This time next week Birds Eye View embarks on our most exciting venture yet: brand new scores to seminal silent films composed and performed by four pioneering contemporary musicians – Imogen Heap with the Holst Singers, Micachu, Tara Busch and Seaming – for a groundbreaking Sound & Silents extravaganza at Southbank Centre. BEV caught up with the musicians for a sneak preview of what’s in store…
Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman is widely regarded as the first Surrealist film – a disarmingly captivating exploration of violence and erotica in a clergyman’s unconscious mind. Not, you might think, the easiest brief for composing a vocal score. Step up Grammy and Ivor Novello Award-winner Imogen Heap… “It dawned on me after having written the first 12 minutes, that having a limited palette to work with in the sense of ‘vocal only’ (where I’m used to being able to bring in a drum loop for example, or add noise or string section to spice things up) was quite difficult to keep interesting!
“It pushed me into new areas of problem solving. I went online for inspiration to try to get into the head of Antonin Artaud. He wrote the original screenplay. I discovered that he disliked Dulac’s visual interpretation and shouted out ‘Dulac is a cow!’ during the premier! For him the intended surreal nature of the screenplay became too narrative and went against his ethos. I took this back into the studio with me and decided to try-to-not-try to make sense of it with the music but to try to evoke core feelings in the viewer… There were magical moments in my studio often during the wee hours (I did 3 ‘white nights’) where the film literally hit me with tingles where for me it really connected. I could feel it coming alive. There’s movie and there’s music but when they come together it’s really magic. Far more moments in the film come together than written but our brains just love to make sense of things!”
Imogen Heap will perform her score with the Holst Singers, conducted by Hugh Brunt – who as principal conductor of the London Contemporary Orchestra is no stranger to daring musical collaborations. “It’s a stunning score – inventive and imaginative, as you would expect from Imogen. The writing is challenging in places for the choir, exploring a number of extended vocal techniques, but every ounce of effort is well worth it. During rehearsals we’ve all been blown away by how beautifully the music enhances the film.”
Tara Busch – performing to the stirring silent short Suspense – has also gone back to the film’s origins as inspiration for her score. “Suspense is one of the most technologically groundbreaking films of it’s time, created by director Lois Weber in 1913. She used the latest techniques – split screen and neck breaking camera angles – to make the film jump from frantic to tense and twisted to tender in a moment. I’ve set out to create a score that pays homage to Lois and her forward thinking innovation by pushing musical boundaries using a blend of analogue & digital technologies.
“For the performance, I’ll be controlling the parameters of several virtual synths, triggering samples and digital effects. I will also bring into the mix 4 separate analog effects processors, a Moog synthesizer, woodwind instruments and my voice. I consider this a futurist’s approach to performance, bringing together the best classic instruments and techniques with beta technologies that are still in development. I’m excited to bring a taste of my “future studio” approach to the stage, creating a sound that’s a cross between an orchestra of cyborgs and a vintage Disney film.”
Maya Deren‘s Meshes of the Afternoon is a trancelike short with a haunting impact – so who better to accompany than Seaming, a multi-instrumentalist with an unforgettable vocal talent. “I’m enjoying the process and loved the film, and especially the challenge of how to reflect its dreamlike tone in my score. I’m using a mixture of synthesised and real sound sampling plus some vocals and trying to keep things minimal. I’ve written scores for Maya Deren films in the past and the trick is to hold back with the music – and not turn it into a music video!”