Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

Jane Shore (1915) has been described as the first British epic, and one that rivalled the best productions coming out of Hollywood at the time. A cast of thousands is used to great effect by producer/cinematographer Will Barker (founder of Ealing Studios) in this ambitious retelling of the story of Jane Shore: one of the many mistresses of King Edward IV who described her as one of “the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots” in his realm.

The BFI has made a stunning new print of the tinted version of Jane Shore (recently discovered in its archives) for its centenary. Composer Laura Rossi has written a new score for the film, which is being performed on a tour of the UK. Here, she answers a few questions about the project, and her writing process.
How did this commission arise and how did you choose the film?

Classic Cinema Club – Ealing wanted to commission me to score a silent film for a live music and film screening at their cinema club. We decided it would be good (as I also live in Ealing) to try and find a silent film made at Ealing Studios. I approached Bryony Dixon at the BFI, who dug out a few films for me to view in a BFI basement room on an old Steenbeck machine.

I was taught how to use the machine and change the reels. It was a very magical day watching reels of footage filmed over a hundred years ago. Jane Shore seemed the perfect fit – a film made at Ealing Studios by the studio founder Will Barker.

For this centenary tour the BFI made a specially restored digital print of the tinted version of the film which looks stunning. We were lucky enough to secure a grant from PRSF Women Make Music fund for the commission and first performance, and an Arts Council grant to help fund the tour.

What do you think is so special about watching a silent film with live music?

Watching a silent film with live music is such a magical experience and can be enjoyed on many levels. The music makes the images come alive and fills the auditorium, giving a four-dimensional experience.

It’s not just about watching the film, but also being transported back to this era. It’s fascinating to see how people acted then, the exaggerated gestures, and the early techniques of making films.

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

As well as composing scores for new films, you have also written for other silent films. Can you tell me about your approach to writing film music?

I personally think all the best film music stands up on its own as a great piece of music. Take Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota or John Williams – all their music works wonderfully as a piece of music without the pictures. Yet when played with the film the music greatly adds to the meaning and feeling of each scene, adding another dimension or an important element, unique to each film.

I have scored quite a lot of silent films and they are harder work than scoring a feature film (which usually has shorter cues that flow in and out of scenes). In silent films the music is often needed to help tell the story, or in the case of this film, to add emotion, help you engage with the film and draw you into the narrative.

What do you enjoy about writing music for films?

I love writing music and especially love the magic of adding music to picture and making the pictures come alive. Music can add so much meaning, emotion and depth to a film, it’s great to be part of that. I really enjoy the variety of working on a range of projects (I’ve just scored a couple of feature films which will be out later this year, and also have a commission for a concert piece for children’s choir and orchestra).

I really enjoy the collaborative and creative process of working on a new film and being part of a team and working closely with the director. But I also equally enjoy the free rein of writing music for silent films, where you can artistically decide the best way to interpret the film, to help people connect with it, and be inspired directly from the images rather than the director’s vision. I also enjoy performing the music live, as you get to really feel a bit of that magic when music, film and the audience connect.

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

You have chosen to use motivic material, please tell us a little more about how you responded to the film and decided on your approach?

The main thing I wanted the music to do was to help you engage with the film and draw you in, immersing you in the world of the film. I also wanted to help connect the many changing scenes.

The plot is quite complicated and there are six main characters of almost equal importance, so you end up not really empathising with them. So the main thing I wanted the music to do was to add emotion, so you especially feel for Jane, who’s portrayed as a good hearted character who pines for her original lover William Shore. (This is not historically true – she actually divorced him on the grounds that he was impotent!)

There are themes that return at certain moments and you can really play on people’s emotions by using returning themes. The audience will feel a certain way because they’ve heard the music before, so it helps connect you with particular moments in the film, and in doing so, helps tell the story.

Laura Rossi and her orchestra accompany Jane Shore
Laura Rossi and Orchestra Celeste accompany Jane Shore

Orchestra Celeste consists of you on piano, Sophie Langdon on electric violin, Mike Outram on guitars and Glockenspiel, and Bozidar Vukotic on cello. What made you chose this particular line-up?

I wanted to create a sound world that combined acoustic and electronic instruments for this film. It just felt right – it’s a very ambitious film and quite advanced for 1915, so I really wanted the music to add to this and give a modern edge to help audiences 100 years on connect with it. At the same time I wanted to still use quite traditional methods with motifs and melodies so the music connects with what is happening on the screen and engages you with the story.

I also wanted the music to help add to the epic feel of the film. Even though there are only four of us playing, it’s a big sound and really fills the auditorium, so you feel immersed in the world of the film. Piano and acoustic guitar work so well for a range of textures and emotions, as well as having the connotations with traditional silent film accompaniments.

Electric guitar and electric violin give the music a certain edge, especially when this is combined with the electronic track I have created. The cello is such an emotive instrument, and perfect at creating the right atmosphere for those darker moments in the film, and setting the scene for romantic brooding love and revenge. The glockenspiel adds an element of magic and brightness needed for particular moments, to contrast with some of the very dark moods in the film.

The music is very melodic and has elements of minimalism in it, can you talk a bit about this?

I composed the score at times in a kind of minimalistic way to engage you with the film. Too many themes would make the already busy film feel disjointed, but equally music that is too monotonous would have made the film feel long and boring. It was more important to make the music engaging and help drive the action forward with insistent rhythms and arpeggiated figures, which kind of hypnotise you into the action and help make it flow.

I am a big fan of melodies and I think melodic themes helps you identify with particular characters and themes in the film. Melodies also help to deepen the emotional connection with the film and because they tend to stay with you, help you remember that feeling long after the film has finished.

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

How has touring the project changed your perception of the film and music?

Each time I watch this film I spot something new and I enjoy the experience of watching and performing it more each time. The great thing about having an eight-date tour is that our performance has developed. We have added more depth and expression to the performances, and connected better with the images and as an ensemble. I have also discovered more about the film through this tour from audience members (including some funny stories from when it was made).

It has been so much fun to score and perform this, and it feels very special that we have helped bring back to life an old forgotten silent film that was just sitting in the archive. Watching it with the music feels like stepping back in time. We have had many requests for a DVD release of the film and music, so hope we can make that happen.

Whilst playing the music I go through waves of consciousness and have moments where I connect with certain musicians, and other moments where I feel strongly connected to the film or the audience, but the magic always happens in the moments where all these elements feel connected together: the film, the music and the audience – then it feels like you’re flying!

See Jane Shore with Rossi’s score on the final two dates of the tour in Devon:

You can find out more about Rossi, and Jane Shore, on Rossi’s website – including a review of a recent screening at the BFI Southbank in London

Laura Rossi accompanying Jane Shore in Brighton
Laura Rossi accompanying Jane Shore in Brighton

6 thoughts on “Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’”

  1. Jane Shore is an adaptation of Nicholas Rowe’s 1714 stage play ( a so-called “she tragedy”) with the same title. It will be interesting to see the degree to which Will Barker has opened out the original.

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