Live scores and spectacular sound

By Sophie Mayer

Composers and performers are reinventing the art of live scoring for silent film. Sophie Mayer sees sound at the recent Bird's Eye View festival, where Imogen Heap, Seaming, Tara-Jane Busch and Micachu soundtracked four classic silents.

Film has never been silent: barkers, piano-players and film-tellers sounded out cinema’s narrative and affect from the start. But it is only in the last twenty years that the artificiality of totally silent cinema has been punctured as cinematheques have recovered the tradition of live scoring for silent film. Neil Brand has cornered the UK market in piano accompaniment, creating rolling scores that pay tribute to, without ever pastiching, nostalgic memories garnered from sound films that feature scenes of attendance at silent films.

The popularity of Brand’s trad scores has led programmers and musicians to experiment with the relationship between live sound and image, often foregrounding the role of music and sound in storytelling. Time-, money- and labour-intensive, these projects are precarious, as was evident when Brand stepped in to improvise a replacement for an original commission by Claire van Kampen (director of music for Shakespeare’s Globe) that was to accompany a BFI screening of the legendary Hamlet (Sven Gade) starring Asta Nielsen. But recent successful commissions include Nitin Sawnhey and the LSO scoring A Throw of Dice (Franz Osten) in Trafalgar Square and British Sea Power playing live with the documentary Man of Aran (John Grierson). Experimental filmmaker Jennifer Reeves took the idea one step further with her collaged nature film When It Was Blue, which she edited in a back-and-forth conversation with musician Skúli Sverisson, who played his haunting score live at each festival screening of the film. And John Tavener wrote ‘Prayer of the Heart’ (based on the ‘Kyrie Eleison’) for Björk, as a soundtrack for Nan Goldin’s photographic slideshow installation ‘Heartbeats,’ which can be heard breaking the silence at the Centre Pompidou.

While classical music and solo piano blend seamlessly with our cultural memories of ‘silent’ film, becoming almost invisible, experiments such as Sahwney’s or Sverisson’s make sound and its strange relation to the image visible, challenging the naturalization and internalization of film sound. As I pointed out in my previous article, the invisibility and naturalism of sound in narrative cinema, as well as music’s frequent affective use, has feminised film sound – complicated further with the element of liveness. This returns aura to film through an event not replicable on DVD, or even through subsequent screenings. It demands an affective record, a concentration on presentness. So it was striking that when Bird’s Eye View festival commissioned musicians to create scores for Sound and Silents, a programme of four silent films by women filmmakers, on the night they put the musicians front and centre, creating an event that hovered between a scored screening and a gig with projection, demanding that the audience engage with the conjunction between music and image and the bodies fashioning them.

This was partially the effect of the steeply raked concert hall venue: when cinemas host live scores for silent films, the performers are of necessity in the darkness to the side of or below the screen, lit discreetly. When the Shalabi Effect (part of Montreal’s free improv scene) created a live score for The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), a legendary Argentinean Third Cinema documentary employing Eisensteinian montage to inculcate revolution, the Images Festival screening took place in a raked lecture hall – but the band sat on the floor, candlelit, playing hypnotically beneath the screen, as if in its thrall or merging/jamming with the image.

At Sound and Silents conversely, Imogen Heap took to the stage for The Seashell and the Clergyman with a massed choir, the Holst Singers, lit up by their music stands and her own insistent, striking physical presence heightened further by mighty heels. The challenge of her a cappella score made the viewer/listener forcefully aware of the embodiment of film performance. Choral whistling, mouth popping, shushing, and body drumming are as startling and arresting as a spectacle as they are as a sound, perhaps more so given the pale silvery-greys and impenetrable symbolic illogic of Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), written by Antonin Artaud. Heap ended the film, and the evening, with a pause and a sigh, a sign perhaps of cinema’s longing for sound and the body.

Micachu, Seaming and Tara-Jane Busch, while less physically commanding, each asserted their presence on stage and as an element of the film, with Seaming and Busch both adding their vocals to the musical mix, singing and speaking for women long dead and silent. Their presence brought out the technological and fashioned nature of film as a whole: it was a salutary and fascinating treat to watch women working hands-on with technology, whether a violin, a synth, a mixing board or a mic. In that way, they stood in for, performed and paid tribute to the early women filmmakers who defied social and economic prohibitions (still extant) to take up the camera and the Steenbeck.

Each of the four filmmakers showcased in Sound and Silents was a pioneer aesthetically as well as by virtue of her gender: Lotte Reiniger made the oldest surviving animated feature film (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926) using her patent technique based on Chinese silhouette animation and devising the first multi-plane camera (beating Walt Disney by several years) to obtain her effects. Maya Deren kick-started the American avant-garde, inventing alternatives to Hollywood not just in her poetic yet precise filmmaking (including inventive editing techniques), but through her brilliant theoretical writing and through establishing alternate channels of fundraising, exhibition and distribution. Lois Weber was the first woman to direct a feature film, in 1914; by 1916, she was Universal Studios’ highest paid director for her controversial social problem films. Germaine Dulac’s mysterious, lyrical experiments in cinema prefigured both Buñuel and the cinéma pur movement. Like Deren, she was an ardent theorist, critic and advocate of cinema as well as a filmmaker, working to create the context for art film in France.

Reiniger, whose witty dialogue about film as ballet with her ‘familiar in the guise of a cavalier’ can be found in the wonderful anthology Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema, was the most technologically innovative of the four, but her film, Hansel and Gretel (1955) is also the most straightforward. Not only does it tell the familiar story of Hansel and Gretel, but it renders it as an innocent pastoral in which the children’s parents wait for them anxiously, and the animals of the forest flock to Gretel’s aid. The use of the foreground plane is incredible, with overlapping silhouettes creating clear and present drama from minimal means. Micachu’s score did likewise, producing delicate sounds from a modular synthesiser. The contrast between the artisanal paper-cut animation and the agrarian Eden it evoked, and Micachu’s defiantly electronic sounds, discovered something eerie and corrupted at the heart of the film’s insistence on pastoral familial innocence, syncopating the movements of the silhouettes into a jerky dance. Rather than being musical the sounds were suggestive, rather than mimetic, of the life of the forest, like a postmodern Peter and the Wolf: squeaking and scrunching for the animals, with the kids conversing in skrikes and a sliding, ringing, otherworldly noise heralding the appearance of the witch.

Seaming’s score for Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) further blurred the boundaries of naturalistic sync sound, drawing attention through an exaggerated live foley of dropped keys and scratchy record players to the film’s visual images of sound, from the fall of the key to the telephone off the hook to the lover’s whisper and the smash of the mirror. These sounds are the secret inner world of the film’s dreaming protagonist (played by Deren herself), and Seaming’s admixture of processed musical score (for voice, violin, bells and drone) and mimetic effects brings us into that (un)consciousness with immediacy. Hints of Angelo Badalamenti’s scores for David Lynch mingled with Diamanda Galas-like vocals, recalling the significance of the extraordinary female singing voice in Lynch’s films, its power – as here – to connect to something more primal and intimate than the image track. Breath, body and birdsong made Deren’s film spring to life even as the protagonist appears to die.

Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913) also ends with a death, one rich with all the hallmarks of melodrama, as a woman in an isolated house is attacked by a randy burglar as her husband faces a series of obstacles on his way to rescue her. Tara Jane Busch (in a vibrant red pant suit) brought the melo-, with a more lyrical and romantic vocal sound looped and sampled around musical phrases suggestive of the player piano, to create cascades of voice that, like film itself, blur the boundary between live presence and recorded absence, whose repetition and glitching echo the film’s use of cross-cutting between wife’s and husband’s plights, reminding us just how crucial music has been to engaging the audience’s bodies by creating suspense – as well as desire and dreaminess – throughout film history.

Live photos courtesy of Bird's Eye View. Bird's Eye View celebrates and supports women filmmakers with an annual festival and a year-round programme of activity.

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