In early April we hosted the world premiere of a new score to early British science and natural history films. The event was a new commission, a collaboration with the band Metamono, who wrote and performed original scores to the short films, which were made between 1903 and 1927. The début screening was a highlight of the festival for many. The score and live performance were very well received and we were proud to host a new creative response to some very important and still-fascinating early films that sought to “explain” nature to a general audience.
I was interested to know how Metamono had worked with films made in the early years of the last century, and how they created brand new scores in varying electronic aesthetics for the performance. I asked Jono Podmore from the band about the appeal and process of writing for these special films.
Jono writes: Summer 2013 was a very busy and successful period for Metamono—there were some fabulous gigs and we were busily putting the finishing touches to our debut album With the Compliments of Nuclear Physics, which was largely crowd-funded. Nevertheless we were thinking ahead to what was to come after that momentous first album—strategies to avoid the difficult second album syndrome. In October 2012 we’d made a small tour of Denmark and Germany and one of the gigs, Hamburg Horbar, was in a small cinema. We had never played to a seated audience before, let alone in a cinema. Undaunted, we made full use of the projection facilities and screen with a collage of our videos. As it turned out the gig was a great success and received a excellent review by The Quietus.
Respected German journalist Gabi Meierding was also at the gig and suggested we compose for silent film for another show in Hamburg. We started looking around for potential films. With a view to British Council funding we started to concentrate on purely British silent film. There were a few good leads, but we often came across territory that had already been covered, or material that didn’t quite gel with our ideas and approach as artists ourselves. The search continued…
On 29 June we headlined the Crystal Palace Overground Festival, and among the crowd was Tom Vincent, Co-Director of Bradford International Film Festival. Tom was interested in collaborating in a film project, and as we were already thinking along those lines ourselves it was all to synergetic to ignore. Soon we were able to pick Tom’s brains for films to work with. Sure enough, speaking with the Museum’s collections managers Tom suggested we look at the early natural history films on the BFI Secrets of Nature DVD. I immediately ordered a copy. Within 10 minutes of the disk arriving I was convinced these were the films we would be working with. 10 min after that, Paul and Mark (the other members of Metamono) had agreed, and a further 10 min later we were on Skype with Tom telling him our decision.
Not only are the films beautiful, but they embody so many aspects so close to home for us. Essentially technical in nature they are exquisite and deeply emotive. Homespun and cobbled together in suburban London with what’s at hand yet with the scope and imagination of the biggest productions. Abstraction derived from exploring the real world. Even the length of the films works perfectly with our methods. They almost seem to have been made with our manifesto in mind.
Now we had our films, the writing process could begin. We had a couple of sessions just viewing and taking notes. Paul and I both have a long history of writing music for film and TV going back to the 80’s, but music for silent film brought up new challenges and approaches. For example with incidental music for a TV show, the spots that need support from music will be decided between the director and composer—sometimes down to tiny fragments of music to highlight a particular association. As the films were all made in the first decades of then 1900s, there was no director to refer too (perhaps a godsend!) and we had to think wall-to-wall: long compositions (up to 17 minutes) that could and should function as fully-formed pieces in their own right. Also, as on the original silent films there is no soundtrack or sound design to work with, there was a greater temptation to create that in the music—”sound painting” over events in the film. We decided to try to avoid this as much as possible and concentrate on the most vital role of music in film—that of conveying and reinforcing an emotional context for the imagery.
We were aware that this style of film suffered a loss of popularity when sound was introduced in the late 1920s. Although this could partly be put down to the histrionically plummy voice-overs, it was also due to the music. The soundtracks are jaunty and light in the sense of BBC light orchestra. For our contemporary sensibilities, after decades of Carl Davies’ grandiose orchestral scores for natural history films, these seem particularly jarring.
We watched each film a couple of times and just took notes: emotional responses and generalised approaches. Words like “fluffy” or “alien”;references to other composers and films; considering what the musical approach would be if it was a contemporary film; finding the obvious and subverting it. Next we set up our equipment and got down to music. As ever with Metamono we work quickly once we have our ideas and technology in place to preserve freshness. We would write pieces without watching the films, basing the composition entirely on our notes, to preserve the general character of the pieces and avoid falling in to sound design. Then, once we had a functional piece of music we would try it with the picture, deconstructing it to create an arrangement and structure that followed the narrative, again trying to avoid resorting to simply commenting on events on screen, but leaving lots of space for improvisation within the structure. With each run-through, and now with performances under our belts, the structure becomes more solid but still only as a framework, giving us space to improvise with our instruments and manipulate the sounds to tell the story of our own response to the films.
This has been a fantastic project for us, and getting to know these wonderful films so well is just one of the many pay-offs we’ve enjoyed. I hope our enthusiasm comes through in the performances and that we’ve played a role in bringing these wonderful films back into the public eye.
—Jono Podmore, Metamono
Films featured in the Secrets of Nature performance: Floral Co-operative Societies (1927) The Plants of the Pantry (1927) Percy Smith with Herons (1921) Busy Bees (1926) Cheese Mites (1903) The Cuckoo’s Secret (1922) The Acrobatic Fly (1910) The White Owl (1922) Skilled Insect Artisans (1922) Birth of a Flower (1910)