Refreshing retro-film oddity

A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. PHOTO: ST FILE

A consummate film soundtrack does wonders: lending voice, delivering a sucker punch, grabbing you by the jugular.

Cineastes, for instance, always associate Psycho (1960) with the stabbing violins Bernard Herrmann introduces in that shower scene as Janet Leigh faces a horrific end.

How about the ominously effective two-note theme by John Williams that is synonymous with impending danger in Steven Spielberg's Jaws? But here is a catch: What if the film is a silent one? Or if one replaces an old soundtrack with a new one?

In 2000, London downtempo collective The Cinematic Orchestra performed its soundtrack to a screening of the 1929 Soviet silent classic, Man With A Movie Camera, in Porto, Portugal, and received a standing ovation.

Now, Chilean-American electronic whiz Nicolas Jaar has the chutzpah to create an alternative soundtrack for avant-garde Soviet gem, 1969's The Colour Of Pomegranates. The film is director Sergei Parajanov's poetic tribute to the Armenian lute-playing artist Sayat-Nova, known as King of Song.

  • ELECTRONICA/ AMBIENT
    POMEGRANATES
    Nicolas Jaar
    Other People
    4/5 stars

Jaar's task is forbidding considering the fact that the original music by acclaimed Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian is itself a work of art. It is an elegantly sparse mix of found sounds and reconfigured traditional folk motifs.

Sculpted from his own stock of unused material, Jaar's unsolicited contribution is a thing of abstract beauty too (download the album for free at bit.ly/1e45wwv). It does not ape Mansurian's template, but instead imbibes his elliptical spirit. It is strikingly modern, even urbane, but like Mansurian's, is equally sparse and evocative.

Eschewing the straightforward trajectory, the film is an exquisite tableaux of images and stylised choreography, including one showing blood-red juice spilling from cut pomegranates to form the ancient boundary of the Armenian kingdom. It is tempting to sync the songs to specific scenes, but imagination suffices. Jaar intuits and interprets and so should you.

A track called Survival is infused with people chattering and a dash of micro-beats riding on an indolent synth riff. Pass The Time, appropriately, moves languorously. A faraway voice barely audible, re-looped to eternity. Beasts Of This Earth is a delicate contraption of synths and keys clattering and singing. It is the circle of life and death, of Earth's munificent creatures. Everything sounds on the verge of collapse, but yet it works.

Divorce is night-time nocturne, a quiet mourning played out over minor-key piano chords. When death comes, it is heralded by the discordant Club Kapital, illuminated by shards of Krautrock and techno, before giving away to a heavenward choir of wordless chants in Volver and Spirit.

What goes around, comes around: It ends with Muse, a bluesy ballad, with Jaar dispensing with deejay knob-twiddlery and playing his heart out on the ivories. After all, one is born alone and dies alone.

It is a heartfelt ode to the passing of the 18th-century Armenian troubadour, and a strange, quizzical, retro-film oddity far ahead of its time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'Refreshing retro-film oddity'. Print Edition | Subscribe