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For decades, Merchant Ivory Productions consisted primarily of four artists who worked together on film after film. Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are generally acknowledged as the backbone of the company, but a fourth person, Richard Robbins, has also been a consistent and important member of the creative team. Robbins joined Merchant Ivory after making the short documentary Sweet Sounds in 1976.
Merchant Ivory opened a New York office in 1965, though the association of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant began a few years earlier. Their early films were shot and produced in India. Their first feature, The Householder (1963), was based on a novel by Jhabvala, who joined Merchant and Ivory to write the screenplay. By the mid-1970s, the team had begun to deviate from narratives based on western and Indian culture clashes to shoot other types of stories against American backdrops and landscapes. In 1976, Jhabvala made the difficult decision to move to New York City from Bombay.
Once in New York, Jhabvala enrolled her daughter Firoza, a budding a pianist, into the Mannes College of Music, where she met Richard Robbins. He was the acting director of the college's preparatory program and also a piano teacher. Impressed with the musician's talent and ideas for educating youngsters, she introduced him to Merchant and Ivory. According to Robbins in a taped interview on the DVD of The Europeans, Merchant and Ivory responded to the composer's enthusiasm for his children's program at Mannes by suggesting he make a film about it.
Though Merchant Ivory Productions is recognized for its lush literary adaptations of Henry James and E.M. Forster novels, the company has also produced documentaries, including Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973), Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972), and The Delhi Way (1964). Producing a documentary about Mannes College of Music with Robbins was not out of the ordinary for them. In the opening of Sweet Sounds, Robbins is credited with having "conceived" the film, though most sources list him as director. Whatever his exact credit, Robbins had creative control over the 29-minute documentary, which was budgeted at $25,000.
The children's program at Mannes consisted of ten five-year-olds, who had been specifically selected to attend the school. The training immersed the children into the practice of music, from learning the inherent rhythm in people's names to understanding the beat in poetry or in children's songs. Hands-on experience with musical instruments was also part of the program, and in one scene, a boy named John explains how the cello works to his peers. Though he struggles and stumbles over his words, the scene leaves an impression on the viewer because of the children's advanced musical abilities.
The scene with John offers a good example of the documentary's strategy of revealing the effectiveness of the program by showing the children in action. Sweet Sounds is mostly an observational documentary, not an expository one. Save for a brief voice-over from Robbins introducing the school in the beginning, there are no titles, talking heads, or narration explaining the merits of the program. Instead, the school's success is suggested through scenes of children learning, sharing, and immersing themselves in music.
The impact of the program on the children is conveyed through close-ups as they learn about music, participate in the exercises, or watch advanced students perform onstage. Sometimes, the children's faces reveal their joy in learning as when three of them play drums and wind instruments in a garden setting, and sometimes they sit entranced by the performances of their elders. Occasionally, they are just kids--bored, indifferent, or impassive. In one scene, a boy playfully sticks out his tongue at his pal. The close-ups suggest that the program is having the desired effect on the children without altering what it means to be a typical five-year-old.
The film's observational approach creates the illusion that the viewer has dropped in on the school to watch the children during a typical day, as though the camera was not there at all. But the shots were actually well planned and precisely executed, which taxed the children's energy and attention span. At first, Robbins tried to squeeze in as many shots per day as he could. However, there was a limit to the children's ability to concentrate and take direction, and they tired quickly. On the second day of shooting, the kids rebelled by putting their chairs in a corner and turning their backs to the camera, causing Robbins to ease up.
Sweet Sounds launched Robbins's career in the film industry. In the autumn, the documentary was well received at the New York and London film festivals, and it was shown on PBS television. In the late 1970s, Merchant and Ivory asked him to provide the score for their feature film The Europeans (1979), which began the composer's close association with them. He arranged the music, provided the scores, or composed original music for most of the films from Merchant Ivory after that. He won a Golden Osella from the Venice Film Festival for Maurice (1987), was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Score for Howard's End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), and was nominated for a British Academy Award for A Room with a View (1985).
Robbins made one more documentary for Merchant Ivory. In 1994, he directed Street Musicians of Bombay, inspired by his experiences with a leper couple singing a duet on the street outside his hotel room in Bombay. In recent years, Robbins, who suffers from Parkinson's Disease, has slowed down his participation in films, but his contributions to the Merchant Ivory style are immeasurable.
Producer: Ismail Merchant for Merchant Ivory Productions
Director: Richard Robbins
Screenplay: Richard Robbins
Cinematography: Richard Inman Pearce and Fred Murphy
Editor: Humphrey Dixon
Music: Hai-Kung Suh (piano), Herbert Levine, Paul Twerdowsky (guitar), Nanette Levi (violin), Eugenie Denegel (viola), and William Hanny (cello).
Cast: Teachers (Jean Whitelock and Laura Wilson), Soloists (John Desser, cello, Hai-Kyung Suh, piano), Children (Anna Arimborgo, Adam Cole, Alice Damreau, Ivan Rivera, Ann Sachs, Ronald Sumpter, Andrew Wallerstein, Stash Werner, and Yared Williams).
by Susan Doll