From the Vault: Electronic musicians perform new music for 110-year-old Gothic films
The devil has the best tunes on Saturday 14 December when a collective of British electronic musicians 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).
The ensemble was put together by Sarah Angliss, a composer, automatist and theremin player, whose singularly unsettling music was recently heard at the National Theatre as a tense underscore to Lucy Prebble’s The Effect. Angliss’ music for Gothic film will be performed by her band: recent Ghost Box collaborators Spacedog. They’ll be joined by Exotic Pylon’s Time Attendant (Paul Snowdon) who will be supplying a 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, composer of the haunting Music for Thomas Carnacki (2011), will also be creating a studio piece for the event.
Sourced by Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film, many of the short films inspiring these musicians were made in the opening years of the twentieth century. The Legende du fantôme (1908) and early split screen experiment Skulls Take Over (1901) are on the bill, along with the silent cubist masterpiece The Fall of the House of Usher (US version, 1928) and more.
“There is undoubtedly something uncanny about the earliest of these films”, said Angliss. “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.”
Jon Brooks said “the visuals suggest aural textures reminiscent of painted glass, to strange derivatives of stringed instruments. Hopefully I've conjured some playfulness amongst the macabre too."
Adding to the strangeness are Angliss’ automata, who will also be performing live. 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. After the BFI Southbank performance there are plans to tour Vault around Gothic revivalist buildings around the UK.
Sarah Angliss is grateful to PRSF for Music for financially supporting her new work. 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)