Blade Runner 2049, Eminem Esque, Kenneth MacMillan’s music

What we’re reading

One of the more intriguing sagas to unfold in the music world in the last few weeks has been the court case involving the New Zealand National Party and Eminem’s publisher, Eight Mile Style.

In the 2014 NZ election, the NZ NP used a piece of production music  called Eminem Esque, a blatant rip-off of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, for one of their ads. Production music is pre-cleared ‘shelf’ music that is normally licensed through AMCOS in ANZ and is widely used in film, TV and advertising. The assumption is that all production music is original. The thought that an end-user could ever be litigated against for breach of copyright has always seemed implausible. But the NZ High Court found the National Party to be in breach and awarded damages to Eight Mile Style of NZ $600,000, plus interest, back-dated to 2014.

This judgement creates new complexities for AMCOS and production music libraries alike. Since it was passed, I’ve asked to view the AMCOS production music licence agreement. I have to say it’s pretty scant on the issue of user indemnity and gives no warranty that the music is original. This must be addressed.

Read this great piece in the NZ Herald about the verdict. And check out this hilarious take on the whole thing by John Oliver …

What we’re viewing

I was initially reluctant to see  Bladerunner 2049, knowing that the running time was close to 2.5 hours!

But I was persuaded to endure its full duration after stumbling across a brilliant Soundworks Collection video profile of the sound and music team behind the film. It features supervising sound editor Mark Mangini; sound designer Theo Green; re-recording mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett; picture editor Joe Walker; and composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.

It’s a real delight to listen to these guys talk about both their work on the film and the integration of music and sound. Watch it here …

OK the film itself … Well, it’s best described as a  visual and aural assault. It’s way too long, but it displays impressive filmmaking.

On a lighter note, I just can’t get enough of John Oliver. Check-out his pitch-perfect skewering of Australia’s SSM postal vote. Funniest line of the year:  ‘it’s the weirdest waste of Australian money since every Baz Luhrmann movie ever made.’

What we’re listening to

Meanwhile, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden … a short season in honour of Sir Kenneth MacMillan has just wrapped up (18-27 Oct/1 Nov). He was the Royal Ballet’s second artistic director and resident choreographer and he died of a heart attack 25 years ago in the Opera House during a revival of his ballet Mayerling. This season was called Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration and it brought together all 5 of Britain’s major dance companies to give one-act ballets in a series of mixed programs. The season showcased not only the breadth of MacMillan’s work but also the brilliance and accomplishment of the nation’s dancers. Most of the ballets are rarely performed today, so it was a season of historic value for ballet fans — and for lovers of fine music.

The featured composers were Shostakovich (Piano Concerto no 2 in F major, op 102); Stravinsky (La Baiser de la Fée); rags by Scott Joplin, Paul Pratt, James Scott, Joseph F Lamb, Max Morath, Donald Ashwander and Robert Hampton; Elias (The Judas Tree); Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde); Poulenc (Gloria); Debussy (Jeux); and pieces by Webern and Martinu. Many people associate ballet music with (a) Tchaikovsky and (b) second-rate melodic rubbish. MacMillan’s selections show the degree to which serious music can illuminate human experience when re-interpreted by a master choreographer.

The works I saw were The Judas Tree and The Song of the Earth.

MacMillan commissioned The Judas Tree from Brian Elias and choreographed the steps in response to the finished score. Elias used a number of unconventional percussion instruments (including steel pans, gongs, a cowbell) that could not be reproduced with a synthesiser, so for rehearsal purposes the Friends of Covent Garden raised £14,000 to pay for an orchestral tape recording. The ballet is set on a construction site and the soundscape echoes with sounds that are percussive, metallic and mechanistic. There is a tautness in the rhythms that suggests pent-up energy seeking release — the climax of the ballet is, controversially, a gang-rape. The music describes the mood of the work more than giving the dancers an accompaniment to the steps. At the end, the woman returns to the stage as an ambiguous symbol of hope and a shimmer of violins fades into silence.

MacMillan first heard Mahler’s Song of the Earth in 1958  and he promptly proposed it to the board of the Royal Ballet as the score of his next work. Two board members vetoed the suggestion on the grounds that Mahler was too serious for classical ballet — a revealing instance of upper class philistine snobbery. He proposed it again in 1964; and when it was again refused, he offered it to his friend, John Cranko, who was director of Stuttgart Ballet. It was there that MacMillan created this spare, understated masterpiece in which there is ‘A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.’

Mahler composed the work in circumstances of great sadness. He had been diagnosed with a fatal heart defect, but — worse — his eldest daughter Maria had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria. While he was grieving he read a collection of Oriental poems by Hans Bethge called Die chiniesische Flote. A musical idea began to form and he set 6 of the poems into a  song symphony he called Die Lied von der Erde, sung by a contralto and tenor.

Mahler’s music is marked by restrained but intense emotion and MacMillan reflects this tension in choreography that is symmetrical, formal but fluid. Within the constraints of formal ballet lines there is a yearning for transcendence. The singers are on stage with the dancers and the expressive power of their voices adds to a sense of artistic creation being a means to conquer death. Mahler added the final words of the work, sung by the contralto: ‘The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green again.’ The man, the woman and death take slow unfolding steps forward and the curtain falls to a soft haze of harp and celesta.

Listen to Die Lied von der Erde here.

Watch a discussion of Song of the Earth  with Tamara Rojo (artistic director of the English National Ballet) and Deborah MacMillan (Kenneth MacMillan’s widow) here.

Strange Loops is a blog that celebrates the mysterious power of words, music, dance and the moving image. Each month or so we present a roundup of the best of what we're reading, what we're viewing and what we're listening to right now.