P R E S S R E L E A S E S 2003
February 7, 2003
Phillip Johnston Performs Live Score to Murnau's Silent Faust at MASS MoCA
(North Adams, Mass.) Phillip Johnston will play his original score to accompany F.W. Murnau's classic German Expressionist silent film, Faust, at MASS MoCA on Friday, February 7, at 8 P.M. Faust was Murnau's last film made in Germany before he emigrated to the United States, and many consider it to be his best. The film was ahead of its time for special effects, and used a painterly tableau to tell its story. The antagonist's giant form looming over Faust's city was the inspiration for the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Walt Disney's Fantasia. The themes of fate, vanity, free will, and self-sacrifice are as relevant today as ever. According to The New York Times, "Johnston's resourceful music engages in a genuine conversation with the films, going back and forth between their time and ours - who they were and what we make of them." The Berkshire Eagle called him "one of the most innovative and creative forces in music of the last 20 years."
"In each of my silent film scores I have tried to create a contemporary score in my own style that forms a bridge across time," according to Johnston, explaining that what interests him in scoring silent films "is the opportunity to time travel. In a medium which is essentially poetic, that is to say thought and feeling are conveyed through image and gesture (and the occasional title card), the role of music is heightened in its ability to shape and interpret the actions on screen. Unlike a contemporary film, in which the music is inevitably shackled to reinforcing information already being shown," Johnston continues, "the contemporary silent film score is free to dance around the film... adding a new layer."
The film begins with a wager between the prince of peace and the prince of darkness that focuses on Faust, an alchemist and scholar. Mephisto, the prince of darkness, covers the city with a plague that Faust can't cure. In his frustration, Faust hurls his books into the fire and calls upon the assistance of the prince of darkness. Mephisto proceeds to grant Faust's every wish and whim, for a price. When Faust falls in love with Margaret, Murnau turns a simple love story into a tragedy that encompasses a merciless winter storm and a burning at the stake.
Johnston's score for the film was commissioned by the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the New York Film Festival and includes two exciting new elements. A first for a silent film score, Lyrical elements by librettist Hilary Bell will be sung. The score will also include large sections of improvisation delicately interwoven with the written material and carefully scored to the film using synchronized stopwatches and visual cues. Johnston won critical acclaim for his use of improvisation in combination with written material when he introduced this ground-breaking technique in his score to Page of Madness.
Phillip Johnston is a composer and instrumentalist whose career has been guided by a search for work that is new, true, and different. He began his career in the early 1970s as a jazz saxophonist and composer in the New York scene. He led the Microscopic Septet which recorded the theme music for NPR's Fresh Air. Noted jazz critic Francis Davis called them "one of the best bands of the '80s" in his book, Jazz in the '80s. Johnston's original scores to silent films have premiered at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater and The American Museum of the Moving Image and subsequently toured the United States, Europe and Australia. He was last seen at MASS MoCA in 2000 with an original score for the film Unknown.
Johnston has also worked extensively in dance, theater, and opera. He won a Bessie for his music for Keely Garfield's Minor Repairs Necessary. His compositions have been performed by the Alaria Ensemble, the Meridian Arts Ensemble, SingleTree, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, The New England Conservatory Orchestra, the Walter Thompson Orchestra, and the New York Composers Orchestra.
Johnston will be joined on stage by Guy Klucevsek, Shelley Hirsch, and Tomas Ulrich, each an accomplished musician.
Accordion player and composer, Guy Klucevsek has received Bessies for his scores for David Dorfman Dance's Hey and Dan Hurlin's Everyday Uses for Sight: No. 7. He was awarded a Listen Up prize for Best Original Score of 1996. He has collaborated with Dan Froot, Mary Ellen Childs, Claire Porter, Victoria Marks, the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and Ping Chong & Co. Klucevsek premiered his work Squeeze Play at MASS MoCA in 1999.
Vocalist and performance artist Shelley Hirsch has been called "enormously inventive, scathingly satiric and virtuosic... a brilliant overwhelming presence on stage" by The New York Times. Her written and improvised works for stage, concert, record, film, television and radio have been presented on five continents.
Tomas Ulrich received music degrees from Boston University and the Manhattan School of Music. Jazz Now has characterized Ulrich as "the total package... incredible chops, great imagination and superb pitch. He fulfills the roles of bassist, guitarist and additional horn player and is endlessly talented and creative."
Librettist Hilary Bell is a recipient of the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award, Jill Blewitt Playwrights Award, the Bug'n'Bub Award and Eric Kocher Playwrights Award. Her libretti include the opera Mrs. Satan (composer Victoria Bond), excerpts of which were presented by the New York City Opera last May. A graduate of the Juilliard Playwrights Studio, Bell taught playwriting at Wesleyan University and currently teaches screenwriting at New York University.
Tickets for Faust are $12. Tickets are available through the MASS MoCA Box Office located on Marshall Street in North Adams from 11 A.M. until 5 P.M. every day but Tuesday. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 413.662.2111 during Box Office hours or online at www.massmoca.org at any time of day.
MASS MoCA, the largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States, is located off Marshall Street in North Adams on a 13-acre campus of renovated 19th-century factory buildings.
MASS MoCA 1040 MASS MoCA Way North Adams, MA 01247 413.MOCA.111 www.massmoca.org
For Immediate Release