The Wordless Orchestra Brings “Barry Lyndon” Back to Majestic Life


Sometime this Thursday, a 20-by-40-foot movie screen will be delivered to the stage of the Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue, where it will be hung and fastened 27 feet in the air. Then, on Saturday April 8, around 8 p.m., the 50-piece Wordless Music Orchestra, complete with a grand piano and harpsichord, will take the stage. And as they perform the score for Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece, Barry Lyndon, while the movie plays on the screen, the 3,000-seat Kings will be once again transformed into the grand picture palace it was when it opened in September of 1929.

To be fair, this won’t be the first time the Kings — once one of the Loews chain’s massive, ornate Wonder Theatres — has hosted a film since its $95 million restoration in 2015. The Alamo Drafthouse showed the original Star Wars trilogy here last August. But there is something particularly special about experiencing Barry Lyndon in this environment. When it originally opened, the Kings showed both movies and live-music revues. The first film to screen here was the Dolores del Rio drama Evangeline, a silent production that had music and sound effects added to it after The Jazz Singer popularized talking pictures and transformed the industry. And Barry Lyndon, with a score that mixes pieces by the likes of Handel, Vivaldi, Schubert, and the Chieftains, works alternately like a concert and a silent film.

Barry Lyndon lies at the exact corner of total freedom and total fidelity when it comes to music,” says Ryan McAdams, who will be conducting the orchestra. “So many film scores today are pitched sound effects,” he explains. “It’s often a drone, or a hum, meant to heighten or deepen an emotional place; you’re not even supposed to be conscious of it. But with Kubrick, when music is played, it often dominates the film as much as any particular visual does. He traps you in that world, sometimes when the movie itself is not moving at a breakneck pace.”

“Not moving at a breakneck pace” is one way to describe Kubrick’s crowning achievement, adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 comic novel. That’s not to say that the film lacks incident. It follows, with deliberate patience, the journey of young, sad-eyed eighteenth-century Irishman Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), who falls in love, feuds with a British captain, flees from home, gets robbed, joins the British army, deserts, joins the Prussian army, becomes a spy, then a servant, then a professional gambler — all in just the first half. After that, Redmond achieves “the pitch of prosperity” when he marries an English noblewoman, Lady Lyndon (the mesmerizingly melancholy Marisa Berenson), starts calling himself Barry Lyndon, and attempts to buy himself a title. Meanwhile, his wife’s peevish son from her previous marriage does nothing to hide his contempt for the “Irish upstart.” If the first half of the film shows how charm, duplicity, and ambition aid Barry’s rise, the second half shows how those same forces undo him. “For the qualities and energies which lead a man to achieve” a fortune, as the narrator tells us, “are often the very cause of his ruin” when it comes to keeping one.

At the time of its release, Barry Lyndon was met with a decidedly mixed reception. While it was eventually nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture) and awarded four, it failed to achieve the box office breakthrough of previous Kubrick hits 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, or A Clockwork Orange. Many critics — some of whom had always regarded the director’s work with suspicion — derided the film as an arty museum piece, an immaculate but lifeless re-creation of the past and nothing more. It didn’t help, perhaps, that much of the publicity around the picture focused on the high-speed lenses Kubrick had adapted to allow him to shoot in candlelight. NASA had used those fancy lenses, developed by Zeiss, to look through space; Kubrick, it seemed, was using them to look through time. But in the gritty atmosphere of 1970s filmmaking, some felt that the visionary director — whose previous three efforts had all been topical, zeitgeisty variations on science fiction — had taken a surprising, aesthetically conservative turn.

The notion that Barry Lyndon was some wallow in nostalgia misses something critical about the film’s structure. “If you listen to the music,” McAdams says, “you realize that this film is not an attempt to re-create life in the eighteenth century, but an attempt to bring to life how these people wanted to have been seen.” This is also clear from Kubrick’s visual strategy: Actors often sit or stand still, as if they might be posing for a painting. Here, Kubrick, whose camera-moves in other films are so powerful and graceful, usually opts for a zoom lens; he often opens close on a hand, a figure, or another detail, then zooms away ever so slowly, until he’s placed a character or event in broader visual context. (The preponderance of zooms instead of tracking shots in the film may also have been a logistical choice: The production often shot in well-preserved historical homes and castles, and may have wanted to avoid damaging the delicate floors with heavy dolly tracks.)

This relative lack of movement gives Barry Lyndon a haunting solemnity: The rigidity of the characters correlates to the rigidity of the class structure Kubrick portrays, and one of the film’s most heartbreaking visual conceits is how Barry, so mobile and human in the first half, seems almost like he’s been trapped in a painting, or a jewel box, in the second. The score enhances that sense of entrapment. “The music in Barry Lyndon does a great job of reflecting the film’s sense of space,” says composer Frank Cogliano, who has been painstakingly transcribing the score for the past few months. “Look at the repetition. For the big duel scene at the end, you have this timpani part that’s playing these sixteen measures of Handel. It’s so little material, but it’s played in this way that goes on — I think one of the cues is eleven minutes. It’s always underlying, it’s always there. If you were to detach it from the movie, it would be monotonous.” In the context of the film, it’s relentless.

Originally founded to bring together classical music performers with rock and electronic musicians, Wordless Music performed their first live film concert in 2012, with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Bill Morrison’s experimental documentary The Miners’ Hymns. “We just thought of that as another show — we didn’t think of it as leading up to anything,” says founder Ronen Givony. A year or so later, after watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, Givony had an idea: “I called my sound man, I called my contractor, and said, ‘I just saw this extraordinary movie, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Let’s do something with these people.’ ” After the success of those Beasts of the Southern Wild performances — their August 2013 concert in Prospect Park drew 7,000 people — Givony began to think of what else they could do. “A day or two later, I realized, ‘Oh, our old friend Jonny Greenwood scored There Will Be Blood — that would be perfect for this.’ ”

Wordless has done eight of these live film scores to date, with presentations of them including a two-night stand at BAM last November for a performance of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (I was there, and it was glorious) and a sold-out performance of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight at London’s Barbican Center last month. The group has found that, once it chooses a film, it can be a challenge to convince a studio or producers to give their blessing. Even though more established organizations like the New York Philharmonic have had great success performing scores to classics such as On the Waterfront or The Godfather, Wordless’s fondness for newer, more unlikely, sometimes downright experimental fare isn’t always immediately welcomed. “When we did Tree of Life, it was an extremely drawn-out process until we got in touch with Terrence Malick’s producers and they talked to the studio,” Givony explains. “Other people do The Lion King or Harry Potter and it’s a guaranteed sell out. We do stuff like Punch-Drunk Love and Under the Skin.”

From that perspective, Barry Lyndon is a bit of an outlier for the group — it’s older and relies on well-known classical pieces. But Kubrick didn’t port those tracks over indiscriminately: He worked with composer Leonard Rosenman to rearrange the pieces to fit the story. (Rosenman and Kubrick butted heads mightily, but the composer did walk away with an Oscar for his efforts.) In its original incarnation, the Sarabande from Handel’s Keyboard Suite in D Minor, the film’s signature theme, sounds nothing like the way it does in Barry Lyndon; Rosenman rearranged it completely to sound like contemporary soundtrack music. (Kubrick once recalled that he had the idea of using the piece after hearing it played on a guitar and realizing it sounded like Ennio Morricone.) There are subtler changes as well. Cogliano notes the final appearance of another of the best known pieces, Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-Flat Major. “With the Schubert, right at the end of the film, there’s a whole middle section that was more active and in the Romantic style that’s been cut out. And one of the major chords in the end was turned into a minor chord. It’s fascinating to zero in on those changes and then figure out why they were made and how they serve the film.”

Barry Lyndon will be one of Wordless’s most ambitious undertakings. “It’s probably our longest performance,” says Pauline Kim Harris, first violin/concertmaster for the group. “It’s definitely the first one with an intermission.” The project originated with producers Joseph Berger and Michael Sayers, who came to Givony early last year with the idea of performing Kubrick’s film. It has taken the better part of a year to put all this together. Much of that involved giving Cogliano time to transcribe the score; unlike with other projects Wordless has done, an isolated music track was hard to come by. “I actually at this point have still not heard a completely music-only version of the film,” says the composer, who had to pinpoint each music cue, time it out, transcribe it, and arrange it. Once Cogliano delivers a score, Kim Harris and Givony create a rehearsal breakdown and go through the instrumentation to see the best way to cover the material. “We really don’t get to rehearse as much as one would like to think,” says Kim Harris. “Part of the benefit of Wordless is that these people are like a family. They’ve played a lot together, and they’ve been seasoned over the years.”

The precise nature of the way Kubrick edited sound also presents a challenge. “Some of the cues are meticulous in almost a sociopathic way,” chuckles McAdams. “During the Seven Years’ War sequence [when Barry’s battalion goes into combat, accompanied by the sound of drums], there is not a step in the march that is out of rhythm, despite the fact that the shot is continuous. Later, the more aristocratic the music becomes, the more you have to judge the cues perfectly.” The conductor notes that Kubrick’s outs for his musical sequences are like no other director’s: “He keeps you locked into the music until the dialogue starts up, and you barely have a second to breathe between the two.” This will make the performance even more exciting, McAdams believes: “It will feel so visceral and dramatic live. You’ll be watching these musicians, and the second they pause, the screen will pull you back in.”

The unique way Barry Lyndon pulls the viewer between action, music, and narration speaks to the film’s complex layering of perspective. Kubrick may have used period-authentic detail to re-create the eighteenth century, but he’s after something more here. Michael Hordern’s calm, confident, occasionally bemused omniscient narrator feels less like an eighteenth-century voice than a worldly nineteenth-century one: a Victorian know-it-all who offers up details about the various historical events Barry finds himself living through, as if he were leading a guided tour through a museum.

Could this be the voice of Thackeray himself? Strangely, while the film’s grave third-person voiceover is taken nearly verbatim from the book, Thackeray wrote the novel in the first person, shot through with a fevered irony as Barry relates his misadventures. But the narration, which fits the movie perfectly, is just one of a series of windows through which Barry Lyndon is revealed to us. For, the narrator, despite his smug omniscience, is himself not in charge of the movie. Kubrick even unceremoniously fades out Hordern’s voice right before the intermission. The titles that bookend the film — including the very final, bitterly comic one, “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now” — suggest another consciousness at large. This is a movie about the twentieth century looking back at the nineteenth century looking back at the eighteenth century. And who knows what new windows will be opened onto the work as we watch an orchestra partly known for experimental music perform these Baroque pieces live in a restored, historic movie theater in 21st-century Brooklyn, as Kubrick’s once-maligned masterpiece unspools again. Time, I suspect, isn’t done with Barry Lyndon yet.