16 spatialized musicians and fixed medium

Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) was a landmark of early science fiction/fantasy cinema. Metropolis’s lavish production, featuring ultra-modern art deco styling, legions of extras, and special effects that were cutting-edge, made it one of the era’s most visually stunning films. And costing a whopping 7 million Reichsmark — approximately the equivalent of $200 million in today’s terms—it was also the most expensive picture that had ever been produced. Images of technology dominate the film, and are as significant as its narrative plot. But it is above all the Maschinenmensch (machine-human), Lang’s celebrated robot, which most vividly embodies the critique of technology in full expansion at that time.

The film is silent, lending itself naturally to musical accompaniment, and over the years a number of composers have written music for it. Martin Matalon’s score of 1995 is among the most brilliant and penetrating. Luis Buñuel, who has been called the founder of surrealist cinema, once declared that there are two Metropolises: on the one hand, the narrative story, and on the other, a “visual poem.” Matalon shared this view, observing that the rather traditional plot is like a romantic symphony (contrasting themes are exposed, the tension between them worked through and eventually resolved into a “C major chord”). More interesting for the composer was the visual aspect of the film, the rhythms of its montage, the play of light and shadow, the style of photography, and so on. As Pascal Ianco has observed, Matalon’s score seeks “to explore all the possible relations between music and image.” The composer’s approach varies from running parallel with the images to diverging completely from them (…).

Orchestration is also central to Matalon’s cinematic “dramaturgy.” To the extent that characters are treated to distinctive musical representations, it is through tone colour rather than more traditional leitmotivs. The fretless bass, for example, is often associated with Freder (the “Mediator” between the upper and lower worlds). The “pure” sound of the electric guitar is often associated with Maria (the champion of the workers’ cause), while her robotic doppelganger—the Maschinenmensch is eventually done up to look just like her—is cleverly associated with the distorted electric guitar.

Electronics contribute greatly to the sound world Matalon creates. The instruments are amplified, and loudspeakers are distributed around the hall, allowing for breathtaking spatial effects. Moreover, this arrangement allows for instrumental and electronic sounds to blend into one another to the point where they are indistinguishable, creating a disorienting effect that is often employed with considerable dramatic impact. The composer also often appeals to jazz, with saxophones, muted trumpets, and pizzicato double bass all prominent in the score, and calls for a variety of non-Western percussion instruments.

Metropolis was commissioned by IRCAM, for an exposition organised by the Centre Pompidou on the theme of the city. The work was premiered in Paris on May 30, 1995, at the Théâtre du Châtelet.

A Deruchie

Performance