death to the metronome

fellini's orchestra rehearsal is probably the best entirely fictional film about music and musicians i've seen. an orchestra, opressed by their despotic conductor and corrupt union mafiosi, revolt and install a giant metronome in the conductor's place. until they decide that the metronome is too oppressive as well. meanwhile someone appears to be demolishing the oratory in which they're rehearsing. in the aftermath of their revolution, the conductor gives a rousing speech - 'we are musicians. let us follow the notes on the page'. quietly, the orchestra put away their spraycans and guns, take up their instruments from the debris and play, only to be immediately harangued by their conductor once more. 'gentlemen, from the beginning...' are the last words we hear.



the political allegory is obvious and kind of depressing, but fellini's love of music and musicians shines through. the orchestra members talk about their instruments, their neuroses, their drinking. some are passionate, some disinterested, some screwed up. it's funny, sharp and sometimes really moving.

the orchestra is a peculiar thing. i've never been in one and am unlikely to be. the closest i got was being part of a motley band of amateurs playing alvin curran's 'maritime rites' on the millenium bridge a couple of years back.



not quite the LSO then. that clip was one of the graphic score bits where we were required to improvise more or less freely, but we did have to play proper notes as well. the best bit for me was the rehearsal, where our first task was to play either a c or a c sharp. there were probably around 120 of us. it was a glorious bloody noise, and the communal aspect of it was quite powerful. there was a sense (however peculiar the results) of a common goal.

but to watch a proper orchestra in rehearsal (as i've often done in my job) is something else. when the musicians aren't playing, they're reading the guardian or checking their phones or joking with each other, there's not much of a sense of engagement with what they're doing (fellini pulls a similar trick in his film where a group of violinists huddle around a radio when they're not playing to listen to a football match). this seems a strange way to make music and reinforces the notion of the orchestra as a bunch of skilled workers doing the composer and conductor's bidding. smaller ensembles are a different animal, particularly those without a conductor, it's hard to imagine one of the smith quartet checking their facebook status during a lengthy rest.

outside of the top-down hierarchy of the orchestra, it's a mish-mash of troubled democracies, benign dictatorships and god know what else. the big bands in jazz probably come closest to the orchestra model, and the dictatorship can be less than benign...

2 comments:

Matt said...

Maybe there could make short parody film called 'improv' rehersal? We certainly know some of the characters who could appear!

Peter said...

i remember tagging along with a friend to a couple of london musicians collective meetings in the late 80s. i wish i'd filmed them...they were beyond parody...

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