Symphony orchestras around the world, presumably in order to mitigate financial pressures, have turned to Hollywood in the last few years, and Australia is hardly immune. At times it seems that one of our major orchestras is playing the score to another Harry Potter film every other week. There may have been an artistic case to make when the scores came from major film composers like Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, and John Williams – film composition is, after all, a natural extension of the Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk – but it is no accident that the major behemoths of popular culture, Disney and Marvel, are the most represented. There is something unseemly in the image of a great cultural institution scampering around the feet of the conglomerates, as it nibbles on the scraps that fall from their populist tables.
So it is a relief to see Melbourne Symphony Orchestra team up with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis in a concert of that pair’s singular compositions for film. Within the opening bars, the artistic integrity of the exercise is fully apparent. Cave and Ellis have had a long association, dating from the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Let Love In (1994). Ellis has been with The Bad Seeds ever since but also has his own highly acclaimed reputation as the violinist frontman for the instrumental band Dirty Three. It has been tempting for fans of both musicians to regard their film music as a sideline act, a mere footnote in their discography. After this collaboration at Hamer Hall, they may have to reconsider. The film music of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis seems integral to their entire output, a distillation of their individual artistic concerns.
Both performers have an electric stage presence – their onstage personas as recognisable, as idiosyncratic, as Mick Jagger’s or Ian Curtis’s – so it is initially bemusing to see them physically constrained by the logistics of the symphonic concert. Cave tends to extend and perch his long frame across the stage like a crane navigating a creek bed, while Ellis bows over his violin like a craggy-toothed fiddler from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Their contributions to the playing are almost conservative; a piano solo here, a violin aria there. With almost no virtuosic displays of musicianship from either artist, the implication is clear: the artists are in service to the music, and the music is in service to the film.
The concert opens, naturally, with The Proposition (2005), the pair’s début film score and in many ways the quintessence of their aesthetic. Spare, looping, and strangely fragile, it manages to feel both elegiac and ominous. With elongated phrasing, slow percussive accompaniment, and judicious spoken word, it almost seems anathema to the fullness of sound that comes with a symphony orchestra; and yet, under the inspired arrangements of Nicholas Buc, and Cave and Ellis’s subtly expansive contributions, the nuance and precision of the original sound are preserved and then deepened. The effect is of an ongoing longing and loss.
This sensation continues with West of Memphis (2013), a score that Cave and Ellis wrote for New Zealander Amy Berg’s documentary about a miscarriage of justice. Richly melodic but also wonderfully unresolved, it is some of the finest music of the night, accompanied by Maryse Alberti’s beautiful but disconcerting cinematography. The music – its most lyrical tendencies kept powerfully in reserve – evokes a great, slow-moving river shifting tons of silt under the calm surface of its water. The MSO rises superbly to the challenge of this deliberate and supple work, and the concert settles confidently into its groove.
The Road (2009), John Hillcoat’s adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, proved something of a mixed blessing for Cave and Ellis. It was a disappointing film in many ways, and the score remains one of their most conventional. While lush and melodic, it tends to follow the emotional arcs on screen instead of subverting or challenging them. Far better, and more indicative of their evolution as film composers, are the scores to Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017). A growing sophistication with choral work, and an almost uncanny ability to conjure the beauty and brutality of landscape, give these works a primal force, increasingly distinct from the images on screen.
This is where the concert, a co-production between the MSO and the Melbourne International Film Festival, really takes off. The final movement comes from Cave and Ellis’s work for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a film for which, presumably, they couldn’t get the rights. It’s the only movement without accompanying images, and yet nothing is lost. That deep connection to mythology and landscape; the awful tension and the slow, exquisite release; the pain and the sorrow: they are all there, as vital and evocative as any of the music that has come before. In some ways, the lack of imagery liberates the music from its original function.
Removed from the contexts of their films, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s scores stand as things of wonder in their own right. Some themes emerge: men with crippled interior lives recur, as do guns. Even here, meanings are ambiguous. ‘I’m gonna go out and get myself a gun … and blow your blues away’, is backed by the most plaintive and nakedly emotional phrases on Ellis’s violin. Even the bleakest and most hopeless of musical ideas is given a delicate and embracing counterpoint. The overall effect is of a grandly poetic and broken masculine romanticism, wrists at the ready. It’s a wonder that the MSO, superbly conducted by Benjamin Northey and with a welcome emphasis on more delicate instruments, such as the harp, the viola, and tubular bells, can convey such sublime and wretched emotional terrain. Perhaps the symphony orchestra’s relationship with film scores isn’t quite as commercial or desperate as it sometimes seems. Certainly, Cave and Ellis belong as much in the concert hall as on the rock stage. This stunning concert should seed a major reappraisal of their work.
The Film Scores of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was presented by the Melbourne Symphony in association with the Melbourne International Film Festival at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, from 8 to 10 August 2019. Performances attended: August 9 and 10.