Wednesday, December 6th, 2017
by Michael Cyrs
“I love the art of film music, but I’m not at all into defining labels when it comes to one being a concert or film composer,” explains JFund awardee Brian Mark about some of his recent work. Although he studied film extensively, he’s more of a historical realist. Mark wasn’t yet born for the events he underscores on “We Interrupt This Broadcast: 1936-69,” his piece that juxtaposes mid-20th century news broadcasts with subtle, but effective avant garde music. But he was interested in what was going on in the living rooms of American families during, for instance, news coverage of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. These were more than events transpiring on television. These were feelings. Mark tasks himself with representing the mindsets of viewers at home, and thus gives us great insight into what it was like to experience history as it happened.
The music for “We Interrupt This Broadcast” was composed before it was synced with film. Mark had the associated audio clips, and took many steps to make the piece sound historically accurate: “I had written the music on pencil and paper like a composer would have in the 1930s.” Furthermore, none of the instruments used in the recording are particularly modern. The dissonant violins and plunky pianos used also echo early 20th century avant garde film. Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder Mark chose to use the ubiquitous historical events as he did. He’s not hokily recasting them with modern pop music. He’s preserving historical artifacts in a reimagined light.
Tracing Mark’s line of inspiration is an academic task in itself. A notable influence is filmmaker Bill Morrison. At London’s Barbican in 2012, Morrison joined forces with composer Gavin Bryars to create an audiovisual representation of the Titanic’s sinking. Scenes are altered in various ways, but the rolling strings usually accompany grainy, unaltered footage of the vessel. The result is timeless, and teaches us about the incident as much as it entertains. Mark also draws comparisons to Jonny Greenwood, who scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s well-loved film There Will Be Blood. Greenwood’s additions to films become as essential to the experience as the images themselves, much like Mark’s work from his “towers, beautiful, Mourning, Tuesday”, a 9/11 memorial piece for solo viola, digital delay pedal, and sound design. The piece is an augmented quotation of the fifth movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
As that and the other pieces so far described might suggest, Mark’s music pushes you to think deeply on what’s being performed. This year’s “Breathe” opens with isolated breathing sounds before a monologue from Alice Vogt takes place as the piece’s focus. “As a child, I didn’t think about death too often,” she explains about her history with cystic fibrosis. Natural breathing is something healthy people take for granted, but it’s something Vogt must constantly consider as a once and future recipient of a double lung transplant. The pianos behind her serve the narrative expertly in their dissonance, as he is quoting excerpts from select works by Frédéric Chopin. Vogt herself played Chopin as an adolescent, and there’s a legend that the iconic 19th century composer may have also suffered from then undiagnosed Cystic Fibrosis. Even as Vogt describes the painful, mucusy feelings she experiences while trying to get as much air into her lungs as possible, her story is viscerally communicated to the listeners.
Mark didn’t just stumble across audio of Vogt’s voice. He traveled to South Africa and interviewed her personally, resulting in a deep friendship that has continued since the debut of “Breathe” this past January (he met her when she visited London in 2012). Mark intends to continue this trend in his next project. Currently titled “Dark Elegy,” he intends to interview a few surviving family members of victims of Pan Am Flight 103: “People will be discussing the murder of their loved ones, so it will be an extremely difficult piece to write. I think maybe a string octet will work for the piece since strings are just naturally emotional.”
Even without accompanying images or voice, Mark’s compositions remain moving. The percussion-based “Invocation” is a standout. Putting acoustic instruments through a digital delay pedal, the layers of the piece quickly fold over one another in complex beauty. “[The performer] was playing everything dry, and only the delay pedal was miked. I just created this landscape,” explains Mark. The use of the water drum is striking. On the recording, it sounds like an old swingset swaying in the wind. In reality, it’s a medium-sized, hand-held drum with several metal bars sticking out of it. When bowed, it creates tones both beautiful and unsettling. The rest of the arrangement, though much more conventionally percussive, follows suit. Bathed in sound and light, the piece shares a synaesthetic character with Mark’s other work.
Naturally, 2015’s “Lucid Dreaming” also takes on many shapes. Spanning more than fifteen minutes, there are three different movements that feel like movie scene changes. Although the notes themselves are not strictly major or even diatonic, they do a fine job in representing the chaotic nature of dreams even if they are driven by a lucid mind.
Still, Brian Mark’s multimedia pieces remain the most notable. The more you examine the way he approaches the music on “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” the more it makes sense that he’d use the footage he did. Nowadays, it’s easy to associate different news stories with the pop music surrounding the events. 9/11 marked the change from “alternative” to “indie.” The entire decade of the ‘80s is vaguely recalled simply by hearing the synth tones used on Stranger Things. Even the word “Vietnam” gets connoted heavily with any number of psychedelic or British Invasion songs. However, the generations that lived through the Korean War and JFk’s assassination are waning, and those left have no audio equivalent for those events. Brian Mark takes these absences and turns them into compelling works of art. Most people can’t jive with merely listening to avant garde or neoclassical music, but Mark goes ahead and solves that problem, too. Even if you were around to witness the death of our nation’s president, Mark’s piece reimagines those raw emotions while maintaining the original quality of the film.
“I guess you could say it has elements of film music,” Mark humbly quips about a few of his works. If he’d gone down the standard path of film composition, it might be his name flashing on the big screen after everyone’s left the theater. Even calling him a film composer is way off the mark. Instead, we’ve got his name behind pieces that have a tangible human component to them, be they an interview with someone who lives with a double lung transplant or a reimagining of history’s emotional weight. An artist’s artist, Brian Mark is an intelligent, modern composer who employs many media elements and does so with marked idiosyncrasy and depth.