Sunday, October 07, 2018

Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals: Collaborating on a new musical score for Das alte Gesetz (from the Flicker Alley dvd sleevenotes)

Das alte Gesetz. The original Finnish handbill in both of our languages, Finnish and Swedish.

Our music for Das alte Gesetz (The Ancient Law) was written to evoke the sounds and spirit of the world the film inhabits, including the plangent and ecstatic melodies of the Jewish shtetl. For the scenes that unfold in the traditional Yiddish-speaking hometown of the protagonist, the rabbi’s son, we composed and improvised nigunim, or wordless Hasidic songs that are sung with religious fervor. Some, like the opening strains of the score, are meditative; others, as in the Purim holiday dance scenes, joyful and played at a gallop. Svigals interprets these melodies on the violin with unique instrumental effects that have been passed down from fiddler to fiddler for centuries and give klezmer playing its unmistakable flavor. These krekhtsn, as they are called, imitate the vocal stylings of the synagogue cantor and the Yiddish folksinger, punctuating musical phrases with sobbing and laughing sounds that lend the genre its high emotional affect.

When the rabbi’s son ventures out into the wider world and, ultimately, the great capital of Vienna, the sonic landscape shifts. The score pivots now to Viennese-style ballroom dances, and piano fantasies improvised by Sosin that draw on the art music aesthetic of the age of silent film, bending and turning to follow the motions of the indelible characters in the story. In addition to piano, Sosin uses digital samples of cello, clarinet, a string orchestra and a whole marching band to add instrumental color to the musical palette, including three pieces of music associated with Vienna — the Austria-Marsch Op. 20 and Liebeslieder Waltz, Op. 114, of Johann Strauss, Jr. who is portrayed in the film, and an excerpt of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4

This is the first collaboration for Svigals and Sosin. Both composer/musicians have classical training and are exceptional improvisers, which made for three days of unique recording sessions at Stone Studios in Lakeville, Connecticut. While all of Svigals’ work took place during that time, Sosin added the other instrumentation during the following week in his own studio, playing solo piano or filling in piano, accordion and string orchestra accompaniments to Svigals’ studio solos. Listening to the entire score, it is often difficult to hear how each section was created — whether a written tune of Svigals, an improvised tune by Sosin, or a true collaboration as they played to the film, finding new synergetic musical approaches to each scene.

Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals (2018)

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