, I was really taken by the aesthetics of the film, by its shape. What interested me particularly as a composer was the frequency of changes and the way these changes happened, much like in a discussion. In other words: how did we get here from there, that really intrigued me. Pas de deux is disarmingly simple but the actual sequence of moving images is very rich, and that inspired me. If one observes closely, one notices that it is the little changes that cause the action to move from point A to point B. We follow the thread from movement to movement, but what links all this together? In the film, it is McLaren’s approach, his aesthetic that creates that link, and in my piece, that translates as ostinato. Everything flows from this ostinato, a simple motif that evolves and even turns into a chaconne at midpoint. It stayed with me all along the writing process of this work.
The film is as beautiful as it is mysterious. I was attracted by something while watching it and I wanted to define what that something was. The bass clarinet was a perfect choice for my musical treatment: a beautiful and equally mysterious instrument!
In this project, the OSM wanted to explore the relationship between two art forms that are frequently in dialogue, but rarely require rewriting the music to a decades-old film. Describe your creative process.
I began by dividing the film into sections separated by “hit points” that represented different actions. For example, the dancer arrives; his partner starts to dance; she divides in two, etc. These different moments suggested to me different tempos. After that, I chose moments in the film that particularly moved me and which guided me in my composition. There is a moment, for example, where the dancer throws a highly seductive glance; she is flirting. At that point I wrote flirtatious music, marked grazioso. Once I had zeroed in on these strong moments in the film, my writing took shape and I was able to focus on the remainder of the work. While I composed, I had the film constantly in view next to me.
I decided to make special use of the OSM’s woodwinds, mainly because they render my orchestration lighter but also because the musicians in this section are colleagues of André Moisan, and I wished to have fun with them. And of course, the OSM woodwind section is awesome…!
Could you speak to the ties between your music and the moving images? Are there certain images invariably associated with certain sounds or timbres in your mind?
What is directly projected from the images to my music is their sequence, their pacing. In this film the speed of movements and the rapidity of changes inspired me not so much to create sounds or harmonies but to develop rhythms and tempos. It was shapes that interested me, as in sculpture, another art form that fascinates me. Conversely, when the female dancer begins to move in the film, what came to me immediately as a sound was woodwinds playing in their high register. It was then that I decided to incorporate that sound, in that way. Also, the female dancer’s movements were the inspiration for the ostinato. Everything about this film is circular. Everything in it evokes circles for me.
What techniques did you use for the synchronization between the orchestra and the film?
Kent Nagano will not be conducting this work with a click track, so he asked me to place a time code on the film and told me he would memorize the tempos and hit points. But he will have some room to maneuver. This is not as in cinema or a Mickey Mouse animated film, for instance, where the music is cued to each action. Even if the orchestra plays two seconds ahead or behind, it is of no great importance. It will be an impressionistic experience of sorts.
How does this premiere for the OSM align with other works in your catalogue?
I have some experience writing film music, but for entirely different sorts of projects. The link I see with my other work is this fascination for change, for the ways in which things are transformed. The connection between my works comes from this preoccupation with morphology, with shape.
In closing, is there anything you would like to add?
At the beginning of this process, André Moisan came to my home and we viewed the film together. At a certain point, André said to me: “Hey Blair, we are going to be the wings of a pas de deux!” and I replied, “Great, there’s my title!” I always need a title before I start composing, and Les ailes du pas de deux came to me that way, in my studio, with André Moisan.