Page of Madness


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History:

In 1998 Sayre Maxfield of the Film Society of Lincoln Center approached me about creating an original score for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Japanese 1926 silent film masterpiece, Kurutta Ippeiji, (A Page of Madness). Our relationship had begun when they took over sponsorship of my George Méliès Project and premiered it at the Walter Reade Theatre in 1997. I was not familiar with the film, but at the first screening I was blown away by the power and originality of the film.



Page of Madness is a truly unique film. Rather than try and synopsize the film myself, let me quote Jasper Sharp, from his online journal on Japanese film, The Midnight Eye, in what is the best writing I’ve read about the film.











“Based on a treatment by the later 1968 Nobel Prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), writer of such classics of modern Japanese literature as The Izu Dancer and Snow Country, Kinugasa's self-financed landmark production Kurutta Ippeiji, hereafter referred to as A Page of Madness (though some sources refer to it by the titles A Crazy Page, or A Page Out of Order) seems a far cry from the bog-standard theatrically derived Kabuki adaptations and jidai-geki period swashbucklers being produced at the time en masse. The story of a retired sailor who has taken a job as a janitor in a lunatic asylum to look after his insane wife, locked away after attempting to drown their child, a synopsis of the plot can't begin to explain the power of the film, nor the audacity of its vision.”

Read Jasper Sharp’s complete article on Page of Madness, including an interview with Mariann Lewinsky, a Swiss film historian and specialist of Japanese Silent Cinema.



      At that time I had previously done two original scores for silent film, the Méliès and Todd Browning’s The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. The score for The Unknown had been intended to be a kind of homage to and yet upending of, traditional film music and traditional modern silent film music. The George Méliès Project had been a study: eight short films, and in each a slightly different relationship between the music and the film. But both had been virtually completely notated, and exactly synched to the film.

      For Page of Madness I decided to try a different approach. I used a combination of traditionally noted music and improvisation that was carefully linked to the images of the film. We kept in synch through the use of simultaneously-started stop watches, and followed a score which described a the action, with timings, and called for specific instrument combinations and improvisations linked to those images.

For more information about the composition of the Page of Madness score, click here.

      For the ensemble, I chose The Transparent Quartet (Joe Ruddick on piano, Mark Josefsberg on vibraphone, and David Hofstra on bass, and myself on soprano and alto saxophones), the group I had been working with for several years, and with which I had done the Méliès Project. These brilliant musicians were perfect for a piece of this nature, being some of the most versatile and imaginative improvisers I had ever worked with. In a way, I had felt that I was wasting them in the previous years, with my music being so heavily notated (although they did a great job of performing it), and their being such great improvisers.

        Here are some photos by Viki Rutsch of the TQ from around that time (click to enlarge):

        

         

      This recording captures the group (which is not active at present) at the height of it’s prowess as an ensemble. I think the telepathy between the musicians, and the individual expression, makes the score what it is. (Incidentally, I performed the score recently at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival, with another stellar group of improvisers: Chris Abrahams on piano, Daryl Pratt on vibraphone, and Lloyd Swanton on bass).

      Around the time of the premier, I asked Jon Rosenberg, the wonderful recording engineer who had done the studio recordings of many of my previous records, to come and record some of the performances. He made some wonderful recordings, the one on this CD being all from one single performance, the only editing being the cutting of some longer silent passages: the use of silence is one of the film music composer’s most effective tools, and in this score it is used in a similar manner to the rest of the score. But on a CD the use of silence would be less effective (not to mention the risk of a copyright violation lawsuit from the Cage Estate).

      For several years I tried to get a release for this recording, but after being rejected (or ignored) by 37 record companies, I put it on the shelf, and moved on to having more recent recordings of other projects rejected by record companies. However now, after ten years, I have decided to do a very modest limited release myself on my own Asynchronous Records.

      Unfortunately, as of this writing, to my knowledge, no high quality DVD release of Page of Madness exists, with my music or without. You can see some very low resolution excerpts of the film, with my score, on YouTube:


 


     


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At this time, the score is still available for performance. Like my other film scores, silent and contemporary, I feel that the music is of interest on its own, without the film. But the project as a whole is best taken in as intended, with the music and the film together. Interested presenters can contact me at phillip@phillipjohnston.com.

      This is the least seen of my silent film scores, and I’m very interested in performing it further. Previous presenters include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, Time & Space Ltd., as well as the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Sydney Film Festival.

My other silent film scores are also available for performance as well.

The Unknown (1927), which is also available on CD, on Avant.

The George Méliès Project (1903-1909) Koch Jazz (out-of-print – soon to be available as download from CD Baby/iTunes.

Faust (1926) directed by F.W. Murnau. Not yet recorded, but hope springs eternal. Recently performed at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in collaboration with the 2008 Melbourne Festival of the Arts.

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