Abi Bliss: Resounding the silver screen

March 2013

Abi Bliss takes a look at the recent plethora of live soundtracking and the Sturm und Drang that kicks off when musician meets movie.

The three people seated in front of me at a recent Leeds screening of the 1927 silent film Sunrise left hastily as soon as the film finished. They may have had a train to catch, but it’s tempting to wonder whether the real reason was to avoid hearing another second of the uncompromising musical accompaniment: Stephen O'Malley and Peter Rehberg's KTL duo performing their live soundtrack for the first time in the UK. Previously, O’Malley and Rehberg created work for Gisèle Vienne’s contemporary dance production Kindertotenlieder, their elegiac and tempestuous music complementing the performance's sullen, black-clad youths, European pagan myths and ritualised violence. So at first glance, FW Murnau’s expressionist tale of married love triumphing over infidelity seemed a considerably less obvious pairing.

But KTL are hardly alone in swapping spotlights and dry ice for projection: a look ahead to April sees Red Snapper performing their new soundtrack to Djibril Diop Mambety’s 1973 road movie Touki Bouki at two dates in the UK, and 2013 will doubtless bring many more such encounters between musician and movie.

Writing for the New York Times in 1985, Tim Page expressed bemusement at the popularity of a screening of Koyaanisqatsi live-soundtracked by The Philip Glass Ensemble and choral group Western Wind, noting that “because of the darkened auditorium, one could not even see the Glass ensemble, ostensibly one reason to attend a live concert.” The present day profusion of live-soundtracked films suggests that audiences are far from concerned by this. It’s also easy to see how the appeal of the events for musicians is beyond the chance to bathe in the flickering light of someone else’s achievement. True, unlike the kind of audiovisual meetings where processing software such as Max/MSP and Jitter enables a more symbiotic interaction between musician and visual artist, the relationship with film is one way. In particular, films from the silent era whose directors are long dead are a fixed quantity, the collaborator who doesn’t answer back.

But such asymmetry does not prevent soundtracking from being a worthwhile act of creative criticism, where musicians sift through layers of meaning, pull out those that resonate most strongly for them, and magnify them for the audience. A powerful example I saw in Leeds last year was Seaming To’s live soundtrack to Maya Deren’s Meshes Of The Afternoon. Blurring the boundaries between sound effects and music, and diegetic and non-diegetic sound, her score deftly transmitted the heightened psychological states of this dream-like film into the performance space.

Some of the most interesting live soundtracks take a more challenging stance, confronting films with their own failings. Sunrise is widely lauded for its innovative cinematography and the expressive performances of its three leads, and while KTL’s live soundtrack complemented its beauty, it also foregrounded the film's disquieting aspects. This is, after all, a film whose subtitle A Song of Two Humans tries to universalise a romance which is rekindled when the wife narrowly escapes a murder attempt by her husband, who repents but later still nearly throttles his mistress. This sense of barely suppressed violence was established from the film’s outset through deep, slow-pulsing drones. At the couple’s moment of reconciliation halfway through, these ceased, providing a moment of lightness; but the unsettling mood soon returned, undermining the on-screen depiction of a return to carefree romance.

If there’s a downside to the current popularity of live soundtracking, it’s in too-safe choices of either film or artist. You don’t have to look far these days to find someone tackling Metropolis with laptop and analogue synth, or a group of Godspeed You! Black Emperor soundalikes plugging in their delay pedals in anticipation of Nosferatu. Equally, however, devising a film soundtrack is also an opportunity for musicians to stretch themselves and take chances.

Although when judged by that measure KTL’s soundtrack is hardly a massive feat of musical risk-taking, their take on Sunrise was a considered and intelligent response to a film whose canonical status and surrounding weight of celebratory criticism called out for a fresh interpretation. As the final frame faded, O’Malley’s guitar blazed on at ever-increasing volume, carrying the film’s darkness and moral complexity out into the concert hall, where it lingered long past the happy ending.

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