Maya Deren And The Scores Of Teiji Ito (Meshes Of The Afternoon + Others)

Time past and time future,
What might have been and what has been,
Point to one end, which is always present. – T.S Eliot (Four Quartets)

There’s a clash often present in the films of Maya Deren but especially in the ones that incorporate music into their styling.  From her most famous short Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943 or 1952 with music) to other titles such as Meditation On Violence (1948), the music may in some ways fit but at first appear to add to the visual oddness of the pieces rather than normalise them.  The connecting factor of these films and others by Deren is working with composer Teiji Ito; a Tokyo born musician who combined traditional Japanese theatre music with the first wave of Avant-Garde film from America.

Watching Meshes Of The Afternoon is a strange experience.  Its cyclic nature and mysterious, faceless figures hint at all sorts of emotional evolutions and visual traps that confuse and aggravate Deren as she tries continually to follow a person always just that bit further around the corner.  Further mysteries are added to the evolving puzzle including a key, a knife and a hooded figure that wouldn’t seem out of place in a fantasy setting.  An array of potential metaphors bombards the viewer from the very start with a fake hand and arm delivering a flower to the ground; another image that continually crops up in its short running time.

It is, however, hard to imagine the film having that same engulfing effect without Ito’s score.  The cut that allows objects to disappear or change into something else entirely is often accompanied by rhythmic hit on some form of Japanese drum giving it an unnerving sense of humour, even when the transformation is from a key to a knife.  Ito’s score and Japanese theatre music in general also manages to seem to be emotionally ambiguous; Ito’s score in particular here seeming to not be too fussed on satisfying any emotional criteria.  The ambiguity is perfectly suited as it makes its ending far more surprising, though perhaps also in the sense of adding to the open ended nature of the narrative.

A period of silence appears between each cycle which is then indicated to start by some vocal and string music; an experimental form even in contrast to the most technical Japanese traditions.  The vocal drones allow the string movement to slide into sound from nowhere before another rhythmic hit chimes with a cut.  The short has two musical climaxes; the first seems deliberately fake in key with where the visual cycle is at.  This first cacophony of sound builds as multiple Derens inhabit the same table, thinking the key will be the answer as to why they cannot follow the hooded the figure.

This climax, however, seems there to make the lie of Alexander Hammid’s first appearance seem more believable.  The mystery as to who this figure was appears to be solved with the man mimicking the hooded figures actions shown early to be entering the house and placing the flower on the bed.  Ito’s score is silent at this point, allowing this lie to be taken in before bringing back the drone which has become a leitmotif for the hooded figure.  The real Hammid enters the house with the key, finding the flower and Deren dead.  She smashed the fake Hammid with the knife revealing it to be a mirror itself; a mirror of reality stuck in repeat.

Ito’s score mimics all of this wonderfully but the clash is definitely present.  The eastern tones alongside the weird but still American visuals (the record player, the mise- en- scène of the house etc.) creates rotating planes that form alignments only occasionally.  The sounds and instrumentation bring to mind the scores from films by Kurosawa and Ozu yet the film was made before they had had their western appraisal (and in some cases were even made).  The link to the latter is solidified further by viewings of films such as Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959) and A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) that show traditional Japanese theatre performances and boast very similar musical themes albeit in entirely different contexts.

Ito’s scores for other films by Deren build on this initial clash until eastern tonality almost becomes an extension of the Avant-Garde repertoire.  Perhaps using tonality and instrumentation completely different to the system used by the likes of Hollywood added an even more outside element to Deren’s films but, thanks to the easy access to world cinema today (especially that of Japan’s), the linking of the two worlds seems clear and surprisingly natural.  Of course, Ito’s music out of the context of Japanese theatre is going to hint at the surreal; especially two countries whose cultures were still under the shadow of each other’s involvement in the Second World War.

His first proper score for Deren in Meditation On Violence has some beautifully simple melody lines with hints at Shinnaibushi styled Jōruri (the most lively and up tempo of styled Japanese theatre music).  This is matched visually with the film that shows an Asian man practicing some form of martial art as well as samurai sword techniques.  The clash isn’t present here, though Deren’s particular partiality to the use of shade and slow motion still means the film has her stamp on it.  This is in itself interesting as the visual elements are also adapting cultures outside of the west.  The mention of Kurosawa before was deliberate in order to bring up his, almost polar opposite, methods when working with composers for his samurai films.  His influence of John Ford films no doubt meant a desire to incorporate western tonality into the scores of a number of his films.  However, whereas Deren desired the fantastical, Kurosawa clearly wanted a more solidified and defined approach, which can be heard in Masaru Sato’s scores for films such as Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) (though oddly not for his score for Kurosawa’s Macbeth adaptation Throne Of Blood (1957)).

Though Ito re-scored Meshes Of The Afternoon long after it was made, it is interesting to note the evolution of his work with Deren.  A mere six years after being in America, the tonal qualities of the Japanese theatre tradition seem to align themselves with a less obviously Japanese musical form in The Very Eye Of The Night (1958).  The score bares more than a fleeting resemblance to music from Oliver Postgate’s Television series The Clangers perhaps because of the emphasis being put more on the clarinet than the more obvious Japanese instruments of the previous film scores.  The western influence is there now, starting to build until Ito would find a balance in his stage musical scores that were famous for combining both eastern and western musical ideas.

These three films show a collaboration which screams of serendipity.  The natural other-worldliness of Japanese theatre music was a perfect suitor to Deren’s fantastical inner portraits; complimenting each other perfectly while still acutely aware of their differences and of their own contextualising creations.

Adam Scovell.

One thought on “Maya Deren And The Scores Of Teiji Ito (Meshes Of The Afternoon + Others)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s