Varga’s Score Captures the Silly Seriousness of 1924

In 1966, history professors in the U.S. spoke carefully worded provisos regarding Soviet Russia’s promise that it would be able to penetrate the leadership of America without firing a single shot.

The recent resurrection of a 1924 silent Soviet propaganda film, with a new score by composer Judit Varga, made its Hungarian debut on Jan. 12 at MÜPA. The occasion was a delightful combination of lively arts and a fascinating vehicle of political perspective. Directed by Lev Kuleshov, the film’s lighthearted theme obfuscating substantially deeper motives was curiously tangential to the recent American election’s mysterious and controversial ties to Vladimir Putin.

“The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks,” a typical silent-era film example for both its technical aspects and its pure unmitigated (and downright silly) melodrama, was created to explode the myth of Bolsheviks being akin to savage beasts. And the character of Mr. West (a patently obvious choice of surname), to represent an American and his adventures in Stalin country, appeared to be a hapless innocent abroad who is easily duped, flattered, and ultimately kidnapped in order to extort his American dollars.

The film was accompanied live by the nine-member Ensemble Phace from Vienna, conducted by Leonhard Garms. Varga was commissioned for this project in 2016 by the Vienna Konzerthaus with additional support from the Austrian Cultural Forum. After its premiere in Vienna in March it became one of the 20 events in Budapest’s Transparent Sound Festival of New Music (Jan. 6-15). Another performance is scheduled for June 7 in Brücken, Germany.

Varga’s score was a patchwork quilt of original music, sound effects (like live pouring of water, and scraping bowls with spoons for the eating scenes), quotes from a wide range of Americana (e.g., the old SONY quad-speaker sound test, and several funny permutations of the “Star Spangled Banner”), symphonies by Beethoven (distorted, and seemingly played in reverse at times), all of which helped describe action, personalities, and moods. It was scored for percussion, saxophone, violin, piano, trumpet, viola, cello, accordion, and long stretches of pre-recorded sounds.

She created a sound portrait which in many ways outshined the film itself, but most importantly, captured its essential silliness. So much of the characters’ eyeball rolling, faux-seduction, nefarious thought processes, chase scenes, and obligatory fisticuffs at every opportunity were dramatically painted. My only reservation was that the high amplification level served to overwhelm us a bit more than was necessary, because it stole the charm from some of the lighter moments and allowed the film to be less than an equal partner to the score.

One delightful aspect of this evening was the impromptu prologue: Balázs Horváth and Samu Gryllus, the two organizers the festival, spoke to the audience about the techniques employed for “[film’s] relationship between sound and image,” via three methods. With physical demonstration and audience interaction, we learned how to a) accompany footsteps in the actual tempo, b) provide an atmosphere for the action, or c) “mickey-mousing” i.e., following every action with a sound effect. All this prepared us for watching and listening with a sharper understanding of the task Varga faced.

Speaking to me after the performance, Varga admitted that after watching the film for the first time before starting to compose, “I felt that it [was going to be] impossible. I fell asleep after ten minutes.” In essence, her score made this film — which is so full of cliché within a story which was clearly meant to manipulate unsuspecting Yankees — watchable for us in 2017. In one of the last frames we could read a hand-written note from the Bolsheviks to Mr. West: “Burn those New York magazines, and hang up a portrait of Lenin in your study!”

It will be interesting to see how prophetic this film actually might be.

Photo © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

About Alexandra Ivanoff

Alexandra Ivanoff is a contributor to Artsrevieweurope.com as an arts journalist and to Bachtrack.com as a music critic. A recipient of two degrees in music, she also teaches singing and English pronunciation for singers and actors.
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