Air Le Voyage Dans La Lune

[Astralwerks; 2012]

Styles: electronica, soundtrack, cocktail illusionism
Others: Jimi Tenor, Camel

Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans la Lune could easily be not just the genesis of non-documentary cinema as it is known today, but also its culmination as an ultimate visual experience: light composing the illusion of motion, chemically-induced photo-realism drawing discernible objects and characters in representational spaces, moving pictures showing well-defined actions and establishing a concise narrative. Méliès, an illusionist of kinetic imagination, pioneered one of the definitive cultural forms of the twentieth century, and despite its foundation on the theatrical domain, the film would definitely help to establish a new form of watching (linear, sequential, ordered) and educate a recently-born spectator into these forms.

Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel are illusionists too: vaudeville entertainers for trendy lounge areas where they conjure too-perfectly molded, sophisticated fluffy sounds, throwing in plenty of analog and digital sonic tricks built around soft prog-rock structures to construct a light, gallant style — unpretentious music, very effective in its divertissement purposes. And the duo, like Méliès, have also educated their audience into specific ways of hearing: passive listeners who enjoy the exotic timbral combinations and the repetitiveness of the sound in its surface, providing some second-hand attentiveness in an overall buoyant experience. However, during the 15-year period after their magic breakthrough Moon Safari, the act have gradually worn out; their sleight-of-hand techniques are easily detected now, the misdirections are no longer convincing, the spectators know exactly where to look. Consequently, the ace up their sleeve has been reliant on powerful visual imagery that satisfyingly completes the illusion, as shown by the usage of their songs in several films and the success of their music videos (e.g., “Sing Sang Sung”, an otherwise insipid and annoying song, turns into an addictive synesthetical continuum through a visual path full of cues and connections — as synchronically hooking as watching a table tennis game).

Early cinema’s lack of sound has been an opportunity for modern-day composers, not only as a place to search for inspiration, but also as a means to interpret the visual image, appropriate it and expand it sonically (e.g., the plenty of soundtracks composed for Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera). So when commissioned to compose a soundtrack for the phenomenal restored version of Le Voyage Dans la Lune, the band had half of the work already done; the hand-tinted color print — found originally in the 1990s in the Filmoteca de Catalunya, Barcelona — brings in a new aesthetic dimension (for instance, the more violent moon landing as indicated by the now noticeable red blood) that makes the film even more phantasmagorical than the original black and white version. Air’s music is very airy indeed — vaporous, colorful, and texturally diverse, which, in addition to their penchant for sci-fi themes and references to space, made the band somewhat suitable for this project. Following Méliès’ approach to the cinema-making process, they chose for a home-made production, avoiding all the space-era, cliché sound effects and literal associations between the actions and the music.

“Astronomic Club” kicks off ceremoniously with majestic timpani martially setting up the fantastic motif, while some pitch-shifting mellotron choir, electric piano, and synthesizers garnish the anticipative atmosphere. This is followed by “Seven Stars,” in which some simplistic piano notes and obstinate drums introduce the adorable voice of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand announcing the trip to the moon and transiting toward a countdown that, instead of launching the travelers straight into outer space, leaves them wandering safely on land. With “Retour Sur Terre” — a brief passage serving as a bridge between empty spaces — the music starts to implode, and by the time the fourth song is reached, the album’s modus operandi is revealed: a sequence of preludes and prefaces, a finite series converging to a state of non-development, ever-transitional segments appearing and disappearing inadvertently, every track serving as an introduction to the next one before amassing any substance. This emptying method provides the album’s scarce 32 minutes (remember the joke from the beginning of Annie Hall: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” “Yeah, I know; and such small portions”), prompting the question of why it was marketed as an LP instead of an EP. Thus, every piece here swiftly moves from the mysterious to the lethargic (“Moon Fever”), from a shady, dreamlike area (“Who Am I Now?”) to a barren, clumsy filler (“Décollage”), while instrumentals like “Sonic Armada” or “Parade” explore slightly more complex structures trying to acquire the quality of previous musical moon voyages, but never reaching that selenite destination.

Méliès has been quoted as saying, “The script may, in effect, have no importance in certain films.” Perhaps following that filmmaker’s vision, Air did not care for any script in this album. As Godin himself acknowledges: “The process is more important than the composition,” which certainly summarizes what this work is about: ingenious in its conception as a soundtrack, weak and tedious as a standalone musical venture, an interminable experience despite its brevity. And while the music can actually be quite effective in conjunction with the film’s amazing visual images, the music is not particularly attached to them — and could work as well for copycat versions.

Links: Air - Astralwerks

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