Tuesday 15 March 2011

Sounds & Silents: Bloody Women from Gothic to Horror

Micachu, Seaming, Tara Busch, Imogen Heap & the Holst Singers performing to films by Lotte Reiniger, Maya Deren, Lois Weber and Germaine Dulac respectively, as part of the Birds Eye View film festival 2011.

It’s an eerie proposition. You and two hundred hipsters and tastemakers settle into the luscious James Bondian leather and wood panelled den of the QEH and wait in silence. On the screen play some of the creepiest and best short old films directed by women, shot in soundless monochrome. They’re accompanied by live scores performed by some of the most exciting artists around, keeping precise time with what’s happening on the film – every door slam, turn of the head, shock arrival, slip up or moment of peril. Beyond the basic synchronicity, however, everything is possible including total failure. Could it work? Does it work?

Triumphantly. The Sounds and Silents strand is the most exciting, creative and original thing to come out of the BEV programme. It goes beyond any film festival’s usual remit of new audiences + new films + classic oldies + expert talks and creates something entirely afresh, reaching across disciplines, decades and practices. It involves taking a risk with history. It involves reviving forgotten (by the mainstream) work from fifty years ago and commissioning new work from the megastars of tomorrow. And it does my favourite thing, which is combine different art forms to make something truly cutting edge and thrilling. This is a serious project which has been a long time coming, as the musicians have watched the films countless times and perfected their scores down to the last micro-second.

BEV has of course strayed successfully all over the artistic realm before: in this year’s programme it has featured events on film and fashion as well as music and film. But Sounds and Silents is a totally new approach and last Friday was a clear demonstration of its brilliance. It worked flawlessly.

The event opened with new-electronic genius Micachu performing to Lotte Reiniger’s film Hansel and Gretel, made in 1955. Whoever thought that cardboard cut-outs weren’t creepy is in for a horrible shock. Hansel and Gretel is a crisp, spooky and original rendition of the classic folkloric warning to children who stray (as well as a celebration of plucky kids’ ingenuity). The figures of the children and their parents, dwelling in a house in the woods, have been cut cute and bold, with wooden-seeming rounded limbs, jerky puppet-like movements and perpetual jumps and looks of curiosity. The forest is thick with cheeky playful squirrels, cute deer, brave birds and thickening trees, until the witch’s house appears, ghostly white and soft. The witch is truly frightening – a thousand times more frightening than any CGI sorcerer Hollywood could come up with these days – gathering her broomstick and taking easily to the air, throwing Hansel into a cage and loading down Gretel with buckets and mops to do chores. Her silence and quivering shape make her all the more menacing.

Instead of offering us a crumb of comfort, Micachu turns up the chills. I have been a long-time fan of this young musician’s work but had not expected such maturity, depth or precision. I thought I would get a cute analogue song to go along with the nice pictures. How wrong I was. Micachu’s score is conceptual, a crunchy, crackling and cerebral accompaniment that demonstrates her total absorption in the film. She has noticed and amplifies every nuance of the story, mining its psychological power and bringing depth and delight to these silhouettes.

The effect is devastating. Each time one of the cut-outs turns its head there’s a hideous bonelike crunching sound. From the moment we see the two kids wandering blithely in the forest, the score warns us that something terrible is about to come. The forest itself prickles with life and noise: rustling leaves, pock-pocking animals and clattering footsteps. The signature sound of the witch is a spectral hiss, like radio static, that makes the hairs on the back of one’s neck rise. Her snakelike movements and confident flying ability enable her to ooze all over the screen, as the score howls along. Micachu herself is a modest, very charismatic but calm performer, working in dark clothes and with her head bowed. It’s obvious that she wants us to notice the sounds and the silents more than the star – and, hideously intrigued, we do. With their brittle, brooding brilliance Micachu and Lotte Reiniger are a match made in heaven – or rather, hell.

Meshes of the Afternoon, directed by Maya Deren in 1943 and accompanied by composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Seaming, is such a fresh, intelligent and modern-seeming film that I overheard someone in the audience say, impressed, “So, this is where David Lynch got pretty much all his ideas.” Meshes has been called a ‘trance film’ but I think it’s stronger, more plotted and less dreamlike than that phrase implies. A woman in a beautiful sunny American house in the hills has a dream within a dream within a dream, in which certain props – a bread knife, a key, a telephone, a mirror – combine and recombine to give various takes on the same scenario. There’s the comedic take, the murder mystery take, the nature film take, the nightmare take, the airy take, the claustrophobic take, the romantic take. It’s an astoundingly accomplished and cohesive piece of work, by turns sinister and witty, and incredibly technically slick. Its gently grainy black and white soft look is cut through with flashpoints of shocking imagery, like the knife suddenly glinting with light or the appearance of a hooded, robed character with no face.

It’s difficult to describe Seaming’s score and performance without getting submerged in superlatives. She is, basically, a total star, with the same creativity, talent and presence as some unique figures from Bjork to Grace Jones, early Annie Lennox or Laurie Anderson or (to choose from the current generation of new names) someone like Janelle Monae or La Roux. What was remarkable about her work with Meshes was its sheer variety, the layers of types of music, from haunting electro to soft live oboe broken by a frankly amazing operatic voice, all perfectly controlled and utterly present. Seaming is a musicians’ musician, a class act with wild capabilities. She did much more than accompany the action on the film – although this she did brilliantly, with exactly the right amount of humour, switching into all-out horror, histrionics, gore and spookiness. She gave us a performance and a composition of true originality, entertainment and independence. The variety of her talents as an instrumentalist, arranger and singer were encapsulated into this brief 14 minutes, but Seaming was undoubtedly the brightest spot of the evening. I would love to see her work more intensively with the film world; the seamless combination of stunningly original music with this intimidatingly excellent film was breathtaking to witness.

Suspense, a film directed in 1913 by Lois Weber, was a tougher call I think. It’s a frenetic fear-farce in which a man is at he office while his wife and baby stay at home. A tramp breaks into the house, cuts the telephone cord, steals the food and makes his way to the woman’s room while the husband tries to get home, despite being carjacked (or whatever the 1913s version of that is). It’s a strikingly bleak and cynical film, rather horrible in its bitterness, and nobody comes off well: the house is so lonely that staff members leave, the husband is rather hapless, as are his wife and their baby, and the tramp is strangely malicious. His cutting of the telephone cord with the bread knife he finds on the table is truly frightening for being so easy and prompting such a sick smile on his face. There is a rather sweet plot twist during a scuffle at the end, which I won’t give away, but generally the narrative of Suspense is frantic with cynicism. Where it succeeds however is in its technical mastery. Weber uses a split screen device at times, to show where her various characters are. Her framing of the acting is impeccable: our first view of the tramp is a steep shot down the side of the house, from the point of view of the wife who is in an upstairs bedroom. He tilts his head up – his eyes catch the camera and gleam and we know that this is A Bad Man. Similarly, the carjacking and subsequent chase are shot with enjoyable breadth and airiness, defusing some of the claustrophobia of the stalking in the house.

Tara Busch – a multi instrumentalist and vocalist like Seaming – brings tremendous energy, fizz and pizzazz to Suspense. Her score is thick with electronic beats, fuzzy with static, noise and pulse, driving the action forward. It’s melodious, loud, confident and full of adrenalin. One can almost see the husband’s old fashioned car spewing out trumpet tracks and strange riffs as it rounds the corner. The score had me wanting to get up and dance, and there’s no doubt that Busch is a wildly talented and inspired creator. But the sheer power of her work here pointed up the weakness and lack of subtlety of the film, which suffered from being placed alongside much more thoughtful, precise material. The score and the film did not quite click, probably because there was not enough context or depth in Suspense for Busch to hook her fantastic ideas to; there was no movement or flow, no fusion. Instead I was left simply wanting to listen to as much Tara Busch as I could, and wishing to see her perform live, unencumbered by the film.

Imogen Heap and the Holst Singers were the main attraction of the night, whose second half was devoted to Heap’s new score for The Seashell and the Clergymen, directed by Germaine Dulac. Imogen Heap’s brilliance as a composer, singer, performer, songwriter and musical arranger have been internationally recognised. She has won Grammy and Ivor Novello awards and performed her distinctive, wide-ranging and exquisitely written music all over the world. It was a real coup for BEV to get her involved in this year’s programme, and it is a commission that has worked with absolute success. Imogen Heap has taken the time to create a new, intricate, serious and major work of art to add to her list of accomplishments. She and BEV are to be congratulated on pulling off this project with such fine aplomb.

To get the film out of the way, The Seashell and the Clergyman is considered the first surrealist film and concerns the sexual and revenge fantasies of a lonely cleric whose lust-object has gone off with a portly war-general. Alone in his rooms the clergyman imagines dancing with his beloved, hearing her confessions in church and throttling her tubby boyfriend. Images of sensual delight and cod-romantic ritual (like the two imaginary lovers sitting together on thrones) mix with the kinky fantasies of daily life (a dozen maids in black and white uniforms dust a bowl in which his head appears, with big fluffy caressing dusters) and symbols of his frustration, like the endless stream of bell jars and empty bottles he smashes by his desk. I will be blunt and say that I thought the film was not for me. Nothing makes my heart sink quite like the phrase “A forty one minute long surrealist silent film made in 1928 about a clergyman’s sexual fantasies.” What saved it was the complete and utter gob smacking brilliance of Imogen Heap’s score, as performed by the Holst Singers with a precision and clarity that put me into a state of abject worship and admiration.

Heap has composed a full length, perfectly realised, significant, totally a cappella piece of work which stands entirely on its own and contains a multitude of nuances and perfectly balanced melodies, switchbacks, moods and movements. There is sweet and melodic whimsy, sinister clicking and thumping, waves of querulous sighs and gasps, as the singers appear to be caught up in this poor priest’s various manias and obsessions. It is perfectly controlled - and topped off with Heap’s own incredibly lovely and versatile voice – and yet so flawlessly performed and conducted that the viewer forgets the performers can’t see the film. They are following the conductor and written score created by Imogen Heap, whose directions are obviously so finely calibrated that the score and the film seem to have been created spontaneously by the same person at the same time, so naturally do they sit together. Heap is to be congratulated a thousand times on bringing cohesion and interest to a film which could so easily cause a spectator’s mind to wander (just like the film’s own protagonist’s does). Her score gives the film a backbone its antihero lacks.

Congratulations are also to be given to the Holst Singers themselves. Accustomed to performing anything from the traditional range of classical music across the ages, Heap’s fantastically original score must have been a challenge – one which they pull off with admirable ease and an enjoyment and togetherness which are joyful to watch. The voice work is accompanied by bodywork: they must thump their hearts, shuffle, yelp, slap their sides, all to create the depth and texture which makes the score sound so warm and full-bodied. This is about as far away from thin, noodly chapel singing as you can get. Imogen Heap and her amazing singers have taken a difficult, original film from nearly 100 years ago and brought is happily into the present day, glowing with musicality, movement, humour and texture. A stunning accomplishment topping off a stunning evening of totally original and often groundbreaking new work that illuminates and enlivens the past, present and hopefully the future.