Friday, March 30, 2018

Battle on the Ice

In the sections on landscape and music in my book Frozen Air,  I wrote about the difficulty of translating the physical forms of cliffs into music.  However, in Alexander Nevsky (1938), Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev did try to do just this, as can be seen in this extract from a diagram in Eisenstein's Film Sense (1948).  The full fold-out page showed the 'dawn of anxious waiting' sequence preceding the famous battle on the ice, with stills from the film, musical notation, diagrams of the film's visuals and a representation in lines of the way sound and image move forward. In this frame, the cliff shape is mirrored by the score's descending arpeggio of G#.  I have embedded a clip of this sequence from the rather crackly original film above so you can see how this worked.  In the version of the film re-released in 1995 with a newly recorded score, this descending 'cliff' phrase is less obvious and actually comes in the subsequent shot.

Does this sonic correspondence really help us imagine the steepness of the cliff?  The idea was criticised by Hanns Eisler and Theodor AdornoAs Peter Vergo writes in his book The Music of Painting (2010), they 'justifiably derided the idea that it is possible to depict a cliff musically'.  Eisenstein's diagram shows a congruence between cliff form and the visual appearance of a score, but what we actually hear when listening to music does not necessarily correspond to the way musical notation appears on the page. 

I have been trying to recall when I saw Alexander Nevsky with a live orchestra - at the Royal Festival Hall sometime in the nineties I think?  I may just be misremembering watching the re-released version of the film when it arrived in London.  Watching this scene now I am struck by those beautiful Sugimoto-style shots of the ice field.  The first of these, which comes after some close-ups of the soldiers, can also be seen in the Film Sense diagram, matched to a flat musical vista.  Some notes for the Criterion Collection release of the film describe how the visual effects for the Battle of the Ice were achieved.
'Nevsky’s extraordinary set piece was filmed first—during a blazing hot summer—in the countryside outside Moscow. Cinematographer Eduard Tissé used a filter to suggest winter light; trees were painted light blue and dusted with chalk; an artificial horizon was created out of sand. The ice itself was a mixture of asphalt and melted glass. In a remarkable engineering feat, sheets of this fake ice were supported by floating pontoons to be deflated on cue so that it would shatter under the weight of the Teutonic knights according to pre-cut patterns.'
I'll conclude here with another YouTube clip, this time just Prokofiev's music and score, from a 1966 recording by the USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra.

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