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Art Spiegelman. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Concert Hall, October 5

What could be more apt than Art Spiegelman opening a show called WORDLESS! with a torrent of verbiage? The man who has done more than anyone to alchemise comics into art hustled us through his work and its reference points with typically sly and self-deprecating wit. He described his output as the invisible hyphen between serious and comic; between high and low art.

But this was just the prologue. The main event was Spiegelman talking about and showing on a screen some of his major influences: wordless, graphic stories and novels from the first half of the 20th century. Meanwhile Phillip Johnston led a sextet playing music that he composed to accompany the images.

Spiegelman has been a fan of Johnston’s work since attending a screening of The Unknown many years ago, one of Johnston’s many ingenious scores for silent movies.

Working loosely chronologically (with inevitable convolutions), Spiegelman began with an AB Frost piece depicting the manic antics of a cat that eats rat poison, echoed by equally manic music. Moody expressionism came oozing like sap from the woodcuts of Belgium’s Franz Masareel (whose sense of humour, Spiegelman pointed out, could be as wooden as his medium).

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Photo: Prudence Upton.

From Masareel we bounced to The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass at the British Museum by British cartoonist HM Bateman, a tale of tyrannical authority jostled along by Johnston’s take on classic jazz.

Spiegelman shoehorned in his salacious Shaggy Dog Story, with suitably cheesy music, and another of his, styled after Masareel, had an artist create a naked woman who resisted society’s zeal to cover her up. Bustling music coloured Masareel’s own The City, with especially vibrant baritone saxophone. Lynd Ward’s shimmering 1929 woodcut novel God’s Man depicted darkness and despair, illuminated by music including a blustery trombone solo. Even more confronting was Otto Nuckel’s Destiny, Johnston setting bluesy music to vivid images telling a dark tale of loneliness, poverty and anguish. Standing out was Si Lewen’s 1957 The Parade, carrying echoes of the most troubling work of Goya and Picasso, with equally compelling music.

The interaction with the  music peaked on Spiegelman’s Shaping Thought, one image of which showed a sextet of Johnston’s instrumentation, with ribbon’s of colour spiralling from each instrument in turn as they featured. Besides Johnston’s soprano saxophone the perfectly-cast band consisted of Paul Cutlan’s baritone, James Greening’s trombone, Peter Dasent’s piano, Lloyd Swanton’s bass and Nic Cecire’s drums.

Some minor issues of synchronisation between screen and band apart, WORDLESS! was a resounding success, fusing art lesson, lively entertainment and dazzling concert. Setting music to the still images was like animating them, and, once again, Johnston had an impeccable instinct for the just the right music, and just the right amount of it. Spiegelman’s own take on what they had achieved together? “Taking sausages and turning them back into pigs.”