Silent film meets live improvised music

Several months ago, an open call was made for silent films and videos for an event called Soundstripes: a unique event at which short silent films are shown and scored by a set of improvising musicians. I applied with two videos, of which Apprentice was chosen to be shown and performed.

I attended the second iteration of Soundstripes, held at Northern Quarter in Huddersfield, on Tuesday evening. The venue was a perfect size to fit a good number of musicians and a good number in the audience.

Soundstripes 2

The quality of the films were excellent in both fidelity, composition and editing techniques. Some films had clear narrative and intention to communicate, which the musicians easily and readily picked up on. A common theme among some of them seemed to be the materialistic nature of society and waste. What I found particularly interesting about the musician's response to the animated images was the use of gesture: there was a good amount of gestural imitation taken from the screen and into the music. This bounced around the room between various instruments, transforming and creating textures which were thankfully not quickly abandoned. I did feel that some of the visual cues in many films were so strong the musicians would be unable to ignore them, which was the case. This is why I was pleased with the band's approach to Apprentice.


I attended the event with some small degree of trepidation, as Apprentice was never composed to be used as a score, but I had always thought that the piece could be interpreted for live sound. As the screen filled with flashing images of hands, both audience and musicians seemed a little unsure and there was little sound from either. Gradually, the musicians found something to latch on to and began making sound.

As a piece, Apprentice contains a good amount of energy from the outset and only continues to become more energetic. At roughly the halfway mark, I noticed several musicians had latched onto the repeating hand shapes while others attempted to keep up with the rhythmic aspects. This was very brave as some parts of the rhythm is particularly fast-paced!

Somewhat after what I know to be the halfway point, I noticed how intense the soundscape had become and realised the musicians would have to either dig deep to find more from their technique and instruments if they were to stay true to the piece, or somehow find a way out, or maybe even give up altogether - what an opportunity for a lover of improvisation! I am pleased to say, to their testament, the band continued with their frenetic realisation, clearly feeling the physical strain in fingers, lungs and embouchure alike.

At the climax and eventual blackness at the end of Apprentice there was a great breath (of relief?!) from both band and audience. I'm unsure whether this was as a response to the experience in general, or if it was sympathy in response to the intensity of the band's highly physical performance.

The mood of the music was intense, dark, dramatic and climactic - what a sound! Thank you to all who were involved in production of Soundstripes 2, to the faithful and highly-skilled musicians and to the other film and video artists for a wonderful evening of sound and light.

Graphic score from visual art: speedy soundscape composition - Artist's Talk at ROAR

I was approached to create a short piece based on a cutting taken from a large artwork donated by Ken Horne, member and manager at ROAR. I was also asked to provide a brief explanation of my approach.

My first reaction to the cutting was how familiar the image looked to the style of various graphic scores I've seen, played from and composed. My first step was to tag the work with sticky notes on which I wrote my immediate reactions so I could then spend more time thinking about the soundscape I might create...I was given just two weeks!

Noticing the controlled ranges of colours and shapes and how they seemed to move across the page filled my imagination with ideas of an open wind-swept landscape and the sounds of small unseen creates moving in their own unique way. This prompted me to use a mixture of found objects which included a metal filing cabinet, screws and pieces of wood as well as traditional instruments; I knew I would need to spend time sitting and playing with the unfamiliar sounding objects to find out what they are capable of. I recorded the instruments and sounding objects using a combination of contact and ambient microphones to try and create texture in the sounds themselves. In the end, I edited in some changes of volume and panning, as well as cleaning up some of the chops and gaps using Logic Pro X for the Mac.

This experience has reminded me how much I enjoy improvisation working from a score and also brought back some buried thoughts on improvisation and composition.

Listen to the Unnamed Soundscape

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