A luxurious wallowing place

Today (7th May) at Bristol’s Colston Hall there is to be a special screening of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc with live music by rock musicians Adrian Utley (of Portishead) and Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp). The music will be conducted by Charles Hazelwood, and will feature six electric guitars, eight members of the Monteverdi Choir, harp, percussion, horns and keyboards. The short documentary above, made by Rick Holbrook, features interviews with Utley, Gregory and Hazelwood, and shows the process of composition, illustrated by clips from the film. The trio previously collaborated on a score for Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped at Bristol in 2007.

In The Times last Saturday there was an interview with Gregory and Utley about the project. Gregory came up with this very revealing comment on composing music for silent films:

It’s a luxurious wallowing place for composers. You get to be the whole soundtrack: music, dialogue, background noise and special effects.

I think that pretty much sums up the approach of the rock musicians and jazz musicians who have dabbled in silent film scores in recent years – among them John Cale, Jonathan Richman, Black Francis, The Pet Shop Boys, DJ Spooky, Tangerine Dream, Tom Verlaine, Giorgio Moroder, Bill Frisell, Gary Lucas, Dave Douglas, Joby Talbot, Fred Frith, Marc Ribot, Steven Severin, Maximo Park, and several more. The silent film is a canvas – practically a blank canvas – onto which they can wallow with abandon. This isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, because it is a form of artistic expression, and in some cases a highly successful one, but it is one where the film is subordinated to the music (still more to the star musician). Any regular silent film musician will tell you that their job is to accompany the film, interpreting it in the best possible way to enable the audience fully to appreciate what they are seeing. They don’t provide us with concerts accompanied by the film.

So we have two different ways of approaching the silent film score, and that has to be better than just having the one. Back to The Passion of Joan of Arc, and despite the Colston Hall calling it a unique event, the composers say that they hope to take film and score elsewhere, hinting at Italy and France.