Interview: Ari Benjamin Meyers
"My name is Ari Benjamin Meyers. I'm from New York but I live in Berlin. I'm a composer and a conductor with a classical background but I'm now mostly working in the contemporary art field."Still from 1395 Days without Red, a film by Anri Sala in collaboration with Liria Begeja. From a project by Šejla Kamerić & Anri Sala in collaboration with Ari Benjamin Meyers
What was your role in 1395 Days without Red? How did it come about?
Anri and I had worked together before. Actually we first worked together here at the Manchester International Festival, in 2007, on a project called Il Tempo del Postino. Then he called me around three years ago and told me about this project with Šejla Kamerić and said music played a very important part. And that's how it started. I was very interested right away, because usually we know that the role of music in film is just, well, 'film music' and it seemed as if here it would play a very different role. It became a very intense collaboration, because of the way we were all working so closely together from the start.
Much of the film depicts the performance of this music and a journey that Maribel Verdú’s character is taking across Sarajevo. What’s the relationship between the two?
Usually in a film, the music enhances what you see, so you have a love scene or a scary scene and the music heightens that. That's its job. But in this case, since there's no script and no dialogue, the music became the basis of choreographing her journey. Šejla and Anri had made a sort of map of the route that the actress would take through Sarajevo, but the way she would walk, how fast or slow she would go, how she was breathing, her attitude would be based on music; everything about that walk was in one way or another based on music. As a performer she needed a basis to act with and the idea was always to avoid defining it with explanation or text. It's not so much a case of ‘did the music come first or the visuals’ as they really went hand in hand, even to the point that when we were shooting, Maribel had an earpiece and was listening to this music while on set. It was a very exciting way to be involved in a film.
Please talk about the piece of music itself... it’s Tchaikovsky’s 6th
It’s from the first movement of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the Pathetique. On the one hand it's all Tchaikovsky, and on the other hand you could say it's not Tchaikovsky at all. Part of what I did was to try to compose a rehearsal, so I was writing in mistakes and parts that maybe someone watching the film would hear or maybe just register – one beat too long or a phrase repeated once too often. But it's all about very subtle changes. Very, very little things, but just to give you a sense that something's not right, or to move the story forward. It was like a recomposition or perhaps more accurately a deconstruction of Tchaikovsky.
It's a very special symphony. He died nine days after finishing the symphony – it is the last thing he wrote before he died. When I suggested it to Anri and Šejla it fit right away. What's important is it's a piece people know. So in certain contexts and we can play against that and work against type, which made it a very exciting choice.
It’s interesting that the only dialogue belongs to you, the conductor, and it’s in the form of directions to the orchestra...
What you see when you first watch these films is a seemingly haphazard walk and a sort of rehearsal. But I think the more you look, the more you notice how well planned it is: the entire project from start to finish is meticulously timed and worked out, and even the words that I'm saying were written into the script. So when I'm saying things like “tempo”, “let's go back” or “let's go forward”, they relate to the journey as well as the music.
So how is it, now, to see the completed works? Has the role of the music played out in the way you expected?
Well as a classically trained conductor I'm always working against the way in which music has traditionally been subsumed by other art forms. It sometimes seems to me that music can never be allowed to be just another art medium, like video or drawing. This project has shown a way of working with music that we aren't used to – that's why it's important to me.
Ari Benjamin Meyers' website is at aribenjaminmeyers.com