How I Fagiolini's films bring us closer to the music

Robert Hollingworth
Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I Fagiolini's imaginative use of video to convey the meaning and drama of early music have long been compelling - and gloriously quirky. The group's Director Robert Hollingworth talks us through four key projects

I Fagiolini in the kitchen: filming Ode à la Gastronomie
I Fagiolini in the kitchen: filming Ode à la Gastronomie

Early experiments: Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso

Much of the music I Fagiolini performs was not written to be performed ‘at’ an audience. Or if it was, the context was much more intimate than it’s possible to recreate in a concert. Or its context – eg music for an audience of jazz-loving French speakers used to taking three hours over a meal - means that it won’t work in a straight recital.

For 35 years, this challenge has been behind everything I Fagiolini does, though how we respond to it has changed. In some ways recorded music is a perfect medium as it allows you to recreate salon-like intimacy. But film also works well, because the camera can help show instead of explain. For us this started with a commedia dell’arte piece (Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso) that we shot live with an audience at the Dartington Summer School, commedia being nothing if not a live art.

Madrigals as movies: The Full Monteverdi

But our first deeper exploration was turning Director John La Bouchardière’s highly visceral live show of Monteverdi a cappella madrigals into a film. He describes how he approached this unique project:

‘I wasn’t at all sure “The Full Monteverdi” would work as a film since (in my then limited experience) the medium seemed ill suited to the immersive qualities for which the live project stood out. In reality, that mismatch proved a saving grace, as it forced me to reject any notion of replicating the live performance on screen: instead of marking up a musical score and deciding when to point which camera at whom, I wrote a movie script and, in so doing, embraced the new medium completely.

‘Putting the public inside Monteverdi’s music remained the core idea, as did my conviction that there is something inherently dramatic about counterpoint, and that attaching a narrative to the tensions of individual musical threads can create polyphonic drama that can encourage an audience to ask what happens next.

‘While maintaining the restaurant setting, it was the narrative journeys – only hinted at in the show – that formed the structure of the film. After 80-odd performances (we still had a run in New York to do), I knew the performers’ devised stories back-to-front but some of these had only been acted out in early improvisations (two years previously) and they all needed to be expanded in full cinematic detail – complete with times of day, locations, clothes and anything else that might help an audience engage with a character’s emotional path. And then there were camera angles and shot sizes, about which I knew very little – for all my prep, the first days of the shoot were a steep learning curve indeed – but it soon became clear that film had its own means of creating an intimate, voyeuristic and emotional relationship with even the score itself, where a change of scene can give sense to repetition or a change in focus can intensify a harmonic shift.’

Watch excerpts from The Full Monteverdi below:

The ingredients of comedy: Ode à la Gastronomie

In 2015 we released a CD including a world premiere recording of Jean Francaix’s 12-voice ‘Ode à la Gastronomie’ from 1952. It’s an utterly ‘French’ piece sending up the whole ritual of dining and the French attitude to food and wine. It’s a big piece – 16 minutes long – and has baffled radio producers and conductors: it’s never played on radio and we only know of one other performance since 1952. I knew that what happens in the piece needed to be ‘showed’. So again, John got to work.

‘Francaix’s tongue-in-cheek adaptation of a revered book on French gastronomy is full of in-jokes and wordplay, some of which are only clear on the page. Robert came to me with lots of ideas for visual gags that could help, while planning to show the singers “in concert” in between, but I was sure it would make a more convincing case for the piece with a coherent framework across the whole.

‘Since the text is sung by a group, with occasional solo lines, the singers became a team of chefs who could preach haute cuisine, while actors in a restaurant provided the proof in the pudding — I think I was watching “Masterchef” at the time. Adding all that action, with waiting staff and a functioning professional kitchen put a big strain on the budget and schedule: the biggest challenge was how to shoot a 20-minute film in little more than two days.’

The film is one of my very favourite Fagiolini things: immediately enjoyable, witty (a word always associated with Francaix’s music) and John’s film beautifully clarifies what’s going on, even down to Francaix’s joke about pianists - ‘Chopin, pain chaux…’).

The challenge of the chase: The Stag Hunt

So when I wanted to share my love of one of the more bizarre vocal pieces from the early Renaissance about a stag hunt – full of written-in sound effects - it was to John I turned, but he was faced with quite a set of problems.

‘Where ‘Ode’ needed illustration and clarification, Janequin’s ‘La chasse’ demanded full-blown demonstration. The piece actually has all the key story elements one might seek in material for dramatisation, except that the audience can barely understand what’s going on. The basic action is clear enough but Janequin wrote the piece for singers to enjoy among themselves and the most of the narrative detail is lost to the listener in the riot of horses’ hooves — even the calmer section about stalking the stag has simultaneous conversations that make specifics hard to hear.

‘The camera is a great tool for picking out detail, however, so the real challenge became what to shoot. It was neither realistic nor affordable to film seven-part a cappella on horseback, and I was determined not to let our exuberant enjoyment of the music lead us to glorifying hunting. However, I found no credible world where the singers could make metaphors of their lines (making it all about a ‘stag night’ got us into similarly tricky areas), so we needed an approach that allowed every line to mean what was meant but without filming horses or killing stags.

‘Solving that apparently intractable problem led to a series of choices that shaped the film itself — including numerous spoilers which prohibit their description. As I often find, however, the solution to a challenge becomes the defining idea itself, and that the most interesting results come from the most unlikely material. After all, ’The Full Monteverdi’ made it to Broadway with a book of Renaissance madrigals…’

You can watch The Stag Hunt at I Fagiolini's website - and the trailer below gives a flavour. 

Education and exploration: SingTheScore

Outside film, since lockdown we’ve all been struggling with how to exist online meaningfully. Together with the highly sympathetic Polyphonic Films (who have made all the films above) I’ve put together a peculiar series for keen amateur musicians called SingTheScore. This is a niche singalong, looking under the bonnet of a particular piece with context provided with images, clips of performances and insights about the music. 

The 26 episodes have given wing to the weirder parts of my imagination, featuring one of the UK’s finest Bach evangelists, Nicholas Mulroy, as a Richie Benaud character commenting on musicological issues: the emergence of the threatening ‘Ficta police’ (musica ficta being the application by performers of sharps and flats to music of the 16th century), and other really quite strange moments. It seems self-indulgent but actually the weird bits are a way of keeping the viewer’s attention (ask any schoolteacher). It’s niche - but online, niche can work and we get 2-5000 views per show.

The question is what of this actually pays enough to justify making it. Our films are enormously dependent on pre-funding by our Friends organization, SingTheScore is sponsored by Steinberg who make Dorico (music software), Arts Council England (initially) and University of York where I teach – though on top of this we need donations to get close to covering the costs. Back in the real concert world, we’ve also been delighted to take part in Voces8’s fabulous online series, ‘Live From London’ as well as a new venture, Polyphonic Concert Club. But no one thinks this is easy and modest private donations are a crucial part of the future. (Do be in touch…)

I Fagiolini's films are available from Polyphonic Films 

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