CD review: In the footsteps of Joan of Arc and Simona Smirnova

Review of Simona Smirnova’s CD “Joan of Arc for string quartet”

In 1928, based on the protocol of the Joan of Arc trial, director Carl Theodor Dreyer decided to tell legendary story in his own way. He immortalized this in the silent film La Passion de Joan of Arc. Two years ago, another unique dimension to this work of art was added by Lithuanian composer Simona Smirnova, residing in New York. In the late 2020s, she released the accompanying music album Joan of Arc for string quartet. The soundtrack, inspired by the paradoxical, real, human inner experiences of Joan of Arc, close to the creator herself, leads the overall work on a path of faith and trust following the footsteps of Joan of Arc and Simona Smirnova.

While I wasn’t able to sync what time the music should be playing while watching the film, overall, Simona’s soundtrack created a fresh unexpected direction, flowing forward and cyclically repeating at the same time. This perfectly reflects the movement of the film itself, which is basically composed of faces. The main face is of Joan of Arc. Her whole inner journey is reflected in the depths in the eyes of actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti (whose face is exactly identical to Simona’s). There is nowhere for the viewer to escape, but to touch the insides of this story. Not surprisingly, such a sensitive and intense narrative is echoed by an intimate sound – a whisper, a breath – expressing Joan’s inner world. This does not change from frame to frame, but ripples from hope and faith to deadly despair, accompanied by horror and grief. During the trial, Joan often contains contradictory emotions and her inner confusion, the instability of her experiences being the waves surrounding Simona’s music. Expressing inner chaos and paradox through musical means, the composer brings life to Joan as a real person, not a symbol or a virtuous hero, as Joan of Arc is usually seen in art.

This is even more evident when comparing Simona’s work with the soundtrack previously written by composer Richard Einhorn for the same film called Voices of Light. The music of his traditional romantic cut responds to image, action, and emotion, but does not slip out of the frames of film music genres into which Simona doesn’t even try to apply. In this way, the composer crosses all the traps – the romanticism of Joan of Arc, the illusion of security of a typical structure, the appeasement of the image, the standard interpretation of events and characters, and so on. The deeper, more subtle musical layers of Joan of Arc on the screen breathe, hide, engulf a veil of hint or intuition. Apparently Simona managed to catch and sound one of them.

At the beginning of the work, a calmly uplifting musical language descends into the melancholy world of Joan of Arc, viewing a wide panorama. The second piece Joan’s Calling begins to boil into action – sarcastic vitality is shrouded in minor descending intonations. Audible enigmatic intonations create a tangle that goes to all emotional directions at the same time. The canonicity and secondary dissonances in the medieval courtroom unexpectedly remind us of Lithuanian folklore. In almost the most impressive third piece The Quote Joan of Arc’s thought goes back to her memory when she first heard the voice of God at the age of thirteen. Simona’s first-person singing of direct quote from the protocol is accompanied by zither. The intonations of sacred music are altered by the sound of an incoming string quartet, which in turn recreates the vaults of the church that envelop and dissolve the teasing of zither. At the culmination on the word “afraid”, the strings with their long strokes create the pastel echo of the passage of zither arpeggio – the voice of the praying echoing in the walls of the church. Silent whispers are heard nearby, thus returning to court space-time, with gossip and assessments. Despite being surrounded by a background swarm of restless whispers, Simona’s cry as Joan is raised above all else. The tension grows from the fourth piece Preliminary Inquiry, where the listener is simultaneously drawn into the melancholic dungeons of depression and lifted behind the screens into swaying and vibrating ceilings of fear. In the fifth piece Interrogation, the music refers to action, change. The intonations of the conversation continue with intermittent repetitive motives of interrogation, remorse for the accompanying violins, and a pizzicato-touching heartbeat distracting Joan of Arc’s chest. The constantly adjusting time tossed in different directions, as if a train was swinging. The music rises to thinner registers and ends in a fragile and sad girlish voice that sounds both despair and hope at the same time. He then overturns the verdict of sharp strings. The silence of the Torture Room sparkles with unbearable internal tensions. She beeps at high frequencies, siren waves and brain-biting trills. The trio’s rhythmically repetitive exhalation of Simona ignites the full cyclicality of the scene. The ninth piece Communion features liturgical music suitable for a communion ceremony – a melodic, sophisticated polyphonic fugue. There is an unsteady tight movement in the air, interrupted only by Joan’s silent cry. The tenth piece Old Market Place accommodates a grotesque with cruelty. The album concludes with the song Empty Land accompanied by jazz pianist Chris McCarthy, which hides a growing melody that is naturally and painfully felt at the same time. A woman’s voice screaming in pain, her slow zither, her archaic intonation is replaced by a solo improvisation of jazz piano that fulfills the end of story.

Simona’s music sounds well both with and without film, as she tells the story on her own. The zither, which uncomfortably adhere to the traditional string quartet, create a hybrid string quintet, adorned with jazz piano, Simona’s voice, whispers, laughter. However, as Simona climbs out of the zither player chair and re-transforms into a conductor, a typical contemporary academic sound of the string quartet (Lynn Bechtold, Johnna Wu, Carrie Frey, and Helen Newby) is heard. The solo violin and zither seem to be voices reflecting Joan of Arc’s experiences, and the accompaniment (strings, piano) is space (harmony), time (rhythm) and other characters (additional melodic motifs). In this way, in each room, Simona masterfully constructs a different state of sound. Music is alive here – it is breathing, narrating, showing, walking, not stagnating in place, surviving. Unpredictable as a book you want to go to the next page as soon, because don’t guess what’s next.

Simona’s rich voice fascinates throughout her album and the composer’s rock – multidisciplinary tracks – allows her to be everything she is at once. Mix elements of jazz and Lithuanian folk music without giving up the spices of rock, pop music and electronics; to combine music, theater, dance and cinema. Expanding different genres as distinctive universes of musical expression, she unites their edges and thus all the elements connect into the common musical universe of Simona.

Simona is one of the creators that are capable of everything. She is a jazz, folklore and classical music vocalist, improviser, band leader, zither player, composer, conductor and teacher. Her childhood included a drama club, a rock band, writing, a school council, volunteering, readers’ competitions, and a music school. And now she feels the director, actress and writer next to the musician. In her interviews, Simona herself takes the time to allow herself to be everything and she admits that all this accumulated experience helps her in her daily life. Not surprisingly, even today, she chooses an all-encompassing lifestyle in the cultural nest of New York, where she can drown among a wide variety of artistic and social activities.

In the album booklet, Simona herself admits that she feels close to the story of Joan of Arc’s life path. The individual path of the two, based on a vocation to music and God, is full of intense challenges, dedication and real change. From the character, they both seem stubborn and unyielding to environmental pressure. In the interview The Road of Dreams to God (Bernardinai.lt, 2013), the composer describes the concept as follows: “I knew that I was putting all the strength I could and leaving everything else to God. When reality suffocates to the last point, that’s when things start to change. I could feel the light gradually penetrating through all these dense trees, though the bushes and swamps were winding around my feet. I felt that with each of my judgments and determination, I was growing and strengthening my faith. ”

Simona herself says that all music is a mirror. If Joan is the sun, Simona’s music as moonlight will reflect its light to the inhabitants of the 21st century earth. And while the linear perception of time is not convincing for Simona (according to an interview Simona Smirnova and Her Sense of Freedom (Art Waves, 2020), the internal identification with the ninety-year-old film and the connection to the sixth-hundred-year court experience here and now is direct.

In this way, Simona and Joan’s universal journey of sacrifice and challenge become a directly engaging listening experience, where together with Joan of Arc you see the same images, hear the same sounds, breathe the same inspirations, experience the same inner experiences, take the same steps and leave those the very footsteps.

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