Queen's Hall, Edinburgh October 9, 2015 programme note
Setting new music to old films has become almost a genre of performance in itself in recent years. It’s certainly an art form and in matching notes to the images seen in Salt for Svanetia, Moishe’s Bagel were following in some illustrious footsteps.
From orchestral conductor Carl Davis to synth disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, whose 1984 soundtrack to Metropolis featuring Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar and Jon Anderson is often credited with creating the trend, a great variety of musical minds has faced the challenge.
The jazz world, where Moishe’s Bagel’s music sits comfortably if not exclusively, has contributed significantly to this growing body of work. Guitarist Bill Frisell and trumpeter Dave Douglas are among a group of talents to have collaborated with American film-maker Bill Morrison and French double bass virtuoso Renaud Garcia-Fons’s meticulous soundtrack to Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed proved a favourite at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Meanwhile, closer to home, guitarist Aberdeen-born, Edinburgh-based Graeme Stephen has made soundtrack work a popular specialism that’s been partly documented on his double album, Films.
These musicians are really continuing a tradition that goes back to the early days of film when ragtime and stride pianists, including James P Johnson and Fats Waller, accompanied silent onscreen action before going on in the latter’s case to become a popular entertainer. Indeed, Waller’s development as a jazz musician is sometimes said to have benefited from both the training he received on pipe organ from the organist at Lincoln Theatre in Harlem, Miss Mazie Mullins, and from the responsiveness that came from the eye to finger coordination required for work as a cinema pianist.
Where Salt for Svanetia differs from the works most of these examples captured is that this is not a yarn acted out by thespians for the camera. Yes, it has a narrative of a kind and it’s nothing if not compelling in its own way, but it’s very much real life, almost too real at times. Its “stars” are struggling for survival in a strikingly beautiful but unforgiving landscape. Their ways and customs are a long way from Buster Keaton comedies. A Keystone Cops car chase might well be a welcome relief for this Soviet community’s people.
In the liner note for the CD of this music, pianist and accordionist Phil Alexander remarks that Moishe’s Bagel have often been told that their music is very filmic and that it takes people on a journey to fabulous and strange, imagined places. Svanetia, as portrayed in Mikhail Kalatozov’s film, is certainly strange and probably more unimagined than imagined.
Having attended the soundtrack’s premiere in March in the magnificently refurbished Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built picture house in Bo’ness, I can confirm that the images that the group will be accompanying tonight are memorable. Six months on, I can readily call to mind many of the scenes in scary detail and the general atmosphere remains easily remembered in its brooding hauntingness.
Phil and his colleagues Greg Lawson, Pete Garnett and Mario Caribé who all contributed compositions to the score (percussionist Guy Nicolson added his deft touches in response to the images and the music) found creating the music a challenge but ultimately a lot of fun.
They did a great job and as reviews noted at the time, it proved a shrewd decision to commission the Bagel, as they’ve come to be known and as they refer to themselves, because their music, with its Eastern European inflections, has a history of laying emotions on the line.
Even so, the Salt for Svanetia brief called for some deep soul searching. If the animals in the film are treated harshly – few composers, surely, can have had to find suitable musical language to depict a horse being ridden until its heart bursts as part of a real-life ritual – some of the humans fare no better.
In a remarkable juxtaposition of life and death, a mother, discarded by her own people due to superstition, is left to give birth alone while a rich man’s funeral takes place with attendant scenes of further animal slaughter and people being invited to throw themselves into the grave to demonstrate the sincerity of their grief. The new-born child then dies of thirst while villagers drench themselves in holy water and the mother deposits her wasted milk in the soil where her infant is buried.
For the Bagel, this rich tapestry, which captures vast glaciers, tumbling, icy rivers and magnificent mountains and provides its own rhythm in places as wool is spun into yarn for clothing and fragile rope bridges groan and dance under the weight of donkeys crossing, reflects the breadth of their musical expression in an honest and powerful way.
Thinking back to the premiere, what impressed generally was the grand sweep and continuity of the music, matching mighty scenic grandeur that might have been painted by nature, defensive towers that appeared as immovable as the surrounding mountains and muscle-straining, unrelenting labour with Greg Lawson's bitingly melodic violin themes and the richly textured emphasis of accordion and piano.
Not two months before, Greg had also premiered his orchestration of the late Martyn Bennett’s masterpiece of electronica and tradition, Grit, at Celtic Connections in Glasgow to an audience response that was justifiably ecstatic. The two works are unrelated, although there are certain scenes in the songs and folk tales that Bennett drew on that might bear some comparison with episodes from Svanetia.
Might carrying Ewan MacColl’s Moving On Song in his head as he honed Bennett’s adaptation of this inhumane practice into orchestral shape have impacted on his themes for Svanetia? Might the parental disfigurement depicted in Daughter Doris that Bennett incorporated into Storyteller have prepared him for Svanetia’s cruelty?
My recollection is that, just as the film gives a powerful visual record of a - to say the least - robust environment and way of life but with a certain poetic quality, the music had a similar impact and may well prove as affecting and evocative without the moving pictures. Sit back and prepare for an experience that is unlikely to be easily forgotten.