REVIEW: Metropolis, with live score by Andy Sheppard at the Bristol Jazz Festival

Metropolis at Colston Hall
Photo credit: Louise Roberts



Metropolis, with live score by Andy Sheppard
(Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. Colston Hall; 16 March 2017. Review by Jon Turney)

Equal billing here for a landmark film, rarely seen properly on the big screen but now available in a form something like its maker intended, and a new live score from Andy Sheppard, conducting an 11-piece band and joining them on tenor and soprano saxes.

Both are monumental efforts. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film is a monochrome marvel of expressionist cinematography whose mythic images hang over every urban-industrial dystopia conceived since. Sheppard’s music has to sustain interest over an hour and forty minutes, and do the film score’s work of highlighting the qualities of the screen action without overwhelming it.

Metropolis is fast-moving and almost cartoonishly melodramatic, so overwhelming it isn’t too much of a risk. And this was a louder and brassier Andy Sheppard than we are used to, (though all those years in Carla Bley Big Bands mean it wasn’t a complete surprise). There were tender moments, mainly featuring his own saxophone, too, and plenty of atmospherics from Eivind Aarset’s guitar. But much of the meat of the score was in punchy brass riffs, beautifully executed by a crack Bristol team of four trumpets and four trombones, with Justin Pavey’s bass trombone giving real density, underpinned by Michele Rabbia’s near martial drum beats.

With musicians playing on stage in front of a high screen, this would have been an absorbing free-standing jazz concert. But the power of the film, augmented by the sounds, always drew you back in. The pacing and playing of the often complex score in synchrony with the action were spot on, and some small sound effects helped bind aural and visual experience together.

Metropolis has suffered from huge cuts made before US distribution, the much longer original also being suppressed in Germany. Gradual restorations from archive discoveries have been an aid to comprehension, though most believe it probably never quite made sense. The narrative is confused and confusing. It is the look of the thing that matters now, really. The best thing is just to go with it, and marvel at the enduring power of Lang’s vision: of troglodyte machine-minders, elite hedonists in soaring, skyway-connected towers - blink and you see the model for modern-day Dubai - and a marvellous mad scientist building a humanoid robot for, well, reasons that aren’t entirely clear. This music offset all these images superbly. The exaggerated gestures of the silent screen combined seamlessly with the clearly drawn contours of the score to make the title cards almost redundant.

It was bold programming to open this year’s Bristol Festival with this weighty premiere, but the mingling of film and jazz buffs produced a large and appreciative audience in Colston Hall. The artistic payoff means that, for those who heard what may remain a one-off performance, the crazed inventor Rotwang, robot Maria’s dance of death, and the soulfully malevolent city controller all now live more vividly in Andy Sheppard’s sound world. There have been a good many musical efforts to substitute for the original orchestral score for Metropolis*. I doubt if any of the others succeeded as well. This was a real achievement, in my book: Sheppard began with a masterpiece - and improved it.

Andy Sheppard - Sax
Eivind Aarset Guitar
Michele Rabbia Percussion

Jonny Bruce, Andy Hague, Nick Malcolm, Gary Alesbrook, trumpets
Ian Bateman, Jon Hopes, Liam Treasure  Justin Pavey,trombones

*There’s a showing of Metropolis in London at the Science Museum in April, with another new live score from the “postindustrial electronic duo” Factory Floor. 

 Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival continues until Sunday 19th. Full programme  

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