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.
The trouble is that the general public has not been educated to understand this distinction so that it can end up confused and disappointed.(There is no “Trades Descriptions Act” to cover silent film exhibition and no health warnings are attached to some of the screenings.) This March one of hosts of the Birds Eye Festival, the BFI, admitted that both the “The Patsy” and “Chicago” were music events with silent films attached but only on its web-ste and at a very late stage. Many, and not just the paying audience, were unhappy with the shows.
Perhaps we should develop labels to help identify which is which – Silent Film With Score, or else Score With Silent Film.
Some films can accommodate new or experimental scores while others demand a traditional approach. The “anything goes” approach has resulted in some ghastly mismatches (especially in the case of light comedies) but audiences seem sadly reluctant to complain. One ought to be able to assume when going to a cinema that any accompaniment will at least be an attempt to serve the original artists. When going to a concert hall, arts centre or gallery one might be alerted to the possibility of something different happening.
many years ago (I was about 18 years old), I saw Dreyer’s Passion at the London Filmmakers’ Coop in Gloucester Avenue, accompanied by an avant-garde saxophonist (presumably from the musicians’ collective downstairs). He didn’t play notes, but breathed rhythmically into his instrument. I didn’t mind it at all, but about 30 minutes in an audience member stood up and said ‘Can’t you stop making that horrible noise? We’re trying to watch the film.’ The musician replied that he was just playing the gig he’d been booked for, but he did stop. At the end of the screening the manager came in and roundly chastised us all for bullying the musician, saying that the screening had been announced ‘with sax accompaniment’, and if we hadn’t like it we should have left. I felt suitably ashamed, and still wonder if the saxophonist was someone horribly famous now.
Sounds rather good (at least until they told him to stop playing) – I wish I’d been there. I think it was Dreyer’s wish that The Passion of Joan of Arc was shown silent, though if you do watch a silent without music you soon become aware of audience’s rumbling stomachs and learn that musical accompaniment has additional virtues.
I’ve experienced some horror accompaniments where you couldn’t know how bad or inappropriate they would be until it was too late – a sub-Tangerine Dream synthesizer group playing over Zemlya with what they played having nil relationship to what was happening on the screen, and a big band accompaniment to Beau Geste (at Pordenone of all places) which just left you dumbstruck at the wrongness of every note.