Based on an idea of artist and Hollywood 1920s bohemian Natacha Rambova, Salomé was produced by and starred the flamboyant Russian actress, Alla Nazimova. Her intention was to produce a piece of work that would raise the artistic levels of American film. Filmed in 1923, it might be considered one of the first ‘arthouse’ films to be made.
An adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, it has, like the play, always been surrounded by controversy. Before it had even been completed rumours took hold that Nazimova had demanded an all gay and bi-sexual cast in homage to the playwright. Adding to its notoriety is the film’s undoubted aura of loaded eroticism, heightened by the melodramatic, highly stylised performances of the cast. The film’s visual imagery matched the illustrations made by Aubrey Beardsley and was in black and white only, having just some metallic details as accents that would thus reflect the light. The film was eventually released by a minor distributor, but conservative 1920s audiences weren’t ready for something that was so different and it flopped – almost bankrupting Nazimova in the process.
Inspired by the sounds of traditional Arabic percussion ensembles, the instrumentation features an assortment of drums, tambourines, castanets and cymbals as well as the more exotic, including the Sistra (originating from ancient Egypt), the Djembe (a traditional African drum) and Tibetan singing bowls. Much of the composition is based on the fixed rhythmic patterns found in early Arabic music, many in unusual time units such as 7, 10, 13 or 19. The texts for the vocal music are taken from the Psalms, generally ascribed to King David, and here sung in Hebrew and Latin.
Charlie Barber’s website here
“Nazimova and her art director, Natacha Rambova, emulated the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations in the first edition of the play, and the result is highly stylised and ornately camp. Eighty-six years on, Barber’s new music for the restored film fosters a new appreciation of the work’s arthouse values.
Inspired by traditional Arabic percussion ensemble, Barber uses a vast range of instruments, including the metal-framed Egyptian sistrum and the African Djembe drum. Modern scaffolding towers house four percussionists either side of a projection screen, whose complex rhythmic pulses combine with recorded tracks of Psalm settings, sung in Hebrew and Latin, to create an evocative soundscape that mirrors Rambova’s exotic costumes and Salomé’s erotic allure. Barber’s score complements the melodrama without competing with it: Salomé’s necrophiliac kiss is veiled by a silk drape and, similarly, the most striking moments are those when Barber’s textures are at their most sparing. It says much that the hour and a quarter flies by in half the time.”
Rian Evans, The Guardian, 3 November 2009
“Charlie Barber’s incredible new score for the 1923 film version of Wilde’s Salomé continually hammers home the decadence and violence of its theme…The music is often relentless, its interludes of calm steamy and prescient.”
Nigel Jarrett, South Wales Argus, 4 November 2009
“This is a luxuriant hour and a quarter, watching a 1923 film that, to a modern eye, is fascinating and quite remarkable with the added interest of contemporary music. Composer Charlie Barber’s new score for this 89-year-old masterpiece performed by the ensemble Sound Affairs sounds so perfect for the task that it is difficult to now imagine the film without it. The score for the now legendary silent film Salomé starring Alla Nazimova – who near bankrupted herself by financing what proved just too challenging for its own period – is a decadent mixture of Arabic-inspired ensemble music and voices that are spiritual, mystical and evoke Oriental allure…Even now the film, so masterfully accompanied by Barber’s score, is deeply unsettling and oozes a perverse sexuality and immorality that tempts with a hypnotic power that stimulates and repels in equally measure.”
Mike Smith, WalesOnline, 5 April 2012
“Charles Bryant’s 1923 silent film Salomé is one of the first ‘arthouse’ films to emerge from the USA. It was produced by and stars the flamboyant Russian actress Alla Nazimova whose stated aim was to raise the artistic level of American film….Mr Barber was sufficiently intrigued by Bryant’s Salomé to compose a film score for it in a bid to breathe new life into the film. Interestingly, rather than writing a piano, theatre organ or full orchestral score, he has opted for percussion and voice – the musical forces which would have been available in the Middle East of two millennia ago when the story unfolded at Herod’s court…Although Alla Nazinova may not have succeeded in creating an arthouse cinema movement in the USA, this film is a brave attempt to cast off in new directions drawing on influences from European cinema of that era. One hopes that thanks to Charlie Barber’s atmospheric score, Saloméwill win new friends both in the theatre and the concert hall who will be thrilled (or scandalised) by Nazinova’s over-the-top performance and Natacha Rambova’s splendid costumes and sets.”
Roger Jones, Seen and Heard International review
“This is one of the best and most original things I’ve seen in a long time…Everywhere there are references not only to the history of design but to its future. So we have a pair of tiny black pages, literally very small children wearing powdered eighteenth century headdresses higher than themselves. But this 1923 Salome first appears in a Fortuny mini-dress, and later dances in a metallic number that makes her look like Jean Shrimpton glimpsed gyrating on Ready Steady Go…There is nudity, sexual titillation and sly deviancy everywhere that keeps the viewer guessing and it has to be said, enthralled. But that’s not all. Because on two towers placed either side of the screen four young black-clad musicians thrillingly performed a sumptuous percussive sound-track unnervingly invoking the strangeness and exoticism of this visually sophisticated exercise in style.
I have no idea why this marvellous film has been forgotten, but I can only applaud composer Charlie Barber’s superb taste in rescuing a mislaid masterpiece and in composing his miraculous score so wonderfully played by these outstanding musicians. I would quite happily see this again tonight but they’ve whisked off to Buxton already. Come back soon please Mr Barber, and bring your musicians with you.”
Phil Preece, Lichfield Live review