Two Films by G. Méliès is exactly what it sounds like: music written to be performed live along with two (originally) silent films made by the early French filmmaker, Georges Méliès.
I. Le Baquet de Mesmer (“A Mesmerian Experiment”) – 1905
Georges Méliès, somewhat disguised in a beard and wig, plays the 19th century doctor and scientist, Franz Mesmer, famously known for his experiments with “animal magnetism” (also known as “mesmerism”). This predecessor to hypnotism invokes the transfer of energy from the inanimate to animate, often through the use of a tub, or “baquet,” which we see here as the source of the action in the film.
More than anything, however, Méliès plays himself: that is, an illusionist. Similar to a magic show, much of the film is devoted to the setup for the various illusions. Following this buildup of suspense and expectation, the music begins with a harp motive that remains omnipresent through many repetitions and variations, shifting from instrument to instrument. The sudden stops and restarts of the rhythm and the unexpected shifts of meter further illustrate the concept of the “setup” and building of suspense. The dry staccato, pizzicato, and even knocking sounds serve as an ironic and slightly irreverent counterpart to the action in the film, particularly when Dr. Mesmer/Méliès reveals his ultimate illusion to the audience.
II. Le Dirigeable Fantastique ou Le Cauchemar d’un Inventeur (“The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship”) – 1905
In the original French title, the word, le cauchemar (which translates to “the nightmare”) perfectly describes the short, but poignant voyage of the film. As in a nightmare, the film quickly moves between two extremes: fast and slow motions, dark and light colors, and optimism and sheer terror/panic. Likewise, the music also has two extremes: one is a flurry of activity in the strings, with playful and often mischievous harp plucks. The other is a trancelike drone, with harmonies depicting the vivid, hand-painted colors and hypnotic floating imagery.
As in the film, the music begins with a feeling of positive excitement, mirrored by the quick oscillations in the strings. As the inventor relaxes into his dream, the strings unwind and fall into the dronelike middle section, drawing our eyes to the fantastic creation in the scene. Finally the flurries return, leading to the climactic moment of the nightmare, just before the inventor awakens to reality. The mood ultimately remains playful and light, as there is still humor in the film, despite the negative implications of his vision.
String Quartet, Harp
May 22 & 23, 2016
Méliès Madness, Balboa Theatre
Carla Fabris – harp, Coline Berland – violin, Kashi Elliott – violin, Paula Karolak – viola, Juan David Mejia Londoño – cello