Lost in Kino (Compact Disc) (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Royal S. Brown

Music for films and other media by Ljova. Diverse artists, including Ljova on viola and famiola, Romashka, and Tall Tall Trees. Compact disc. Kapustnik Records.

 Ljova is the nom de compositeur of Moscow-born (in 1978) Lev Zhurbin, a Juilliard-trained violist who has turned his musical gifts in many directions, including arrangements for groups such as Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet, and original compositions for a host of media, including film, TV, and the concert stage. He also has his own group, Ljova and the Kontraband. This new CD, the third produced by Ljova’s company Kapustnik, includes a grand total of twenty-four tracks of brief cues divided into two groupings. Most of the music is for the cinema (“kinó” in Russian means “cinema”). In the the first grouping, the majority of the tracks, most of which are genre pieces—polkas, waltzes, marches—were composed for a film entitled Black Lamb (Chernyi Baran), unreleased so far in America, directed by Roman Khrushch, described as “a dark comedy about race relations in contemporary Moscow.” Even though folk-inspired, each of the mostly brief cues here features little twists and turns in the music that continually keep the listener involved. At times one imagines that something along the lines of Nino Rota is going to emerge; at other times, such as in the two cues entitled “Karnavale,” there is more than a hint of Kurt Weill. Yet nothing here smacks of pastiche. Listeners who want to get an idea of how Ljova’s music works cinematically can access a montage of scenes from Black Lamb on the Kapustnik Website accompanied by the “War Then Peace” cue from the CD. The expert and enthusiastic performances come from Ljova on the viola, fiddle, and, yes, famiola (a hybrid six-string instrument combining violin, viola and cello), members of the New York based Gypsy band Romashka, and, for the final cue, “Pickle Porker Polka,” which is for a different film, the group Tall Tall Trees.

The second part of this CD presents an entirely—well, not quite entirely—different, and for the most part definitely darker, side of Ljova’s gifts as a composer and performer. The first cue, “Satul Dintre Noi” (Middle Village), is basically a modal dance mostly for cymbalom and bass that the film’s principal composer, Osvaldo Golijov, asked Ljova to compose for the scenes in which the main character gets moved from one hideout to another in Francis Ford Coppola’s sadly neglected Youth Without Youth. The next cue, the longest and probably my favorite on the CD, is entitled “The Coup.” One of the composers to whom Ljova dedicates Lost in Kino is Philip Glass, and there is certainly more than a hint of Glass in the virtuosic, nonstop, and extremely fast-paced perpetuum mobile exhilaratingly performed on the viola by Ljova who, thanks to multitracking, also introduces some extremely moody lyricism and a bass line into this thoroughly engrossing vignette. Although “The Coup” was finally not used in the film, Kapustnik.com offers a video clip, accompanied by “The Coup,” that may or may not be from the intended film, showing often barely visible cross-dressers walking about the streets at night.

Of the remaining numbers on Lost in Kino, I found “Russian Winterland,” which includes some slightly Indian-sounding vocalizing by Ljova’s wife, Inna Barmash, to be the most immediately identifiable as Russian in its mournful lyricism. Interestingly, this music was not written for a film but has been reused quite movingly to back images from a 1909 documentary entitled Moscow in the Snow, which can be found on Kapustnik’s Website and on YouTube. This is an absolute must. Russian in a very different way—one thinks of a composer such as Dmitri Shostakovich—are the wit and irony in the herky-jerky “Famous People,” the first of three cues that appear in Joseph Astor’s documentary Lost Bohemia, which depicts the last days of the Carnegie Hall Studios and of the apartments above them. The final of these three cues, “The Evictions Begin,” to my ears evokes the kind of tragic loneliness one often hears in the music of Arvo Pärt. Just as your ears begin to get used to the darkness, however,Lost in Kino concludes with a brief cue, “Doctor Wrong,” which, performed on a pipa and shakuhachi, seems to come from an entirely different ethnic world. This is followed by a rather silly, and again brief, song, entitled “The End (Baby You Gotta Get Up!”), for an animated film, with Sarah Natochenny singing the lyrics with what I’m guessing is an appropriately little-girly voice.

Ljova is not only a gifted composer and performer, he is an amazingly multifaceted musician whose passion and enthusiasm bubble over in the various pieces on this CD. It would be fun to see what he could come up with over an entire feature film. I also must put in a good word for the very present recorded sound on this Kapustnik release, which adds just enough reverberation to create a lovely sense of space around the music. Strongly recommended.

Royal S. Brown is a professor in the City University of New York. He is the author of three books, along with numerous articles and reviews. He is currently preparing a book of film theory entitled Images of Images: Lacan in Literature and Film.

To purchase Lost in Kino, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.