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Craig Armstrong and AGF - Orlando

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Artist: Craig Armstrong and AGF

Album: Orlando

Label: AGF Producktion

Review date: Jun. 15, 2011

Craig Armstrong is a Scottish modern composer who’s won BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards for his work on Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge and a Grammy for his work on Ray. Armstrong has an interesting pedigree, which makes his pairing with AGF (Antye Greie) slightly intriguing. AGF is an electronic artist who has worked with Ellen Allien and Vadislav Delay, among others. Obviously, their backgrounds aren’t incompatible, but on its face, it certainly piques one’s interest. As buddy cop films have taught us though, odd dynamics often lead to interesting results. Unless, of course, the pairing is Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis.

Orlando is their score for Cryptic Theater’s staging of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. While I have never read it (leaping over the modernists straight to the really weird stuff), it does sit collecting dust on my bookshelf, thanks mostly to it having something to do with Harry Mathews’ Tlooth. Both deal with themes of gender confusion/identity, and in a book buying orgy (which after 10 years of hedonistic bliss has left me with a reading list that will long survive my demise), I half.com-ed anything having to do with Mathews work.

The little I know is that Orlando is long-lived and can switch genders and, like the main characters in the mass of 20th century modernist and post-modernist fiction navel-gazingly obsessed with itself, is an author. This little bit of information is OK, though. The score to a film or play, if it is going to become a commercial object available to people outside of the initial viewing audience – especially in this case, as Cryptic is a Scottish theater and most of the people this is being marketed to will not have seen the play – it needs to stand on its own.

Dan Harmon, creator and showrunner for Community discussed this recently in his long interview in The Onion’s A.V. Club. He wants his show to be modular. If you happen to be a longtime fan, any particular episode should be richer for having been built on something from an earlier episode, but if you’re not, that shouldn’t impede your enjoyment. The dichotomy isn’t "understandable vs. inaccessible," but "enjoyable vs. an enjoyable in a deeper way." In this case, that richer experience is the way the score and the art feed off each other. A score influences us emotionally when we watch a film or play, and then afterward, it acts as a mnemonic device for recalling that emotion. If it’s to be enjoyable on its own though, it must self-generate an emotion or idea.

What’s interesting and great about Orlando‘s score is that Armstrong and AGF are able to do this, not simply by creating a pleasing album, but by creating an album that has a narrative force of its own, separate from the play or the book. The album uses only field recordings, cello, voice and digital manipulation, so it’s a rather sparse affair. Soothing modern composition dynamically wedded to noisier processed sounds. AGF’s lone voice often taking the focus, often times heavily processed. She, as Orlando, sometimes proclaiming she’s alone, the delay multiplying the voice and undercutting the sentiment. This kind of repetition and layering repeats throughout the album, standing out all the more for the sparse feel of the whole.

It’s pleasing enough musically, but the narrative force that Armstrong and AGF have built the score around is what gives Orlando its strength. It begins with the sounds of writing – Woolf’s writing, Orlando’s writing, director Cathie Boyd’s writing, AGF’s writing – and the album ends with the sound of computer keys clacking. In between, there is a sense of movement that takes the listener from point A to point B – giving the score the feeling of a journey. Most albums, and certainly most soundtracks, don’t have this feeling, so it’s surprising and exciting when one does build in this kind of narrative, this movement. Lone talking gives way to crowds gives way to quieter, instrumental songs. There is sleep. It is dynamic and dramatic, like Mamet’s famous letter to his The Unit writing staff: “Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.” Orlando‘s score has that feeling, which gives it a purpose outside of the staging. It’s not just an assemblage of songs; it has a dramatic life of its own.

By Andrew Beckerman

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