Harmony, hilarity – and a touch of horror – are seamlessly combined in this cunning, captivating new release from the innovative vocal ensemble I Fagiolini.
Sidestepping the more conventional CD or digital audio formats, ‘The Stag Hunt’ is a nine-minute film, featuring a performance of Renaissance composer Clément Janequin’s ‘La chasse’. Following a brief opening sequence, the main action begins with our facing four aristocrats, dressed in full hunt regalia, but simply shot against a black background. We follow their conversation as the ride begins…
Janequin was a prolific and celebrated writer of chansons, which – in his heyday, around the first half of the 16th century – were usually long-form and for multiple voices (only distilled years later into the solo, but still lyric-focused, modern chanson we might associate with singers like Piaf or Brel).
Janequin is perhaps most renowned for songs which illustrate the story or situation they describe in the music as well as the text. ‘La chasse’ builds in arresting sound-effects accordingly: early on, you’ll hear the singers settle into the rhythm of the horses on the hunt, and later, imitate the pack of dogs as they close in on their quarry. The first audio appearance of the hunting horn might surprise you, too…
The film’s writer and director John La Bouchardière, who collaborates regularly with I Fagiolini, points out that effects like this – hidden meanings, musical and lyrical in-jokes – help to make these popular chansons like ‘La chasse’ as much about the enjoyment of the performers as for any audience. Not that you need worry: with the group’s voices chiming together and dovetailing round each other in virtuosic splendour, it’s a spellbinding listen.
However, La Bouchardière has expertly harnessed (if you’ll excuse the expression) the possibilities of the visual medium to bring some of these layers of meaning to life. I mentioned before that the opening of the film is quite stark: the dark, abstract background makes you focus on the expressive faces of the singers, who not only act beautifully – what a luxury it is to see them close-up – but simultaneously convey the joy of mastering such a clever work. La Bouchardière explores a wide range of camera angles to keep you, as the viewer, on your toes: from lining up all four riders in shot to capture their criss-cross conversation, to placing them in couples to the side, singing into empty space, slightly unbalancing the picture and implying the quarry just out of shot.
The film’s sound is pristine: the gorgeous blend of voices notwithstanding, the clear diction of the group and superb mix – along with the agility of both the camerawork and subtitling – make it much easier that you might expect to keep track of who says what, even as new characters are introduced.
Speaking of which… I think this might be one of the first times I’ve written about a classical piece with an acute awareness of avoiding ‘spoilers’, but trust me, the less you know about how the action develops, the better. I think there are at least three bona fide secrets or surprises lying in wait, and a new detail seems to emerge with each viewing. I will offer the following advice: follow the subtitles closely; keep your eye on the edges of the screen; and pay attention to all the characters.
The music alone would have you coming back for more. But with ‘The Stag Hunt’, La Bouchardière and I Fagiolini have created a wry, satirical and hugely satisfying short film, which happily comes with one of the more sublime soundtracks of the last 500-odd years.
‘The Stag Hunt’ is available to view for £2.99 at this Vimeo link: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thestaghunt
The film and performance are deft and humorous, but carry a powerful underlying message. A third of all the proceeds from the film will go to Born Free, the wildlife charity against animal suffering (https://www.bornfree.org.uk/).