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 media such as Super 8, VHS and reel-to-reel audio tape. While some of this material has been digitised to allow easier access for researchers, 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. He tells us that in the mid-1970s the Italian publisher Mondadori had acquired a large collection of stock images and film footage, showing scenes from American life. Working with Michael Billingsley, a well-known film editor based in Rome, Burgess was commissioned to write a script which would build a linking narrative around these images, and to compose a score to accompany them. Although the project seems to have been completed in December 1976, when the music was recorded, Mondadori eventually 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 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. The complete script of the film, recently discovered in the archive, has been published as an appendix to the Irwell Edition of Puma, edited by Dr Paul Wake.
The Burgess Foundation’s archive contains another audio 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 music 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 surviving 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. Here is an extract from the Kenyon College recording, including the tracks ‘Murals of Battery Park’, ‘Ethnic Murals’, ‘Ficherman’ and ‘Harlem’.
Another audio cassette contains selections from The Eyes Of New York, introduced and performed on the piano by Burgess himself. This appears 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 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 the archives. Nevertheless, by piecing the surviving fragments together, it is possible to understand the extent of Burgess’s contributions to the 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 other recordings.