Berlin like you’ve never seen (or heard)

For Berlin, symphony of a great city (1927), the composer David Hudry imagined a pulsating music, regulated to the nearest second on the unforgettable images of Walther Ruttmann. World premiere February 4.

How did you discover Berlin, Symphony of a Big City, the film by Walther Ruttmann?

I discovered this film three years ago, as part of the courses I give to prepare students for the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure. I had to deal with the theme of music in the image in the cinema until 1945. My research led me to Ruttmann’s film which immediately fascinated me – while being aware that the filmmaker then taken a very sinister direction, becoming a zealous servant of the Third Reich. Berlin, symphony of a great city, which dates from 1927, is indeed a non-narrative silent film, but which constantly refers to the music, by its division into “five acts”, as if it were an opera, and by its musicality in assembly of plans. The film also has heritage value, since it shows a vanished Berlin that we will never see again.

Many of your pieces are inspired by the industrial world. No wonder you were drawn to 1920s Berlin.

Ruttmann films machines in motion, of great plastic beauty. He films people who go to work and puts them in parallel with animals who move forward without asking questions. But this “mechanics of the world” is not the only face of Berlin. Acts IV and V also focus on the world of leisure and entertainment. I was touched by this festive dimension, these moments of sharing and liberation.

How did your music project for this film come about?

Several composers had already written music, in particular Edmund Meisel who was played during the first screening of the film in 1927. I listened to them, which reinforced my idea that, faced with the image, the musician has several strategies. So I wanted to offer my own vision. I discussed it with Pierre Charvet, delegate for musical creation at Radio France, and with Johannes Neubert, general delegate of the Orchester national de France, who approved the project. I have been working on this symphonic score for seven months now, intended to be played during the screening of the film. Of course, I went to Berlin to feel the pulse of the city!

How do you work when it comes to synchronizing the music with the image?

I had to compose by following the chronological sequence of the film. Usually, I can start with a passage that will be at the end or in the middle of the work. But there, it could not work, because it was necessary from the start to wedge the music on the image. A music which, in its entirety, lasts a little over an hour, and never stops. The conductor will also have to direct with a click, to strictly respect the tempo dictated by the film. I took the time to feel the right tempos, to soak up the context before I started, because the images and their rhythm give the direction to follow. They suggest what, musically speaking, may or may not work. At times, I wanted exact synchronization of the music with the image; at other times, the music follows the film, but with a kind of distance, the sound and the image being able to say the same thing but according to different methods. I also experimented with moving a passage to associate it with another sequence in the film. Or, I created a set of correspondences between several shots of the film.

For instance ?

At the beginning of Act I, a barrier lowers just before the train passes at full speed. The music of this shot will be heard three times, in particular when the station master gives the start, with a whistle and a gesture of the arm recalling the movement of the barrier. Further on, a roller coaster metamorphoses into a swirling spiral: I noticed that the rhythmic structure composed for the beginning of the film also worked with this scene.

What sound color did you prefer?

The subject of the film and its style led me to write very pulsating, very rhythmic music, always in tension, except in Act IV which shows the Berliners during their lunch break – it is a sequence where, for the first time in years I’ve used tonal harmonies! The music includes a totally written drum part, with some swingy, funky parts. The initial cinematographic gesture, with the level crossing barrier lowering, is accompanied by rhythmic figures inspired by metal. I apprehend the experimental and futuristic aspect of Ruttmann in the light of the 21st century, because the Berlin of 1927 resonates with the urban effervescence that shapes our lives today.

Interview by Hélène Cao

Berlin like you’ve never seen (or heard)