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The City: Film Scored by Copland

The Post-Classical Ensemble accompanied the out-of-the-ordinary documentary The City at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center on Sunday afternoon. For a premiere at the 1939 World's Fair, the American Institute of Planners created The City to promote the aims of FDR’s Resettlement Administration, a part of the New Deal. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke directed from the screenplay by Lewis Mumford, founder of the Greenbelt movement, and Pare Lorentz. (The latter directed The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, with scores by Virgil Thomson, of which the Post-Classical Ensemble previously made a new recording.) With Aaron Copland to lead The City’s commentary musically, as there is minimal narration and no dialogue, this turbulent, fast-paced work makes a strong impression.

The City opens with the sun shining brightly on a tranquil farm and an accompaniment of charming trills to exemplify the rush of the mill. Children are seen in a horse-drawn cart and playing outside; soon a percussion player strikes even, chime-sounding notes when the image of the church is on screen. Enter the darkness of the steel-works where one “cannot see the sky unless the steel mills are shut down…children have no business in this no man’s land.” The tragic accompaniment is matched to images of kids playing on busy, dangerous railroad tracks and the further mantra “machines to make machines; production to make production.” A man with a wooden leg is seen approaching cramped living quarters under a polluted sky. A few scenes later, during punctuated music representing the chaos of a big city, a child attempting to play ball in a busy street is struck by a car. The brass then emulate sirens, the percussion a police whistle. The child’s prognosis: he must receive an amputation “above the knee.”

Other Articles:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Post-Classical Ensemble (Washington Post, October 16)

Stephen Brookes, The Post-Classical: No Coats, Ties or Stuffed Shirts (Washington Post, October 14)

Tim Smith, Bringing 'The City' back to life (Baltimore Sun, October 11)

Watch The City Online:
Part 1 | Part 2
A traffic jam now leads as far as one can see in the direction of the country, with city-dwellers spending the weekend in traffic, thus never finding tranquility. Copland impressively scores a car fatally rolling down a steep cliff. From this point, Greenbelt, Md., is presented as a new type of city where “new cities are not allowed to be over-sized, and have safe and quiet neighborhoods…not the kind of suburb where lucky people play living in the country.” Lush Romantic music is heard for the first time, accompanying images of new roads, bridges, power lines, and happy kids on bikes. The kid with the flat bicycle tire in the 1939 film, who is still a resident of Greenbelt, was actually in attendance at Sunday’s presentation.

As the music proceeds from major to minor, the narrator (voiced by Morris Carnovsky) asks the audience to make a choice where to live, either where kids play in a dirty urban street puddle, or a place with a clean pond with ducks in a row -- framed cities against new developments as places where “people are always getting ready to live but never get there…[or where there is enough] air and sun needed, whether for flowers or babies.” The film ends with upward-reaching musical motifs and a close-up of a smiling boy. The event concluded with a bus trip to nearby Greenbelt for touring and dessert in celebration of Greenbelt’s 70th anniversary.

The next program presented by the Post-Classical Ensemble is called Free to Sing: The Story of the First African-American Opera Company, scheduled for the Music Center at Strathmore this coming winter (February 16, 8 pm).

1 comment:

Evan Tucker said...

I must admit, I really disliked this concert. I admire the Post-Classical Ensemble for their willingness to try something different, but this particular concert seemed to me a colosally failed experiment in trying something new.