Fear No Music: “Pianarchy”

Willamette Week

March 16, 2001

Strange Fruit

Joe Waters says goodbye

Fear No Music composer-in-residence Joe Waters bids farewell to Portland with a mischievous score to filmmaker Matt Smith’s tree-of-life fable, Bob.

Reed College, Kaul Auditorium, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., 730-8809. 8 pm Saturday, March 17. $10-$15


“I was totally misunderstood by the morons who listened to the Ballet Mecanique in 1926,” wrote “bad boy” composer George Antheil.

Mecanique was Antheil’s groundbreaking collaboration with artist-filmmaker Ferdinand Leger, and an early attempt to meld “serious music” with cinema. Scored for anvils, airplane propellers and other industrial widgets, Mecanique was as furious a modernist blast at its Paris unveiling as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Though the world’s seen some progress, much of the music world is still steeped in provincialism. Witness composer Joe Waters’ recent departure from Lewis & Clark College. In keeping with the school’s rightist leanings of late, Waters had to leave his composition post where he’d worked with young composers exploring electronic and acoustic sound. For Waters, the switch from L&C’s Republicanism to a post at San Diego State is good news. For Portland, it’s another artistic loss due to backwater academics. Fortunately, he leaves us with a film score in the restless spirit of Antheil.

As his third composition as Fear No Music’s composer-in-residence, Waters offers his soundtrack to Matt Smith’s highly touted short film Bob. Waters is an enthusiastic fan and practitioner of film scoring. His frantic bit of sound and image synchronicity for Joanna Priestley’s Garden of Kali last year was a great success for FNM. He stumbled on Bob when FNM friend Susan Smith showed him some of her sibling’s “weird little films.” “I was looking for something to follow Kali with,” says Waters. “I saw Bob and thought, This is perfect.”

Bob is a wry cinematic fable about growth and aging that may alter the way you see fruit. Finished in 1998, the mordant short became an underground hit at European festivals, eventually landing on French television. After snubs from every stateside festival, Smith resubmitted Bob in ’99 to capitalize on its Euro clout. Finally, it clicked with Slamdance–the DIY Sundance–and was quickly nabbed by 30 other festivals, even earning play on Dreamworks’ website.

Waters’ score for two pianos, percussion, violin and cello succeeds in melding the tension and whimsy of Smith’s fable.
To achieve that synthesis, Waters broke Bob down into a frame-by-frame analysis, painstakingly matching notes to frames. Opening with a simple piano figure that insinuates like an eerie lullaby, followed with piano clashes, pizzicato string pops, jazzlike dissonance and tempo swings, the alternately somber and mischievous score mirrors the images so compactly that it feels organic. “We call Joe every name in the book every time we rehearse,” says FNM cellist Phil Hansen. “Bob is music that’s incredibly hard yet incredibly invigorating. I’m going to miss Joe for that.”

In performance, Hansen, violinist Andrew Ehrlich, pianists Mika Sunago and Susan Smith, and percussionist Joel Bluestone will get help staying with Waters’ furious pace by using a click track (fed through headphones), keeping tempo with Smith’s images as Waters conducts.
Bob closes the first half of FNM’s concert, while, appropriately, the second half concludes with Leger’s Ballet Mecanique, with the Spokane chamber music ensemble Zephyr playing Antheil’s score live. It’s a fitting farewell to Portland’s own misunderstood “bad boy” composer, Joe Waters.