The devil has the best tunes on Saturday 14 December when our collective will perform new music inspired by rarely seen Gothic silent films from the BFI National Archive. The music and films will be brought together for the first time in Vault: Music for Silent Gothic Treasures at BFI Southbank as part of the BFI’s nationwide project GOTHIC: The Dark Heart of Film. (8:45pm). Tickets are available here (£8.50 – £11.00 plus booking fee).
Sarah and Stephen (Spacedog) – Photo Tamsin Chapman
I’m busy composing a new live score for theremin, vocals, modular synth, percussion, saw and other instruments. I’ll be performing this with my fellow Spacedogs (you may have heard us with Belbury Poly on the Ghost Box Study Series no 10). We’ll be joined by Exotic Pylon’s Time Attendant (Paul Snowdon) who will be supplying new work on simmering, tabletop electronics. There will also be some extemporisations from Bela Emerson, a soloist who works with cello and electronics. Fellow Ghost Box associate Jon Brooks (aka the Advisory Circle), composer of the haunting Music for Thomas Carnacki (2011), will also be creating a studio piece for the event.
Hear some excerpts of my other recent work on Soundcloud.
Sourced by Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film, many of the short films inspiring us were made in the opening years of the twentieth century. The Legende du fantôme (1908), an early cinematic vision of Dante’s Inferno (1911) and split screen experiment Skulls Take Over (1901) are on the bill, along with silent cubist masterpiece The Fall of the House of Usher (US version, 1928) and more.
It’s been a wonderful experience working with Bryony, digging in the archive for treasures. There is undoubtedly something uncanny about the earliest of the films we’re using. Many are stencil-coloured in vibrant hues, adding to that sense of the familiar taking on a strange cast. They seem to demand music that suggests rather than points up the horror, a motif that discomforts as it soothes, or a sweet sound that is somehow sickly, as though heard in a fever. As with vision, sound for horror can use the art of the almost, inviting the audience to make unnerving connections of their own. It’s great to be working with such fine ensemble of composers and extemporisers – all of whom have the musical sensitivity and technique to pull off such a feat.
Adding to the strangeness are my automata who are performing with us on the night. These include a polyphonic, robotic carillon (bell playing machine) and Hugo, the roboticised head of a ventriloquist’s dummy who is of the same vintage as some of the films. The event will be directed by Emma Kilbey who will ensure the performance is a dark and exquisite Gothic happening. After the BFI Southbank event there are plans to tour Vault around Gothic revivalist buildings around the UK.
Thanks to PRSF for Music Foundation for financially supporting my new work through their individual composer’s award scheme. Thanks also to the BFI for giving us access to the archives and for their other support in kind. Vault: Music for Silent Gothic Treasures is part of the BFI’s Hauntology Weekend, in association with The Wire magazine (Fri 13 Dec – Sat 14 Dec).