Review: Sound & Silents, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11 March 2011

13 March 2011 | 0 comments

(This is a response to a evening of of live music scores to silent film. The evening was produced as part of the Birds Eye View festival, which is directed by my wife, Rachel. You might be forgiven for wondering what such a post is doing on the Hide&Seek blog which is, you know, mostly about games, but hopefully I can explain that as I go along. Also, clearly, bias – AF)

Birds Eye View is a festival that showcases the work of women film-makers from around the world. It was founded as a positive response to the statistic that only 7% of film directors are women. Part of the festival is a series of commissions for contemporary musicians to compose and perform new scores to silent films. The event on Friday featured a programme of immense depth and talent. The first half featured Micachu making unsettling scritches, wobbles and squeeps to Lottie Reiniger’s Hansel & Gretel; Seaming utilising her unbelievable range of skills in a rich and measured response to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon; and Tara Busch going all-out with vocals and electronics to bring the wild anxiety of early thriller Suspense to life. All were marvellous.

What I want to write about is the second half, in which Imogen Heap performed alongside the Holst Singers in her own composition, an a capella score accompanying Germaine Dulac’s  The Seashell and the Clergyman, which according to Wikipedia is often cited as the first Surrealist film, predating Un Chien Andalou by over a year. What I want to talk about in particular is how difficult it is to make new kinds of art, and how hard collaboration is, and how spectacularly this performance succeeded in doing both of those things.

Two things were very clear from the introductions: that everyone was rather nervous, and respected one another a very great deal. An errant phone caused a couple of false starts, and there was a degree of hesitancy in the opening vocal lines from the choir. Then – MWAAOOWM. This noise, which I can only transcribe, started with Imogen in response to some defocusing of the image in the film, picked up by the choir. It was categorically not the kind of noise you normally expect a choir to make.

(Yet more bias – I have sung with choirs for many years, and used to be a member of the Holst Singers, and count many of them as friends)

Choirs normally sound perfect. In tune, in time, full of perky Oxbridge Anglican clarity. All those perfectly enunciated lessons and carols… When choirs loosen up, I’m inclined to feel much as Zadie Smith does about glee clubs in On Beauty:

Tonight this glee club had chosen as their opener ‘Pride (In the Name of Love) by U2, which they had taken the trouble to transform into a samba. They swayed, they clicked, they winked. They did coordinated spins. They switched places with one another. They moved forward, they moved back – always retaining their formation. They smiled the kind of smile you might employ when trying to convince a lunatic to quit holding a gun to your mother’s head. One of the boys, with his lungs, began to reproduce the bass line on the record. And now Howard could hold out no longer. He began to shudder, and, making a choice between tears and noise, he chose tears… One of the boys stepped out of his formation to do the moonwalk. Howard held a thick cotton serviette to his face.

So – this MWAAOOWM. Not a perfect choir sound. But neither was it of the glee club. Something FRESH. It was a wonderful noise. It was funny, and illustrative, and direct. It drew me into the images on screen, a wavy juddering montage of swords, chandeliers and bottles. And I was transfixed, elated and overpowered for the rest of the film. It’s hard to parcel out particular moments for description… I remember sweet and soaring melodies, telling moments of text, (the word ‘Mine!’ repeated throughout a sequence of lustful conflict), a brilliant sequence of tiny exclamations (‘hm!’ ‘er!’ ‘ah’) accompanying a dance of domestics sweeping up after all the madness. What I can better describe is the surge of the voices, the feeling of people operating at the limits of their craft and their honesty, and the intensity of the relation between that music and the film. Imogen said about the process that she had sung along to the film, sung her way into it. She is an extraordinary performer, a true artist, and her radiant song was amplified by the choir, acting as an exquisite extension, accompaniment and counterpoint.

The success of this collaboration was evidenced in its impact on the audience. This was a five-star rave according to everyone I spoke to and overheard… The music lovers, the film buffs, the Imogen fans, united in their appreciation of something truly new.

At Hide&Seek we’re dedicated to both creating new kinds of work, and to collaborations with a variety of partners from theatre-makers to musicians to film studios. Speaking from experience, bringing artists from different disciplines together is never easy. There are always problems of language, of expectation, of timing, of ego. To make something new, you have to get past all that, and find ways to bring your skills, your artistry and your experience to bear on this unformed, mutable, risky thing, that does not yet exist, that might be terrible. It’s tiring, and anxiety-inducing, and it’s easy to retreat into what you know will work. To see the making of something new through requires space, patience, determination and vision. And once you’ve finished making it, you’ve got to go out and perform it, and it has to be great.

Bravo to Imogen Heap, the Holst Singers and Birds Eye View for making something new, together.

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