Why has the old art of live-scoring movies made a comeback? Jeff Mills and Lau explain the attraction.
Alongside The Artist’s unlikely revival of the silent movie, another presumed-dead cinematic tradition of the early 20th century has been making a comeback in recent years – the live film score, where a movie is played along to in person by a musician or group of musicians, creating an effect which is neither concert nor cinema screening, but an entirely different sensory experience.
The live score phenomenon isn’t new, and there have been several outstanding examples of it in recent memory. In 2004, for example, Lamb-chop toured their interpretation of FW Murnau’s silent 1927 classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, while two years ago Tindersticks did the same with a selection of scenes from films by Clare Denis.
In 2005 the Pet Shop Boys live-scored Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal Battleship Potemkin in London’s Trafalgar Square and released an album of their new soundtrack, while closer to home, Scots artists FOUND, Meursault and eagleowl scored excerpts from the Scottish Screen Archive for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Every year a live score programme seems to become an increasingly beloved element of leftfield film festivals around the world, presumably in large part because the necessary equipment involved in staging them grows smaller and more portable all the time. In many cases a laptop and a few leads can be all that’s needed to make such an event possible in a cinema auditorium, for example.
Having welcomed specialist electronic film score artists Zombie Zombie and Umberto in the past, this year will see Glasgow Film Festival’s music strand present a number of live score events, not least of which is the all-day Sonic Cineplex show at the Arches this weekend.
Headlined by esteemed Detroit techno DJ and sci-fi fan Jeff Mills, who will be scoring Fritz Lang’s 1929 speculative fiction effort Woman in the Moon, and Dieter Möbius of classic German rock groups Kluster and Harmonia scoring the same director’s Metropolis (the silent films of Lang, Murnau and Eisenstein are the go-to source material for most of these shows), the day will also feature contributions from artists including Optimo’s JD Twitch, Remember Remember and Adam Stafford.
“When you look at what a DJ does, this isn’t so far away,” says Mills. “He looks at the scenario, he looks at the crowd and he applies music to create a soundtrack for what he sees happening. So it’s not very difficult for me to look at a film scene and figure out what sound might apply to it, and because I’m dealing with the music in real time and mixing it based on what I see, it’s never the same.
“I have the choice to play tracks for longer periods or to rearrange them with loops, which means it’s really close to a small orchestra performing to a film, although with even more control. I created every part of the music and I know exactly where it can go and what it can be used for. The smallest change can make a big difference, it can really help tailor the film.”
Mills says his score literally works like a DJ set, with around 75 two or three-minute pieces of music (he created around 160 when he came to the project, a commission from the Cinémathèque Française) being mixed together live as a response to what he sees over the film’s three-hour duration. He says he enjoys the way he has to build up almost a counter-plot to Lang’s in this new version, how he has to ride the dramatic elements of giving each character a theme, reflect the time in which the film was made while still using his own musical style, and express the wonder of seeing a new world for the first time.
Other live score events at the Glasgow Film Festival offer a different context. Scottish folk band Lau, for example, will play along with a short, silent piece produced by Edinburgh filmmaker Ruth Paxton. It’s a relationship drama based loosely on that of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller which was designed around three tracks from their new album Race the Loser.
“It’s hard not to get distracted by the film, actually,” says the band’s Martin Green of the experience. “We have small screens beside our seats, and so one of the things you have to do is to remember to engage with the other players. It’s a lot different to playing a gig, where you’re wholeheartedly focused on the music. The other thing you have to remember is that you’re half, or maybe even less than half, of the experience you’re trying to present. So you don’t need to play the amount of music you need to when you’re playing a gig, you don’t need to make it so dense, whether that’s the number of notes you play or how aggressively you play them.”
In the same format, but in an entirely different vein, Scots chamber group the Auricle Ensemble have been granted permission to recreate Oscar-winning soundtrack composer Aaron Copland’s score to The City, a meditation on urban life written for that year’s World Trade Fair by Lewis Mumford, a devotee of Scots planner and sociologist Sir Patrick Geddes. Auricle’s artistic director Chris Swaffer recalls a process involving “a lot of post-it notes” in trying to recreate the cues, but he likes the ideas of completion in bringing Geddes’s reinterpreted ideas home with the help of mid-show mini-lectures from experts in the field.
“It’s tremendously exciting,” he says. “All the players and the audience alike create a real buzz in the room, there’s a higher level of adrenaline amongst the performers than usual, and having the guest speakers there really brings the thing to life, it means it leaps out at you in a way you just don’t expect when you say you’re going to live-score a black and white documentary about town planning.”
“Humanity” is a word he uses and Green echoes that. “In our case it’s not about the film accompanying the music,” he says. “It’s the other way around. So it’s about remembering to keep out of the way, I suppose. But from night to night things change, and the room changes from gig to gig, which also affects how we play. So, even though the music is pre-agreed, we’re trying to respond to this film while sitting in a room full of people who are also responding to it. There’s something about experiencing that in real time that makes it a more human event. And there’s a certain amount of effort that goes into it, which adds a bit of depth – we’ve all come together to make this thing happen.”
• Sonic Cineplex is at the Arches on Saturday; Auricle Ensemble: The City is at the Old Fruitmarket on 17 February; Lau present Nevada at St Andrew’s in the Square on 19 February; Dark Star with a live Animat soundtrack is at the CCA on 21 February; all Glasgow. www.glasgowfilm.org/festival