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Louis Sclavis - Dans La Nuit

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Artist: Louis Sclavis

Album: Dans La Nuit

Label: ECM

Review date: Jun. 25, 2002

The intersection between film and contemporary music is one that has been mined with good results. Bill Frisell’s music for the films of Buster Keaton, John Zorn’s Filmworks series and the recently re-released Art Ensemble of Chicago soundtrack for Les Stances a Sophie all mark interesting directions taken by the musicians and also tend to awake new interest in films that had previously been ignored. For the restored version of Charles Vanel’s 1930 silent film Dans La Nuit, Bertrand Tavernier commissioned a new score by composer and clarinetist Louis Sclavis. The two had worked previously on Tavernier’s Ca commence aujourd’hui, and Tavernier wanted a new score for this film in hopes that it would bridge the gap between the era of the film and the contemporary French art scene.

Dans La Nuit, one of the last French silent movies, was directed by Charles Vanel, who also plays the male lead. Vanel plays a quarry worker who, after sustaining an injury during a rock blast, has to wear a protective face mask. The inevitable follows, and his wife (played by Sandra Milovanoff) takes a lover while her husband is laboring in the mines. Vanel’s acting career continued for nearly sixty years and he would appear in over 200 films, among them works by Jacques Feyder, Luis Bunuel, Henri-George Clouzot and a role as the detective shadowing Cary Grant’s character in Hitchock’s To Catch a Thief.

One of the successes of Sclavis’ soundtrack is the way it seems at once both historical and fresh. Sclavis, who began as a classical clarinetist and was introduced to jazz first through Sidney Bichet and then through American avant-garde expatriates including the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, made the mixture of historical realism and artistic creation a main goal in the project. The composer says “I did not want to banish this work of cinema to its own period...but to try, in composing today for a film of yesterday, to bring it to life in a different way, to imagine bridging connections, to use the time between its creation and the present as an echo-chamber and to take advantage of the distortions produced.” In addition to the composed pieces, which had to be rigorously written and timed to match the action of the film down to the second, there are also several tracks on the album that were improvised in real time while the players watched the cinema unfold.

Some of the pieces are decidedly period pieces, like the sing-songy theme for the movie, which alternates between a fanciful descending melody and a bouncy waltz featuring Jean Louis Matinier’s accordion prominently. The incidental music offers a darker, more impressionistic approach, with quiet lyrical passages slowly building in intensity, signaling growing intrigue and, one imagines, infidelity.

For his fifth outing on the ECM label, Sclavis has assembled a group featuring some of France’s leading players. Drummer Francois Merville and cellist Vincent Courtois are both members of his touring band. Violinist Dominque Pifarely has worked with Sclavis in a variety of settings, including the Louis Sclavis-Dominique Piflarely Acoustic Quartet. Accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier is considered one of the top virtuosos on his instrument and has worked with Willem Breuker, David Friedman, Gianluigi Trovesi and is to be featured on a soon-to-be-released ECM album with Anouar Brahem.

By Bruce Wallace

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