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by Betty Stojnić

Maybe it’s the epic orchestra of Hans Zimmer. Maybe it’s the ambient synth soundscape of Daniel Lopatin. Maybe it’s both, somehow – as with Wendy Carlos’ work for A Clockwork Orange. Maybe it’s absent altogether. Whatever approach you take to a film’s score, the impression it leaves might very well overshadow some of the visual aspects of the reductively named motion picture. Few things demonstrate this like silent film screenings with live music accompaniment.

In March, in collaboration with Leith Theatre and The Debutante, we organised Electric Muses, a screening of Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) with an original live score performed by musicians Aurora Engine and Bell Lungs. Deborah Shaw, the pianist, harpist, and composer behind the alias Aurora Engine tells us about her experience with creating and performing music for film.

“I think what probably stands out the most about my work is the blend of acoustic music and digital recording techniques,” she says as an introduction to her work. “I have also been told I have kooky lyrics!”

She has composed for film and theatre before, but this was her first time performing alongside a silent film from this era – the ground-breaking surrealist period of 1920s France. Germaine Dulac was a pioneer of the movement, with the premiere of The Seashell and the Clergyman preceding Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou by over a year.

“I have always loved silent film,” Aurora Engine continues. “For me it is like having access to a time machine or a telescope into an era long gone. Being almost 100 years old, The Seashell and the Clergyman is from an era which very few living people have experienced first-hand at all, let alone as adults. I was especially interested in exploring women working in the film industry at this time. When I came across Germaine Dulac, I was intrigued, particularly by the way she used technology to create unique and mesmerising special effects.”

Electric Muses celebrates women in the creative field, with Germaine Dulac’s films demonstrating the influence of women in early cinema as directors and producers. Co-hosted by the editors of The Debutante, a feminist journal focused on women’s surrealist art, the event confirmed the enduring importance of female directors in film history, as well as of the multiplicity of art forms that find their intersection in cinema. Aurora Engine and Bell Lungs thus looked back on Dulac’s work to form something entirely new out of it. Aurora Engine describes her creative process as a detailed study of The Seashell and the Clergyman:

“I watched Dulac’s film on repeat without any sound, taking notes of how changes in mood were created using lighting, props, expression, surrealist themes, and gesture. I wrote down my ideas of how I might like the soundtrack to take shape. The mood of the film changes often and, being surrealist, has a dreamlike element to it.”

For the composer, this was not only an interaction between two artistic media, but also between two very different time periods: “The characters and actors in the film really piqued my curiosity. I found myself thinking about who they were, what their lives were like, and whether they were happy. I felt that I was collaborating with them and that their performance, along with Dulac’s direction, influenced my work directly.”

For the score itself, she took advantage of her most developed skill sets in piano, harp, and vocals, producing various acoustic effects by sampling and digitally modifying the sounds of the instruments:

“I knew from my work at Leith Theatre over the years that there was a piano backstage. It hadn’t been played in years and was dusty, old, and creaky. I started by sampling different sounds from it. I used old piano hammers I had found to hit the strings directly, as well as screws and other metal objects to manipulate the resulting tones. I then used a series of creative recording techniques and effects to build a palette of sounds that were all generated from the piano. I made live soundscapes and then played live instruments, singing in tandem with that electronic bed of sound.” 

The manner in which the senses cooperate when making or experiencing art truly shines through when such a detailed and thoughtful musical process is inspired by the moving image. From the synaesthetic paintings of Wassily Kandinsky to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, there are seemingly endless examples of music’s profound effect on the other arts and vice versa. From the perspective of a musician, this opens new avenues for their output, as Shaw points out:

“I am a very visual person, and often draw or make small sculptures of pieces I am making, including songs. One of the reasons I embark on projects such as these is that they really give me permission to explore another part of my imagination. While composing for The Seashell and the Clergyman, I found myself establishing certain audio motifs for each character, which I used throughout the performance. Visual media is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful prompts for composers. The use of colour, shade, story, and mood set by the director or film-maker offers themes for musical exploration. The shades of light in Dulac’s film, being black and white, in itself gave me a great deal to discover.”

Of course, performing the score during the screening also required a slightly different approach to the way she played her instruments live. She adds that “in some ways, performing alongside a film is easier than working with live actors in theatre, as so often they go off script or take longer to deliver a scene. The score I was performing, however, was very intricate and required a lot of attention to detail.”

Complex in its utilisation of electronic samples and live instrumentation, her contribution to the score necessitated constant on-stage vigilance: “There were so many settings and sounds that I used; if something wasn’t muted at the appropriate point, for example, chaos could happen! Positioning myself on stage was also challenging as I had to fit a harp, piano, me, and the technology into a small space so that the screen was easy to see. It was really hard. I had to make sure I didn’t make any elaborate moves and knock an instrument (or myself) off the stage!”

The effort was more than worthwhile however, and the music of Aurora Engine and Bell Lungs demonstrated, once more, that “silent” film is often not simply that. Whether it’s merely there as a complement, or if it makes all the difference between something being watched and something being experienced, a film’s score can stir the senses in under-appreciated ways. Through projects like Electric Muses and the creativity inspired by women like Dulac, we may find quite a bit of truth in Aurora Engine’s at once innocuous and very astute conclusion that “moving air is one of the most exciting things in the world.”

A glimpse of ELECTRIC MUSES at Leith Theatre in March 2020.

Photo: Luka Vukos