Los Angeles’ Largo at the Cornet is a small venue where even the last row in the house is a good seat. There is no preferential treatment here, no seats sectioned off for “special” guests. In previous trips, I did the non-spoken eye move indicating that the two seats in my row were open to a tall man in a baseball cap (who I later realized was Rainn Wilson) proving that everyone here is equal, we have all gathered for the same reason and that unspoken knowledge makes the link between each person in the room (at least for those few hours) palpable.
The man of the hour this particular night even pointed out that while he had put him on the guest list, he was not sure Moon director Duncan Jones had actually made it out only to have Jones confirm his presence by shouting, “I’m right here, mate!” from only a few seats down from me.
This layout gives the sense of an intimate and unique experience that makes you feel like the artist is performing from the couch in your living room. There are no backstage passes here or over inflated egos, just a group of people who have come together for a common interest, and on this night it was the music of Clint Mansell.
Last Thursday, Mansell hosted his second night at the Largo performing pieces from the various films he has scored (such as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and Moon) for a sold out audience. Unless you are in the studio while a score is being composed or happen to be one of the musicians bringing the music to life, it is very rare to get the opportunity to hear these scores performed live by the author. This once-in-a-lifetime treat was clearly not lost on music fans in Los Angeles who showed up very early and sat in excited anticipation as we waited for Mansell to take the stage.
On our way in, I noticed that the stage was littered with chords, wires, amps and various video screens mixed in with music stands and instruments. It was an immediate visual hint that Mansell is a composer who is apt at combining the old school way of conducting live instruments with the more electronic age of music that often leave his scores sounding like Mozart trying his hand at dup-step. One stage piece that immediately caught my eye was a shirtless mannequin who’s head was a computer monitor. I had no idea what that installation would end up being used for, but the image of a tangible element (in human form) combined with a digital element made Mansell’s style undeniably clear on sight alone.
Originally scheduled for a two-night run, the quickly sold out shows caused a third to be added to the schedule as the demand for Mansell was undeniable. Clad in a beanie and black t-shirt, Mansell seemed almost shy as he took the stage and frequently commented that he did not know why he was so nervous. Despite having been in the band Pop Will Eat Itself, Mansell is a musician who is clearly more comfortable behind the board and behind the scenes rather than center stage. But despite his nerves, his music spoke for itself and immediately swelled throughout the room (and quelled any questions of what the show would be like) after the first note was struck.
Joined by Brian Emrich (bass), Mike Fonre (guitar), Chris Vrenna (drums), Carly Paradis (piano) and a string quartet (Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, Kathleen Sloan, Caroline Campbell and Rob Brophy), Mansell had put real time and effort into the show and was truly shocked and grateful so many people wanted to come out and experience it. While Mansell was certainly at the center, the musicians he selected to join him overflowed with talent as you would hold your breath each time the quartet picked up one of their instruments, waiting for that rush of powerful strings as they blended together and created almost a wall of sound. While mesmerizing, your would eyes then quickly dart over to the piano or drums as each would strike up and add a new unmistakable element to the overall piece. Each instrument made its presence known, but they were never overwhelming, instead washing over you in a way that made you want to be taken over by it as we watched a true master, and his talented accompaniment, at work.
Since music created for films is intended to be seen with visuals, Mansell’s show took this concept in a new and fresh direction by having two screens flanking either side of the stage and displaying different images from nature to a candle burning down to actual vignettes of people swimming or dancing (selections of which you can watch at Mansell’s website.) The screens were almost always utilized during the show, but they went distinctively dark when Mansell began performing some of his pieces from Requiem of a Dream. The musicians also took a bit of a back seat for the first time during these pieces as Mansell sat behind his rig made up of a lap top (which he would frequently try and duck behind, either purposely or instinctively), music stand and keyboards to recreate some of his most well-known work with nothing else to distract from it. Songs like “Fear,” “The Beginning of the End,” “Meltdown” and “Lux Aeterna” vibrated throughout the room and took hold of you, bringing you right into the music.
Requiem is some of Mansell’s most well-known work and most impressive seeing as he created it when he was just starting out in his career (alongside director Darren Aronofsky.) These pieces focused more on Mansell since they were mainly made up of his bold and off-putting electronics making the moments when the strings would rush in an almost relief as the sounds we are used to hearing filled in the electronic landscape. Although unexpected and inventive, the music was never lacking, instead becoming incredibly interesting since it was difficult to predict what would come next. This marriage of staccato strings with almost alien sounding beats and tones put you right into the headspace of the film and, outside of it, sounded like an otherworldly orchestra.
Before performing pieces from the film Last Night, Mansell explained the concept of “temp love” where filmmakers can fall in love with a piece of music they threw over the scene and then need to replace in the final cut. Peter Broderick’s “Not At Home” played over the final scene in Last Night and director Massy Tadjedin could not think of a better song to replace it. Once Mansell’s score was in place, the song fit less, but nothing else seemed as like a comparable replacement. They decided to instead have Broderick sing the lyrics over one of the themes Mansell had created for the film, retaining Broderick’s sound while tying the song in with the rest of the film. Since Broderick could not be there himself to perform “Final Movement (Feat. Not At Home)” that night, he became the face featured on the mannequin I noticed at the beginning of the show as he sang along with the musicians on stage, truly marrying the idea of electronics and classic instrumentation in a visceral and mesmerizing way.
“Final Movement” is haunting in its beauty as the lyrics are almost hummed and Mansell’s more expected in-your-face instrumentation fades to the background and simply accents the song. The piano refrain that starts off the piece is lovely, but when Broderick’s vocals begin to lay over the music, it truly enhances the piece and makes it all the more interesting and inspiring. Even if you cannot quite make out the lyrics, the composition almost causes you to sing along as it lulls you into an near meditative state.
Mansell joked toward the end of the show that to be a good composer, it really comes down to surrounding yourself with brilliant and talented musicians who bring your vision to life. Mansell pointed out that throughout the show, while the musicians around him played their hearts out on the guitar, piano, drums or violin, he would sit and play his keyboard, sometimes with only two fingers, adding the most simplistic contribution to the group. But in that he also imparted some important advice that when it comes to score that it is better to keep it simple and have it come from a simple place since score is not the main event in a film, it is merely an accompaniment.
Even if it was created only to be an accompaniment, Mansell’s music filled the Largo Thursday night and proved that it could certainly stand on its own, at the forefront, with nothing distracting from it. While this may not have been the music’s original intention, it was still impressive and moving to see that both the music, and Mansell himself, could accomplish this duality, all while making it seem simple.