“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.”
— Stanley Kubrick
The above quotation, which appears on the Web site for In Motion #1, has always been an integral part to the spirit of the Cinematic Orchestra. Post-rock isn’t the name of their game, but they live up to one of its credos, namely “making music for imaginary films.” If their name wasn’t a dead enough giveaway, their music more than speaks to that fact. The spare, ringing chords of “To Build a Home”, one of the most memorable cuts from their 2007 effort Ma Fleur, could easily serve as a sonic backdrop to some introspective art-house flick. What it also did well was create an immediacy necessary to the type of music the Cinematic Orchestra perform. Film scores can be highly engaging pieces of art that stand on their own; however, a clear danger arises in a lack of context. At times, film scores (or music written to sound like film scores) sound like they’re “floating,” or lacking in completion without visual images. If the music has a sense of immediacy, of its own identity, this won’t be a problem. The images in your head will suffice.
It is in this tension that In Motion #1 finds its undoing. Conceptually, it’s quite insular: composers Dorian Concept, Tom Chant, Austin Peralta, and Grey Reverend, along with the Cinematic Orchestra, have written seven pieces inspired by old avant-garde short films. So, unless one has seen the films the pieces are composed for, it’s hard to imagine the inner workings of these musicians in the structure of the songs. If you happen to be a film scholar, or have a penchant for watching short films from the ‘20s, this collaboration might be right up your alley. Unfortunately, for the majority of listeners, this creates a barrier to understanding these pieces. They can be appreciated for their standalone beauty, but to go into any depth you’ll have to do a little better than a light glance at the Wikipedia page for “Necrology”.
This insularity is one significant problem; the other is the music itself. A lot of it is pretty, and there are some intriguing arrangements. The bursts of atonality amidst Dorian Concept and Tom Chant’s “Outer Space” are intriguing, as is the squally saxophone that punctuates the string arrangements. However, for the most part this music is “floating”. It technically does have context in that it was inspired by a film, but it lacks the emotive power the composers are aiming at because the films aren’t included with the CD. In order to truly experience In Motion #1, it seems like you really need to immerse yourself in the various contexts for each piece in order to experience this album. Those enamored with any of these composers will likely not find this to be a problem, but as someone who is a casual fan of the Cinematic Orchestra I found this album especially demanding.
But for one glorious moment, In Motion #1 gets it right. The concluding track “Manhatta”, written by the Cinematic Orchestra, is absolutely stunning. Inspired by a 1920’s short film about the creation of Manhattan, the piece builds into a dramatic, gorgeous finale, with broad sweeps of strings and piano chords at the forefront. Unlike the 20 minute “Entr’acte,” which drags on and on for the entirety of its length, “Manhatta” is enrapturing for all 11 minutes. It’s very plainly a cinematic piece, but it has the immediacy the other pieces here lack. The Cinematic Orchestra can count it as one of their crowning achievements in a still-young career, and it in large part redeems the many middling experiments of In Motion #1. It is a cinematic composition that nevertheless stands on its own as something of a mini-symphony. While not all of the stuff here works, it still remains that the Cinematic Orchestra can live up to their name with an affecting beauty.