Subtle notes of angst, despair and deep yearning defined a powerful union of the work of musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in several shows at Hamer Hall at the weekend.
The unique pairing showcased six of Cave and Ellis’s notable film scores as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, providing something for everyone in the performance’s intersecting nature.
The compositional style of Cave and Ellis, both of Bad Seeds fame, was originally drawn from an archive of Ellis’s violin loops that served as a foundation for their scoring. It has gradually evolved to more traditionally cinematic orchestral tones, with the film scores all offering distinct, bleak and endlessly dark landscapes, with undertones of menace.
The pair’s first foray into film composition, The Proposition, made for a suitable opening for this series of concerts, with Cave quickly launching into the eerie ‘The Rider #1’ followed by ‘The Proposition #1’. With its heavy use of string and piano and disturbed folk-like cues, The Proposition soundtrack offers an on-point illustration of a harsh and barren outback as seen from the perspective of a colonial settler. It’s also unmistakably Cave/Ellis, with their collective auteur identity being at its most pronounced.
The apocalyptic doom of The Road, a 2009 film based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, made for another highlight; starting out with Cave’s piano solo and gradually incorporating Ellis and the orchestra. The way the two imagined the film’s melancholic but profound father-son bond, which serves as a relief from otherwise brutally depressing circumstances, is a further masterclass in composition.
Under the control of conductor Benjamin Northey, the orchestra negotiated the versatility of the scores, from their subtleties to dramatic tension, by focusing on different sections to take charge of the storytelling. The accompanying choir appeared in effective moderation, stealing the spotlight at the climax of The Road as Cave briefly exited the stage before returning with vocalist Antoinette Halloran for the subsequent Hell or High Water, a somewhat vast and reflective accompaniment to the 2016 neo-Western.
A special sort of chemistry was on show here; Cave and Ellis are cultural landmarks in their own right, no longer deemed outliers but figures to be celebrated in traditionally ‘high culture’ settings.
Screen projections displaying montages of the films in their respective segments drew the audience into full immersion. However, a lack of video for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, presumably due to copyright restrictions, allowed the orchestra the limelight in what was the show’s final chapter.
A special sort of chemistry was on show here; Cave and Ellis are cultural landmarks in their own right, no longer deemed outliers but figures to be celebrated in traditionally ‘high culture’ settings. They could often be observed delighting in the orchestra’s efforts to bring their creations to life.
Ultimately, this was an exercise rooted in fun, and a welcome straying from the traditional contexts in which the pair perform. Winding up with an encore of the Bad Seeds’ Push The Sky Away prompted a lengthy standing ovation, a grateful acknowledgement of what was a one-of-a-kind experience.
The performance also served as an effective bridge for less-seasoned observers to appreciate the orchestra’s magnificence – a testament to the MSO’s ongoing efforts in pursuing contemporary and unconventional projects.
The Film Music of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was presented on August 9 and 10 at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, as part of the 68th Melbourne International Film Festival.