(New Album Review) Christine Ott- Tabu
The 1931 silent feature Tabu, a collaboration between master filmmakers F. W. Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty, is an artifact both timeless and deeply dated. A woman and man (the woman is named Reri, the man, Matahi) on an island paradise (Bora Bora) fall in love after a seemingly trivial encounter at a moment of vulnerability, but their chance for happiness is cut short when an elder from Fanuma, Hitu, declares Reri to be an untouchable vessel of the gods. The decree can be abode by all but two. Matahi easily convinces his love to flee the island with him. But their past seems to follow them, and Reri is haunted by visions of the old warrior who sealed her fate. You may have some idea of where this is going. And all this is captured in some of the most gorgeous black and white imagery ever committed to celluloid.
Appreciating the pictorial beauty of Tabu has to be balanced with some awareness of the context in which it was made– Murnau and Flaherty are two Whites enlisting/utilizing a cast of non-White South Pacific and East Asian non-actors for the sake of a tragic allegory. It’s clear that the way the film came about was through a pseudo-ethnographic approach that might (as is the case with Flaherty’s work as director, which pioneered the idea of documentary filmmaking) come off as condescending in this day and age. However, the actual content of the film, its fatalist, pantheist vision, definitely transcends time and specifics, almost like the art of Lynd Ward (whose best-known books were contemporary to this film’s production). It’s ultimately very poignant, and stands out for its time for how it sympathetically depicts the exploitation at the hands of Whites that Reri and Matahi face after their flight from home.
Hugo Riesenfeld’s soundtrack for the original release (as “talkies”were getting popularized, some films were shot silent but presented with musical accompaniment on a soundtrack anyway) is, similarly, kind of dated by today’s standards for its melodramatic feel (I tend to dislike film music up to the 50s for this reason), but it is still memorable enough that it may have even been influential to other filmmakers and composers in the long run. In a key scene from the beginning, in which Bora Borans paddle out en masse to intercept Hitu, a motif from “The Moldau”, a section from Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic poem My Homeland, is heard. I was not even familiar with the name and composer of this piece at the time, but it took me only a moment to remember where I had first heard that melody: in The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Crazy. And there are some basic parallels between Murnau and Flaherty’s film and The New World, now that I think of it…
So, fast forward eighty-odd years. In 2016, Christine Ott, fresh off of finishing her luminous second album Only Silence Remains (check: “Sexy Moon”) announced her intention to release a soundtrack to Tabu she had composed in 2012 through Gizeh Records, along with performing in live accompaniment to the film in a series of concerts. This new work puts Murnau and Flaherty’s film in a very different light. It does not have any connection to the previous soundtrack (though Ott got around to listening to that later on), and in many ways it makes for a more satisfying viewing. It is all the more beautiful on its own, as well.
Ott’s take on Tabu is all rippling, insistent motifs on piano and subtle shading on ondes martenot (early electronic keyboard), while Torsten Böttcher gives a lightness and sense of being in a different world on hang (instrument developed by a Swiss company that sounds like a steelpan…). This new interpretation is impassive modern composition that does a better job of complementing the film than the original soundtrack; its suspension of emotional release contrasts with the doomed love on the screen to intuitive effect. Perhaps it is better when film music does not tell you what to feel or is creating something separated from the action by a degree or so. In Ott’s version of Tabu, for the key scene I brought up earlier when referencing the original soundtrack, the pastoral, celebrant strings are replaced by a foreboding ambiguity– Ott’s rippling, pleading piano motif. The siren-song of that ondes martenot enfolds Matahi’s tragic struggle at the film’s end in a sense of the cruel mystery of fate. There is a drama to it all, but easy answers are averted. We’re engulfed by the cold arms of the sea in the end.
This delicate and dark experimental soundtrack deserves some major props for the way it subtly reshapes the experience of watching a great film. Essential.