Voyage of Time

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Published: 8th October, 2017

One of the great challenges of reviewing a performance is to remain in the moment with the music, and not allow oneself to drift into a private reverie. Last night’s Melbourne Festival presentation of Terrence Malick’s film Voyage of TIme, accompanied by a live orchestra and chorus (which attempts to encompass the lifespan of the universe) was my biggest test so far.

We saw the feature-length (90 minute) 35mm version of Voyage in Time, narrated by Cate Blanchett, which was selected to compete for a Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival last September. Billed in the Festival Program as a world premiere, the film has been shown in a several countries now, though with its own soundtrack. An IMAX version (40 minutes) narrated by Brad Pitt premiered last October.

A very generously sized Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and the Melbourne Symphony Chorus gave us close to 150 people on the Hamer Hall stage, with the film shown on a screen behind them. Conducted ably by emerging young US conductor Jayce Ogren, the MSO and Chorus provided much of the aural component, with music a collage of Bach, Poulenc, Beethoven, Haydn, and Pärt, arranged by Hanan Townshend, and electronic music from various sources re-imagined and performed by Ricardo Romaneiro and Tyondai Braxton. Producer Ronen Givony’s Wordless Music has found a niche in providing live performances of film scores to accompany the showing of the films, giving audiences another dimension to enjoy.

Although Malick’s work is often critically acclaimed as “visionary”, he divides audiences. He has often fallen out with his actors over the lack of narrative or vision, and only an evolving sense of what the film might become. Voyage of Time took three decades to make, and Malick uses footage he has gathered over those years, together with the most recent in digital imagery and enhancement. There are no actors, just Cate Blanchett’s hypnotically slow, low narration, encouraging the listener to bathe in the visual experience. While the narration and music are well-timed to hear the text, I found the interruptions to the choir’s magical “Aufersteh’n” (from the final movement of Mahler Symphony 2) annoying.

Occasional views of aspects of humanity and brutality from the real world were difficult to process without some sort of signposts, but if Malick intends the audience to make their own meaning, many did not. One of the more mystifying sequences involved naked indigenous hunters, lacking any genitals. From about half an hour into the film, a small, steady stream of people left the theatre. This is not so common in a conventional concert. Others near me were apparently asleep – perhaps that is a more frequent occurrence.

With much of the music electronic, sometimes with “effects” from the orchestra, this very large, extremely good orchestra seemed wasted. Their musical highlight was the emergence of Haydn’s wonderful “sunrise” from The Creation. Strangely though, the visual at this point was a sea full of octopuses.

The MSO Chorus handled the Arvo Pärt Litany, Da Pacem Domine and In Principio excerpts very effectively. Chorus and Orchestra combined to bring the film to a conclusion with the “Dona nobis pacem” from Bach’s Mass in B minor, arranged with an enlarged orchestral accompaniment. As this drew to a fortissimo close, with humanity seeming as though it had been redeemed by this request for peace, the audience began to applaud with relative enthusiasm. However, being a film, this was not the end. We had to listen to the music accompanying the credits for another few minutes. (Even though those credits were not for the orchestra and chorus we were hearing!)

The audience at last had a chance to acknowledge the performance, with polite if not fiercely enthusiastic applause.