Journey Across the Impossible

Apollo Saxophone Quartet
Fringe Player

Apollo Saxophone Quartet
From Voyage to the Moon (1902)
From The Black Imp (1905)
From The Man with the Rubber Head (1901)
From The Dancing Pig (1907)
Jim Fieldhouse (baritone) and Andy Scott (tenor) filming
Carl Raven (alto)

The Apollo Saxophone Quartet was formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1985, and this particular project, Journey Across the Impossible, is one of its most popular works, originally commissioned by Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester in 1998. This recording was filmed not far from me in Glossop Parish Church.

The ensemble plays original music live to accompany some very early silent movies from around the world, ranging in date from 1901 to 1912, except for one from 1940, ranging in style and genre from comedy shorts to melodramas, from documentary to the frankly bizarre and even slightly disturbing.

They include the amazing visual effects of Georges Mélièrs from such shorts as The Infernal Cake Walk (1903) featuring dancing demons in a rocky cavern, The Man with the Rubber Head (1901) in which the titular disembodied body part could be inflated with a bike pump and of course Voyage to the Moon (1902), half a century before humans had managed to leave this planet, in which a group of astronauts escape capture by a hostile tribe of moon folk who seem to explode when hit and featuring one of the most famous images from early cinema, the moon face with a rocket sticking out of it.

The New York Hat (1912), from leading American director D W Griffith, is the story of a young woman who is bought an expensive fashionable hat ($10, no less) by a minister, who it turns out was asked to do so by the girl's dying mother, but the local gossips get to work and turn it into a scandal. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) begins with a man in a restaurant gorging himself on Welsh rarebit—yes, cheese on toast—before some great visual effects show, when he leaves the restaurant, the street spinning around, and when he goes to bed some imps hammering at his head before the bed flies over the city.

There are a couple of documentaries, including The Birth of the Big Gun (1908), a German film showing the forging of a giant cannon from a raw steel ingot right up to testing—it was difficult to watch this without thinking it may have been used to kill British soldiers only a few years later—and Collapse of the Tacoma Suspension Bridge (1940), actual footage of a large suspension bridge flexing dangerously in the crosswinds before shaking itself to pieces.

In the category of the disturbing are The Dancing Pig (1907), in which a giant pig—not a real one—has its clothes stolen, dances then sticks out a horrible tongue, and The Acrobatic Fly (1910), which looks like a fly glued upside down to a pencil while it rolls various objects around on its feet.

The music—written by Rob Buckland, Carl Raven, Jim Fieldhouse, Andy Scott and Will Gregory and played by Buckland (soprano), Raven (alto), Scott (tenor) and Fieldhouse (baritone)—fits perfectly with the films and brings them to life at least as well as the original music must have done.

The film and sound quality is high, but the video editing is rather fussy, using as many different transition effects as possible plus picture-in-picture and multi-screens floating around, which is quite distracting. Sometimes, it is hard to see the detail of the films as they have been shrunk in the frame to show the musicians for extended periods—and I watched it on the largest TV in our house.

However, this is a minor irritation in an enjoyable hour of good music married perfectly to fascinating and in some cases important and seminal short films. I hope I will get chance to see this live one day.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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