Object of the Week: The Eyes of New York
The Burgess Foundation’s archive includes a collection of audio recordings and films which exist in historic media such as Super 8, VHS and reel-to-reel tape. Some of this material has been digitised to allow easier access for researchers, but other parts of the collection are still in their original formats.
One intriguing item is a reel-to-reel tape labelled ‘The Eyes of New York by Anthony Burgess’. According to the detailed description given on the box, this tape contains a recording of the music for a film, scored for flute, clarinet, violin, and piano. Burgess writes about this film project, titled The Eyes of New York, or Gli Occhi di New York, in the second volume of his autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time. In the mid-1970s the Italian publisher Mondadori acquired a collection of stock images and film footage, showing scenes from American life. Working with a film editor named Mike Billingsly, Burgess was commissioned to write a script which would link these images, and to compose a score to accompany them. The project seems to have been completed in December 1976, but Mondadori subsequently decided not to venture into the home video market, with the result that the film was never released.
The list of tracks suggests that the film aimed to depict the richness and vibrancy of twentieth-century life in New York, with a particular focus on the experiences of migrants: ‘Ellis Island’ was the main entry point for new arrivals to the United States between 1892 and 1954. The tracks titled ‘Mulberry Street’ (a main street in Little Italy) and ‘Chinese New Year’ possibly matched film sequences exploring the cultural diversity of New York City.
Elsewhere in the Foundation’s collection is a digitised recording which appears to be an extract from this tape, sent to us by an archivist at Kenyon College in Ohio. The Eyes of New York seems to have formed part of a broadcast on a campus radio station, WKCO, on 12 October 1980. It is possible that Burgess lent them a tape recording of The Eyes of New York, which they copied. Unfortunately the MP3 contains only the second half of the tracks listed on the reel-to-reel tape, and the quality deteriorates as the recording goes on. Below is an extract from the Kenyon College recording, including the songs ‘Murals of Battery Park’, ‘Ethnic Murals’, ‘Ficherman’ and ‘Harlem’.
Elsewhere in the Foundation’s archive is an audio cassette containing a number of pieces from The Eyes Of New York, introduced and performed on the piano by Burgess himself. This seems to be a demo made before the Mondadori studio recording, as it includes Burgess’s directions to the musicians who would perform the piece.
Although Burgess’s complete script for The Eyes of New York has survived, the score of his film music seems to be lost, along with the video material. None of these missing elements have so far come to light in any of the institutional Burgess archives. However, by piecing the surviving fragments together, it is possible to understand the extent of Burgess’s contributions to this lost film. The next step will be to digitise the reel-to-reel tape, after which researchers will be able to study the music alongside the typewritten film script and the other surviving audio recordings.