(Spring Break Tapes, 2015)
Imagine the worlds conjured in the films of Georges Méliès separating themselves from the celluloid on which they were captured and establishing themselves as their own legitimate, stable universes. Every fantastical scenario, every wild, unearthly creature and character, every tactile prop suddenly gains a third dimension, bleeding through the veil of our plane of existence and begins to exist on its own. At once, these early cinematic visions gain importance well beyond that held within the imagination of their creator. They become real – they are real.
Some would argue that Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo has already offered a glimpse into what it would be like if this indeed happened, but not to the remarkable extent composer Ali Helnwein has. Although not specifically recorded as a companion piece or “phantom soundtrack” to Méliès’s films, Voyage could certainly stand in as musical accompaniment to any one of the breakout universes described above. It’s both baroque and experimental, forward thinking while steeped in compositional tone of past eras. The instruments are played by humans and recorded in a room, and as such there is little indication of studio trickery or computerized manipulation (save, of course, for periodic puncutations of synthesizer, which add a zest of sci-fi). The mood is utterly fantastical, yet melancholy, as if there is always something at stake. In short, these pieces, these thirty minutes of recorded cassette tape, are the perfect encapsulations of world-building through sound, rich with life and wonder.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Ali Helnwein is indeed a composer, an Emmy-winning one, in fact, as well as and orchestrator for artists who have won actual Grammys, although we should all know by now how I feel about the motherf***ing Grammys. Still, when your resume includes work with Florence and the Machine, Kate Nash, and Katherine McPhee, that’s nothing to sneeze at really. All this to say that Helnwein knows his way around an orchestra, and is pretty good at crafting music. And Voyage, a title fit for a Méliès film if I ever heard one, is a blockbuster showcase for Hollywood employment – think of it as a slam-dunk resume entry.
“Gorgeous” is really the only word that can be used to describe the music contained herein, the euphony is contagious to epidemic levels. All manner of acoustic instruments are employed to bring the worlds of Voyage to life, including acoustic guitar, banjo, cello, clarinet, glockenspiel, harp, timpani, trumpet, ukulele, violin, and periodic vocals. If that all sounds a bit like a Sufjan Stevens production, you wouldn’t be far off – Helnwein’s creations at times recall the Illinois troubadour, especially on the title track with its choral vocals and “Why I Wake Up Slowly” with its whimsical poem recited by a female voice. Whimsy permeates the recordings, as does melancholy, and the duplicate effects are perceived clearly on tracks like the harpsichord-driven “Real Monster,” the static-punctuated “Four Horsemen,” and the string/harpsichord western shuffle of “Digital Tombstone.” There’s the sense of danger, as if death is identified within the dramatic, its presence relegated to the background but apparent nonetheless.
The utter elegance of “C Theme” and “C Theme Reprise” push the definition of this music (not defining anything, though!) into post rock territory, along the lines of chamber outfits like Rachel’s or early A Silver Mt. Zion (pre-Orchestra and Tra La La Band). These two moments, one ending each side of the tape, are epic, the best kind to project a continuation of a story beyond its formal conclusion. The best stories invoke worlds that you can inhabit in your own mind, and Voyage stands along with them ready to embrace listeners’ fanfic within its confines.
Works like Voyage are rare, and concepts and executions as big and capital-I Important as this aren’t often squeezed into thirty minutes. Yet Helwein has managed it, fully realizing an entire cinematic universe (ugh, not a Marvel-y one though) in such a small space. Now that we’ve heard what he can do in the confines of a cassette tape, it’s time to give him a greater stage, and preferably not on ESPN. (Yeah, Helwein has composed for ESPN. I’m not kidding – gotta get paid somehow!)
RIYL: Sufjan Stevens, Rachel’s, A Silver Mt. Zion