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12 September 2013

Old film/new music – a group approach to improvised soundtracks

Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961) Image: Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961)  

It all started around 2008. I was writing music for a schlock low budget Australian horror film and was looking for some musicians to help perform the score. The three of us, cellist Tristen Parr, percussionist Callum Moncrieff and myself, all knew each other from our time at WAAPA and ended up performing for the soundtrack.

A year or so after that project Tristen asked us if we would be interested in performing for an all-improvised theatre show, a terrifying prospect at that time (for me anyway!). That show, called 'In a New York Minute' (directed by Glenn Hall) gave us our first name - The Triple Threats. Although this name suited the vibe of the show, it didn't really help when we started to perform for avant-garde silent films in 2011. As these things often happen, none of us could come up with a suitable name in time for our first performance of 'Poetry in Motion - The Films of Maya Deren' at Perth Fringe World. An eleventh-hour name decision resulted in Loudly Whispered, a terrible name in hindsight but one we were stuck with for a while. To cut a long story short, after heated debate for several months we became know as the Eldritch Trio.

As a trio we have performed for several improvised theatre shows, received a Helpmann Award nomination for our score for the Barking Gecko Theatre Company's production of Duck, Death & The Tulip, and have performed our show 'Poetry in Motion - The Films of Maya Deren' at Perth Fringe World and Adelaide Fringe Festival. Our final shows with Deren's films will be at this year's Melbourne Fringe Festival.

It's hard to describe how we put the soundtracks together. Our music is constructed using acoustic instruments, cello, percussion and bass flute, as well as electronics including effects pedals and laptop processing. The medium of silent film gives us vast scope musically - the scores we create must act as the entire sonic landscape and, as there is no dialogue or sound effects, our performance can be more or less continuous.

Although our soundtrack is improvised, we do discuss the overall structure of the films. Often we talk about density or shift in mood and usually practise a few times before a show. A rehearsal is usually a few run-throughs and some constructive group feedback. We often talk, after a show, about aspects that worked really well - these aspects usually show up again in some way or another in the next performance. Each performance builds on the last and things seem to reoccur and creep into each subsequent show. Sometimes, though, we are completely caught up in the experience and get lost in the moment - on those occasions anything can happen. That is of course the most exciting aspect of improvised art.

Although the films of Maya Deren are experimental, they are utterly compelling and a great mixture of absurdist humor, dreamlike narrative structure, sentimentality and interesting locations and camera movements. Maya herself is very charismatic on screen and emits a certain mystique and charm. The great thing about her films is that they are not dated by obvious locations or onscreen technology. This is great for us in that we don't have to reference any specific time period.

Our music is very focused on texture and density and contains elements of minimalism and drone music. We are also very interested in the interplay between the electronic elements and the acoustic ones - at times we seek to create a sound that is an indistinguishable fusion of electronic and acoustic elements and at others we let them coexist and follow their own pathway.

The music has varying degrees of connectedness to the visuals and is based on our perception of what the critical moments or actions in the film are. At some points the film is so interesting we feel that we should create sound that does not comment on the current onscreen action, and at other times we try to play alongside the pace of the visuals.

The way we slide up and down the spectrum, from aural comment to sonic indifference, is how we create a strong audiovisual experience.

'Poetry in Motion - The Films of Maya Deren' is presented by Melbourne Fringe Festival.

AMC resources

Christopher de Groot - AMC profile
Poetry in Motion 20-22 September- event details in the AMC Calendar


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