It’s impossible to forget Omitsu’s face, her unshakeably calm gaze. She is the central character in Japanese director Mikio Naruse ‘s relatively little-known 1933 silent film Yogoto No Yume (Nightly Dreams). The film, underscored and deepened by Nitin Sawnhey ‘s newly-composed music, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Krystian Jarvi, was screened in front of a very appreciative full house at the Barbican last night.
Yogoto No Yume has a simple story-line in which Omitsu take all the strain. She is obliged to work at the seedy bars near the port to support her son. She has a feckless husband who can’t get a job, and who at one point gets shot and wounded. Her son then gets badly injured in a car accident, and there’s still worse to come by the end. But the camera keeps coming back to that face, sympathizing with the plight of a resilient woman, observing her integrity and the power of her human spirit.
Sawhney explained in a post-concert Question and Answer session – which was attended by a very impressive two-thirds of the audience – that in creating a score for the film, he had tried above all to “find an inner voice for Omitsu.” This was mainly done through a recurrent theme representing her. The theme passes through various instruments, often accompanied by some great harp writing, strongly and evocatively played by LSO harpist Karen Vaughan. Omitsu was also portrayed through the presence onstage of singer Mieko Shimizu, vocalizing in a beautifully haunting, delicately phrased Japanese. She did also play soulful melodica, but her colourful, descriptive singing were an integral and an extremely effective, and affecting, part of Sawhney’s realisation.
This is Sawhney’s second score for a silent film in response to an LSO commission. The film selections for these have come from the BFI’s Tim Pearce. Sawhney also has a team working on the technology and the preparation of the click-track. Other onstage collaborators were sensitiveyet crisply precise drummer Martyn Kaine on djembes, flamenco drums and kit, and characterful ‘cellist Ian Burdge.
On being asked about the influence of Japanese music, Sawhney’s response in the Q & A was both telling and admirably clear. Above all, he underlined, “I’m not a Japanese composer.” Sawhney’s sprightly overture proved the point from the very first bars: the overture is a tip of the hat to film composer Bernard Hermann (North by Northwest?), thus locating the action in the filmic past, but intentionally drawing it away from Japan, opening up the viewer/listener’s mind to the film’s universal significance.
Like Herrmann, Sawhney works fast. The scoring was done in a month. His compositional language unashamedly draws on an immensely wide range of influences from flamenco to Indian classical, but on a project like a silent film score, much use is deliberately made of repetition. It’s inevitable: the music has to keep all the references alive, yet fit the action to the split-second.
The LSO, it emerged, had achieved this project with just one day’s rehearsal, all done acoustically, plus a sound check on the day. Impressive. I found the experience of seeing a full symphony orchestra on stage, yet hearing the same orchestra amplified, mixed and balanced through speakers slightly dislocating. But, on the evidence of the Q & A , I have to admit I must have in a minority of one on that point. Other questioners were, understandably, far more intent on getting their hands on a recording .
Yogoto No Yume is bound to be back. It’s a highly evocative film, well worth seeing. And Sawhney’s score for it works an absolute treat.
Nitin Sawhney’s next public appearance is talking about “A musician’s life in albums, performance, djing, film, composition, videogames, dance and theatre”
at the Turner Sims Concert Hall on March 16, 2010.
Yogoto No Yume was a commission from the Barbican Centre and the LSO with support from Arts Council England.