Interview: RM Hubbert on writing a new score for a 1920s Soviet western

When RM Hubbert was commissioned to write and perform the live score for a film being shown at Bo'ness's renowned Hippodrome Silent Film Festival later this month, he was expecting something relatively innocuous, perhaps in a nostalgically flickering silent movie sort of way. But when the Glasgow guitarist first viewed Po Zakonu '“ 'By the Law', he was amazed to find it more Sam Peckinpah than Mack Sennett.

RM Hubert PIC: Alan Miller
RM Hubert PIC: Alan Miller

“I was expecting something hammier, but it’s really brutal,” he says of the film, made by Russian director Lev Kuleshov in 1926 and described in the festival programme as “a pared-back Soviet western”.

“Hubby”, as the 42-year-old Hubbert is universally known (the RM stands for his seldom used Christian names Robert McArthur), was, however, considerably moved by the film, based on a Jack London story about gold prospectors in an isolated cabin in the Yukon. Greed drives one of them to murder and the film charts the moral quandary of the remaining prospectors – whether to keep the murderer alive until they can turn him over to far removed law agencies, or to dispense their own rough justice.

Hubbert’s reaction to the film, he says, relates to his struggle with depression. “The film has that idea of isolation and panic and … just creeping dread running through it. Which is not too dissimilar to my experiences with depression.”

All the music Hubbert has written over his four albums he regards as therapy, “and as a way of expressing myself that I would struggle to do with words. That’s one of the reasons they asked me to do the score for this particular film.”

He has written for film before, and indeed appears in the newly released Lost in France documentary about the flourishing Glasgow indie rock scene of the Nineties and the Chemikal Underground label on which he records, but this is his first tilt at live accompaniment for a silent movie. He’s using his habitual acoustic guitar – percussively as well as melodically, eschewing any electronic looping or effects pedals. He describes his playing style – an idiosyncratic amalgam of fingerpicking, flamenco and rock influences – as “right hand flamenco, left hand Sonic Youth”; and reckons that his hour-long score for Po Zakonu is near enough to the music of his albums: “But it’s much longer-form than my album music; basically one continuous piece, although with lulls: the quietness is as important as the noise.”

A former member of the Glasgow band El Hombre Trajeado, Hubbert self-released his first album, First and Last, in 2009. His follow-up, Thirteen Lost & Found, in which he collaborated with other musicians including Aidan Moffat and Emma Pollock, won a Scottish Album of the Year Award in 2013, and, he says, considerably boosted his career: “Winning it opened a lot of doors for me.” His fifth album, Telling the Trees, came out last summer and he has another recording planned with Moffatt. At present, however, apart from writing for Po Zakonu, he’s busy with promotional tours for Lost In France.

In the meantime, the seventh “Hippfest”, as Scotland’s only silent film festival is known, runs from 22-26 March amid the immaculately restored pre-Art Deco interior of Bo’ness’s Hippodrome, Scotland’s first purpose-built picture house, and it’s not all cabin fever, although the festival opener, The Grub Stake, from 1923, is also set in the Yukon, with Nell Shipman as the feisty heroine. Like all Hippfest shows, it features a specially commissioned score, this one from a festival regular, composer Jane Gardner.

Other highlights include the 1924 German Expressionist horror film The Hands of Orlac, accompanied by acclaimed silent film specialists Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, while Together, made by Lorenza Mazzetti in 1952, is notable in featuring the then unknown sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi in a rare acting role, playing a deaf mute London dockyard worker. Accompaniment is from seasoned improvising saxophonists Raymond MacDonald and Christian Ferlaino. ■

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