Phillip Johnston is an expatriate American who has called Australia home since 2005 and become an integral part of the local music scene – both as a musician with his group The Greasy Chicken Orchestra and as a composer with his numerous silent film projects. Whilst Phillip has composed music for major Hollywood films, it’s his scores for a number of historic silent films for which he is best known in this country.
In 1998 he was commissioned by the Film Society of the Lincoln Centre in New York to write a score for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 Japanese silent film, Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness). He remembers:
“I had not been aware of the film until then, and when they screened it for me, I was immediately struck by what a unique and unusual film it was, and what a great opportunity it presented to do something different in film scoring.”
The film recalls the early works of German Expressionist silent film in the style of ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’. With no title cards, the narrative is told entirely in images, and was shot on location in a mental asylum.
Page of Madness was Phillip’s third silent film score, after scores for the ‘The Unknown’ (1927) and the Georges Méliès Project (1899-1909). Originally premiering in New York in 1998 it was enthusiastically received at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival. As he notes:
“I immediately saw Page of Madness as an opportunity to use greater elements of free improvisation and extended techniques that felt in harmony with the nature of the film. But I didn’t just want to ‘play free’ to the film (though I think that is another valid approach), so I created a score that combined largely chromatic written material with improvisation that was carefully scored to the film. We initially used synchronised stopwatches to stay in sync with the film while improvising; in more recent performances, I rely only on carefully notated visual cues to keep the score and the film in sync.”
Whilst he had never considered performing the music from Page Of Madness without the actual film, he eventually decided he could reinvent the piece in a way that it could function on its own. Hence the current format of The Page Of Madness: Suite For Improvisers. The “Suite” was first presented in New York in 2015 as part of a residency at The Stone, commissioned by its artistic director John Zorn.
Now, as part of SIMA’s Summer Jazz series, Phillip will present the Australian premier of the Suite For Improvisers, with a most impressive ensemble of local musicians. He explains:
“I’ve been lucky to get musicians of the quality of Lloyd Swanton, Sandy Evans, James Greening, Andrew Robson, Matt McMahon, Jason Noble, Alex Silver and Paul Cutlan – to name just a few. A piece based on improvisation can only succeed with top flight musicians, and I’m so fortunate to have them here.”
I asked Phillip what the Sydney audience can expect from this performance and he replied:
“I think they can expect to be surprised. They will certainly hear some wonderful soloists, some in a different context than they may have heard them before. They will hear some music that is simple and beautiful, and some that features some thorny counterpoint and explosive musical gestures. They will hear a film soundtrack without a film, and an orchestral big band composition featuring some of the most unique musicians I’ve met here in Sydney, who will lift it up beyond the notes written on the page and bring it to life.”
The Page Of Madness: Suite For Improvisers – Feb 11, from 8pm. The Sound Lounge at the Seymour Centre, cnr City Rd & Cleveland St, Chippendale. $25-$38. Tickets & info: www.sima.org.au