It’s a hard choice: Watch Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cinematic masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, in total silence, or with Richard Einhorn’s 1994 cantata Voices of Light, which was inspired by the film and is now included as an optional soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD. I’m not a big fan of those hyper-intense, minimalist-inspired, long-winded forays into spirituality that were so popular in the 1990s, but I wasn’t feeling very disciplined either, and it’s hard work watching a film in a total silence. So I chose Dreyer with Einhorn over the mute play of Dreyer’s stark study of warts, wrinkles and bodily fluids.
Einhorn’s music feels like it was whipped up by folks in the marketing department of the old Sony Classical company. It was composed shortly after the release of a wildly popular 1992 recording of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, which introduced so-called sacred minimalism to a wide audience. Einhorn wrote his oratorio to feature prominently Anonymous 4, a women’s vocal quartet that was another fashionable sound of the mid-90s, when souls newly liberated from the fear of Cold War annihilation sought refuge in mass-produced spiritual balms and escapes. Anonymous 4, which burst onto the scene in 1993 with a best-selling recording called “An English Ladymass,” gave Einhorn’s oratorio an instantly ethereal, otherworldly texture throughout much of its hour and twenty minutes of repetitive modal singing, slow moving harmonies and insistent and hypnotic off-beat rhythmic figures. They lent a veneer of authenticity to the composer’s exercise in faux-medievalism, which borrowed in spirit from Orff’s Carmina Burana without ever attaining that piece’s crude power.
In 2001, I reviewed the oratorio (at the Kennedy Center) performed in concert with a screening of the Dreyer. The Einhorn was not particularly noisome but not very good either. Now music and film have been paired on the Criterion Collection DVD, which raises to a whole new level the question of the oratorio’s suitability to accompany this exceptionally powerful film. We live in a society that self-educates, and DVDs are an essential and vital part of that process for many cineastes. But people new to Dreyer might be misled into thinking that this pairing is both historically sanctioned and commensurate with the genius of Dreyer’s film. Neither is true.
Minimalism is a fast and easy solution to the silent film music problem, filling the creepy aural void without saying too much in particular. So long as the composer occasionally changes harmonies or textures in synch with the film, the style works well, unobtrusive but not accidentally related to the action of the film. Einhorn’s music, composed in large, bland arcs of repeating patterns, does that.
But it fails to support or underscore the power of Dreyer’s vision which dissects human cruelty and suffering through intense close-ups, while suggesting the inevitability and ecstatic acceptance of religious martyrdom on the part of Joan. Dreyer’s vision is intensely physical and spiritual at the same time. The knock-off chant forms and two-note descending melodic fragments that Einhorn employs ad nauseam aren’t believable on a religious, spiritual or historical level, and they are too blunt and slow moving to respond to Dreyer’s excoriating magnification of the real, and his often-expressionist camera movement. If ever a film called out for a score of electric intensity, atonal if necessary, it is The Passion of Joan of Arc. Of course it would have been torture for Anton Webern to write film music, and he wasn’t exactly a master of long-form composition. But Dreyer’s film is Webernian in its combination of sparse imagery and architecture, its intense fidelity to an uncompromising process and its explosive psychological ruptures.
Of course, maybe I’m not being fair to Einhorn and over praising Dreyer. When Dreyer’s camera isn’t focused squarely on the furrowed and wart-bestrewn face of one of his subjects, it is moving in a slow series of diagonals. Joan is constantly looking up and out of the frame in exactly the same direction a figure in a Baroque painting would look up at a dove in the sky or a saint in the background, through a strong formal play of angled lines. Is the filmmaker borrowing as bluntly from the tricks of earlier painting as Einhorn borrows from an earlier language of music?
If so, Dreyer does more with his borrowing than Einhorn does. And in his importation of these diagonal lines into film there is at least an act of formal innovation, an interpretation from one art form to another. Einhorn doesn’t add much to the music he appropriates, other than organize it in repetitive blocks. Without Dreyer’s imagery, Einhorn’s music quickly becomes boring and meaningless. And even when seen with Dreyer’s film, the music drones on in its own, separate universe, not even dimly aware of the power of what it is ostensibly supporting.