One of Atlanta’s leading “new edge” musical ensembles, Sonic Generator, will present a free showing Tuesday night of Fritz Lang’s landmark silent sci-fi film “Metropolis,” underscored live by the group with music by Argentine composer Martin Matalon. The screening will take place outdoors on the Woodruff Arts Center’s Sifly Piazza.
According to Thomas Sherwood, co-artistic director of Sonic Generator and principal percussionist of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it will be the first American screening to combine the restored original cut of the 1927 masterpiece with the contemporary score by Matalon.
“I’m an amateur film geek in some ways,” says Sherwood, “and ‘Metropolis’ is such an iconic film. It influenced a lot of aspects of filmmaking and films that came after it.”
When he learned that an outdoor screening of the restored “Metropolis” with Matalon’s score had taken place in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Sherwood decided that a similar presentation should be mounted in Atlanta. That its backdrop, the Bilbao Guggenheim with its groundbreaking design by Frank Gehry, itself drew inspiration from “Metropolis” is a fact not lost on Sherwood, who recognizes well how architectural design itself plays a significant role in the movie.
Mostly there’s the Art Deco style, just emerging in the 1920s, which permeates and drives most of the film’s futuristic imagery, with its emphasis on bold machine-age aesthetics and lavishly ornamented, often symmetrical rectilinear geometric shapes built with materials made possible by industrial mass production. But there are also occasional contrasting styles, incorporated here and there for their symbolic impact, including a Gothic cathedral and the curiously antiquated home of mad scientist Rotwang.
“I’ve always really liked the piazza space at the Woodruff Arts Center and always wished that they’d utilize it more,” Sherwood explains. “I thought that with the visual style of this film, it would be a really cool space [in which] to view the film and hear this score, surrounded by all the architecture.”
Matalon previously wrote a score for “Metropolis” in 1995, before a print of Lang’s lost original cut was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008 and restored. Matalon, a native of Buenos Aires who studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School of Music, revised and expanded upon that score for the restoration, which includes 25 minutes of footage that was removed by distributors or censors not long after the premiere. The new score involves 16 live musicians plus electronics, a combination that jibes with Sonic Generator’s core mission of music and technology.
“With Sonic Generator, I’m always on the lookout for works that use electronics in some way, especially with film,” Sherwood says. “Martin’s music has a lot of that. He worked with Viacom for a while and had access to all this great technology for creating interesting electronic scores. That was another appealing part of this. A sound engineer from Paris is coming in to handle the electronics. Everything is amplified.”
The instrumentation includes trumpet, saxophone, a Django Reinhardt-flavored guitar and such exotic percussion instruments as a tabla, congas and pitched gongs, offset against contemporary electronics. “The score has very real jazz sound to it, but it’s jazz fused with a very avant-garde [element],” says Sherwood. The intention, he suggests, is to emulate the feeling of the movie’s Art Deco visual attitude, presenting a futuristic dystopia from the perspective of 1927, but one that still resonates today.
“People who know the film get off on it. Even if you’ve seen it 100 times already, to go see it again with other people in this different, special space will definitely be a unique experience.”