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Scoring Hitchcock’s silent films

April 18, 2012

“This is for now. This is for audiences now” – Neil Brand, composer, Blackmail

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend the press launch of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season, where the summer’s blockbuster season of screenings was announced. Creative director Heather Stewart made a great case for Leytonstone’s favourite son, calling him a modernist to compare with Picasso and Le Corbusier, and a cornerstone of British culture, laying the adjective Hitchcockian alongside its counterparts Dickensian and Shakespearean. “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not,” she says. Furthermore, she argued that Hitchcock’s work demands not just greater study, but wider audiences. The answer the BFI proposes is to show the films – all of them – in the most comprehensive Hitchcock retrospective ever staged – including his silent films.

“We would find it very strange if we could not see Shakespeare’s early plays performed, or read Dickens’s early novels. But we’ve been quite satisfied as a nation that Hitchcock’s early films have not been seen in good quality prints on the big screen.”

Showing the nine extant silents is of course more difficult than screening the later work. The prints require varying degrees of restoration work – and new scores. For me, the most interesting part of launch event was a panel discussion chaired by Nick James, editor of Sight & Sound magazine, which gave an insight into the process of writing new music for the films. Five composers were on stage, each of whom had been tasked with scoring a different Hitchcock silent. It was fascinating to hear about the different approaches they took, how much they felt that the project was a direct way of expressing their admiration for the director, and their readings of the different films.

Neil Brand, whose orchestral score for Blackmail will be arranged for a smaller ensemble and played at a gala screening in the forecourt of the British Museum, described the “party game” of following Hitchcock’s characters’ shifting motivations and vulnerability. His intention, he said, was “bring out the neurosis” in the film. And he was upfront about the fact that he took inspiration from some of Hitchcock’s later musical collaborators. We were shown a clip from the film that precedes the scene excerpted above. Brand wasn’t, he explained, trying to register the heroine’s desire for the artist, but for the frilly dress hanging in the studio. To that end, he “scored the dress”, with a sparkling theme every bit as frothy as the frock.

Hitchcock’s “switching empathies” were also part of the attraction and the complexity of scoring The Lodger for Nitin Sawhney. He started, he said, by working on the titles, those extravagantly designed, animated captions that decorate the film, and pulling the strands of the narrative apart. It must have been complex. Asked by James if the score was as foggy as the film’s vision of London, he replied no, but added self-deprecatingly that his brain was a little fogged during the composition process. Those who have heard Sawhney’s score for A Throw of Dice will doubtless be happy to learn that this new composition will also be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in June.

Fog or no fog, young composer Daniel Patrick Cohen showed every enthusiasm for the task of soundtracking Hitchcock’s first film. As a long-term fan of the director he described The Pleasure Garden as “a blueprint for all the wonderful films that Alfred Hitchcock went on to make”. Happily for us, we saw a glimpse of the film with Cohen’s score. It was the opening scene in fact, which sets up so many of Hitchcock’s enduring fascinations: blondes, voyeurism and a ribald, but very British sense of humour. Cohen knows his audience will have been brought up on Hitchcock’s grisly thrillers, and that we know where all these fascinations can lead, and so the music was deliberately playful, but with a steely, sinister edge. When it came to the humour in the film, Cohen promised us “one amusing sound effect” in his score. Just one, and he wasn’t telling where it was to be found. Tease.

Can you imagine Betty Balfour as the pinup of the Occupy movement? Mira Calix can, perhaps. She offered an audacious reading of Champagne, which screens in September, as a critique of celebrity culture and a comment on the financial crisis. I see her point, but can’t quite imagine idle heiress de nos jours Paris Hilton with soot on her face, or indeed flying a plane. Still, Champagne is a film with a great deal of style and Calix quite rightly noted that while 1928 may seem to be the long-distant past, this is a film obsessed with modernity, in all its art-deco, cocktail-sipping, drop-waisted deliciousness. Calix aims to bridge the 84-year age gap with a score for Champagne that incorporates traditional instruments alongside the electronica she is renowned for. I think this will be most of the most distinctive scores in the season, and I am certainly intrigued.

Soweto Kinch didn’t just discuss his score for The Ring, he put his saxophone where his mouth was and accompanied a short clip from the film. His finished score will be played by a five-piece band at the Hackney Empire, but he performed solo in NFT1, his sax lines underscoring each small but significant gesture in one of The Ring’s quieter scenes – and drawing a fantastic response from the audience. Like Calix, he is keen to bring out the elements of the film that feel new. Watching The Ring, he said he was suprised to see such a racially hetereogenous vision of 1920s, pre-Windrush London, and impressed by the films’ treatment of sexuality and gender identity. “It reframed how I thought relationships were in the early 20th century,” he said, adding that he would look a little differently on his own grandparents’ courtship from now on! He was confident, that he would be able to “twin the old and the new” in the film, just as he combines jazz and hip-hop in his music. Hip-hop Hitchcock? Bring it on.

Read more about the Genius of Hitchcock season on Silent London here, and on the BFI website here.

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