Pedestrians scurry through the softly falling snow. Through the glass of the car window they resemble actors in a silent film. The scene's still beauty is one of winter's finest moments. Dans La Nuit,
Charles Vanel's 1930 silent movie, features scenarios which share beauty in the same sense. Recently restored by the Cinemathique Francaise, it tells the tale of a quarry worker whose newlywed bliss shatters when an accident leaves his face deformed. He's forced to wear a metal mask, and his disgusted wife takes a lover. Originally produced without music, the film takes on new meaning with the score composed by clarinetist Louis Sclavisgorgeous music that not only enhances the black and white visuals, but stands alone as a poignant, dramatic work.
Two main themes recur periodically throughout the disc. They represent the two principal characters, conflicting realities, and the film's atmospheric duality. One, blissfully progressive, brings to mind the exuberance of a Provençal summer day. The other, a slow harrowing melody played by Vincent Courtois' mournful cello, balances sensual pleasure with guilt. Sclavis says in the liner notes that when composing the soundtrack, he took into account "the period, the atmosphere, and the cinematic aesthetic that recalls Murnau or Jean Renoir." The music he created parallels the cinematography well. In its most apparent example, an accordionist entertaining the wedding party breathes new life with Jean Louis Martinier's playful, gallivanting accordion.
As a whole, the soundrack bridges the 73-year gap like a modern day hostess serving vintage wine. It swells with innovative and at times improvised playing, while whispering of an era before Technicolor. Philandering melodies conjure up old-world France. Sclavis's exquisite compositions on this disc deviate from 2001's L'affrontement Des Pretendants
(ECM). Based around intense free improvisation and mischievous horn solos, his previous album seems like an unruly older sibling compared to the tender sophistication of Dans La Nuit.
About a third of the way through, Dans La Nuit
loses all trace of innocence. Darkness creeps in between anguished cello solos and unforgiving clarinet interludes. François Merville introduces marimba on "Mauvais Reve." Shifting layers create eerie texture, providing an interesting contrast to the forlorn strings of the previous track "Retour De Noce." In "L'accident Part 1" the opening notes on marimba add a new element to the soundtracksuspense.
The climax occurs during "Le Miroir," a sparse free improvisation that breaks down into a minimalist pattern before venturing out again into a rhythmical void. The strings dwell on long-tones, creating a chilling tension. The song ends and expertly flows into the now-bittersweet opening melody.
Glee returns with "Dans La Nuit," as that joyous theme resumes its original tempo for the last track. We're left wondering how happiness was able to triumph over the beautiful grief that had so enraptured us.
Note: this review originally appeared in All About Jazz: New York
Personnel: Louis Sclavis: clarinets; Jean Louis Matinier: accordion; Dominique Pifarely: violin; n; Vincent Courtois: cello; Francois Merville: drums, marimba; Jean Louis Matinier: accordion.