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Houston Symphony in the Desert of the Real

I’ve had an extraordinary and most unexpected experience in the concert hall. In a time where symphony orchestras appear to be losing audiences, Houston Symphony is gathering a new one. Last night at Jones Hall, a nearly sold-out house enjoyed a screening of the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix with Don Davis, a formidable composer in various genres, conducting his original score for the film played live by orchestra, chorus and soloists.

Composer Don Davis (photo by Leftéris Pavados)

Upon entering the theater, I noticed that the ushers were dressed like the Agents featured in the film, in black suits with skinny black ties and of course those signature black sunglasses. “I can’t see for shit,” the usher told me as he ripped my ticket in half, both of us laughing. The presentation had been given some playful thought, large numbers of young people were present and excited, and the atmosphere was lively. It was very different from the usual crowd that gathers for a few cocktails and a Brahms symphony.

The 1999 film has always intrigued me, in particular because of what I perceive to be its Buddhist overtones. I like the idea that our understanding of reality is illusory. I’ve always thought of this as handsome Keanu Reeves’ best effort. Laurence Fishburne is mesmerizing, Joe Pantoliano is a successful villain, and Carrie-Anne Moss is cool, distant and sexy. I admire the Kung-Fu sections and the incidental music by Meat Beat Manifesto, Marilyn Manson, The Prodigy, and others.

Notice that I didn’t mention Davis’ original score. Even though I’ve seen the film several times, I hadn’t really thought too much about his efforts. Having seen him conduct, however, I have a new and unconditional respect for him.

It is no surprise that as hungry consumers of films, we have become somewhat de-sensitized to film music. This has been playing out for most of my life.

For example, whenever I see an image of the sky at the conclusion of a film, with rays of sun piercing through stubborn clouds, and a chorus of singers breaks into wordless inspired song (most likely with a hokey ascending line), I think of Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, a nonetheless meaningful film witnessed in my childhood every year around Easter, and always on television. Even if it’s well-done, the music could seem incidental, present only to amplify the visual experience. For this reason, it would seem that the place of the film score in modern entertainment (or rather, the idea thereof) fits quite nicely into Baudrillard’s alleged “precession of simulacra,” though I couldn’t pretend to be well-versed in the details of this theory. Or is it a philosophy?

I mention Baudrillard only because his writing is one of several sophisticated sources informing the script of The Matrix, and also because the world seems clearly completely immersed in Baurdrillard’s “third order,” where the simulacrum (as I understand this term, meaning a symbol and/or sign) precedes the original. Whether or not a recorded film score is in fact a simulacrum is to be disputed. Houston Symphony’s decision to perform the entire score for The Matrix live, however, seems to set something straight in terms of reality and representation.

When the musicians, chorus and soloists are witnessing the film, their emotions, revealed in their performance as inspired by the conductor, complete and elevate the experience for everyone. There was a young boy with his parents sitting in front of me in Jones Hall. He was obviously taken with the boy soprano, Jonathan Wells, on stage. Wells really brought the final credits to life, framed by the orchestra members and adult choir, and the entire audience was rapt until Davis marked the final cadence with a dramatic flourish. I don’t remember the last time and audience sat quietly during the credits, or gave a standing ovation at the conclusion of a film.

Harp solos played during Pantoliano’s cell-phone conversation and later during his steak feast become something other-worldly. I continued to marvel at the orchestration throughout: the tubular bells, the enormous percussion section, the searing strings and powerful horns. One cannot help but to admire the technical feats involved in putting it all together for a live audience.

My experience of live film music is limited, but includes such highlights as the Kronos Quartet accompanying Dracula, the Philip Glass ensemble playing for Godrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, and The Alloy Orchestra working with classic silent films in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Houston Symphony program notes for The Matrix describe the influence of Glass and in particular, John Adams’ Harmonielehre on Davis’ score. I wonder, however, if it isn’t somewhat the other way around. Glass and Adams could have been subconsciously influenced by cinema when realizing their concert scores. And this, in turn, leads to a more sophisticated consideration of Baudrillard’s simulacra.

This is a major development in the role of the orchestra in American culture. It would seem to have economic benefits for Houston Symphony in terms of audience development. I’m sorry I missed The Lord of The Rings and I can’t wait for their next cinematic event at Jones Hall. I feel a new tradition developing, one that seems obvious, and which provides decent work for talented musicians.

As Morpheus tells Neo in the first part of the film, “Welcome to the real world.”


  1. It’s funny that this “new” tradition is actually a really old one. In silent film, it was the norm to have an in-house troupe of musicians or organist that would improvise to the images. The history of some orchestras, like Rochester Phil, is directly tied to the more glamorous tradition of full orchestra accompanying silent films.

    I am all for it…why not have a classical series, pops series, family series and film series? Right?

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! When I was a kid often on Saturday afternoons I was “forced” to play chamber music with my mother and her elderly friend Gladys. Gladys had been a violist in a silent movie orchestra, the mainstay of her employment in the early 1920s. She was quite an accomplished musician and I always imagined the scores to those old films and the necessary improvisational skills involved. Film might have begun as a series of moving photographs, but contemoprary cinema is a sophisticated interplay of image, voiceover and music. The possibilities are endless for Houston Symphony in this realm.

  2. angela blankenship says

    I was fortunate enough to attend both Lord of the Rings and The Matrix (I have a friend in the symphony chorus who made me aware of these particular events) and I agree whole heartedly! It is an amazing way to see a film, in fact it is an amazing way to see an orchestra as the film really becomes secondary to the sound and feel of the soundtrack when played live like this. It truly brings an awareness and appreciation of something that has become sort of taken for granted in the movies. I look forward to attending many more of these events!

    • Dear Angela, thanks so much for commenting. I am truly sorry I missed that Lord of the Rings. The soundtrack takes on a new dimension in the concert hall. I would say as well that it changes my perception of film. I’ll be “watching” with a closer ear the next time I’m at the movies. I really hope that Houston Symphony will continue to pursue this experience and thrilled to hear that you enjoyed it as much as I did.

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