Live-scoring concerts commonly pair up silent movies with orchestras. Works from the early twentieth century — whether it’s Man Ray shorts or canon staples like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — give programmers and musicians a relatively free hand. You can’t drown out a silent film, and you can’t really get it wrong, since any pairing of sound and image takes you towards a reading. Pair The Passion of Joan of Arc with Carly Rae Jepsen’s E • MO • TION and you’re opening up the text.
What the Wordless Music Orchestra pulled off on Friday at National Sawdust was something else. Working with a modified print of Pablo Larraín’s 2016 film Jackie, the orchestra recreated Mica Levi’s original score in real time. The ensemble had to time their cues to match the imagery and play at a volume that almost overwhelmed the dialogue without actually doing so—which they did. This gave us an exploded view, rendering Levi’s music with the heft and dimension of a character as important as Jackie Kennedy herself, which it seems to be. If Natalie Portman is Kennedy’s viscera, Levi’s score comes from inside her skull.
Levi’s score was written for a string section and instrumentalists who map small themes against those strings with vibraphone, flute, and piano. For Under the Skin, Levi used pizzicato and glissando extensively, a strategy repeated in Jackie. A theme that Levi calls “Intro,” rather than “Jackie’s Theme,” is a see-saw of glisses, two descending followed by two ascending. When Jackie’s story hits open water, the theme air-drops a bundle of anxiety.
In one scene, the family learns that Ruby has shot Oswald, and Bobby Kennedy scrambles to keep the news from Jackie, who is talking to her confused son. The orchestra plowed into the slides, stringing together the new president LBJ and the new national mascot JFK Jr, two lost boys only one floor apart.
Levi’s score rarely underlines the action, possibly because she didn’t write the music for specific scenes. She gave Larraín a selection of cues she thought fit the time period, and he then slotted them into the film. One transition takes Jackie from a discussion with Kennedy confidant William Walton to a birthday party for JFK Jr. If Levi came close to writing anything vaguely “happy” for Jackie, it is a plangent theme for flute, played on Friday night by Nathalie Joachim. Average out Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies and the herald of a Disney bird, and you have a sense of the motif.
But Larraín doesn’t wrench any of the music into line with the action. After Jackie tells Walton that she’s lost her husband to the “oil paintings” of the White House, she removes her shoes and carries a birthday cake into a room full of children, singing. Her voice and Levi’s score are not close in key, a thing Larraín doesn’t bother to mask. It clashes. In the cinema, this moment was exquisitely sad. With a live orchestra, as a concert, the scene was an exhilarating embrace of death, a party with candles for the still and moving images.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from Brooklyn.
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.