Friday, 21 May 2010

Q&A with live silent film scoring quartet MINIMA

I have been lucky enough to do an e-mail Q&A with Alex Hogg from the brilliant band MINIMA, who specialize in performing live scores for silent films. I saw MINIMA when they performed at the Duke of York's, doing a score for the German Expressionist classic 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' and was awestruck both by how much more effective such a film is with a good live score (becoming much more of an experience) and also by the fact that the group don't do silent film scores in the classic style (they don't use a piano or an organ at all, using drums and string instruments). Here is what Alex had to say to my blog:

When did you guys first hit upon the idea of scoring old, silent classics in this way?
Minima came out of an experimental project with the theatre collective Shunt. Being part of live theatre is very rewarding but ultimately restricts a band to the schedule of the theatre company. Moving to film was a logical step, especially given our love of film as well as music. One of the band members was working at the British Film Institute at the time and hit on the idea of silent film accompaniment. So in 2006 we played our first performances of The Seashell and the Clergyman, in the underground, labyrinthine corridors of the Shunt Vaults, underneath London Bridge station.

I was surprised there was no one at a piano. How did you decide to use such an unusual array of instruments for silent film scoring?
Our eclectic range of personal influences, gives us what we consider a unique take on silent film accompaniment. We can go from drum ‘n’ bass to tango, and from wall-of-sound to folk lament in the space of a few minutes. We are a four-piece outfit: drums, bass, guitar and cello and although we have no backing tracks and play with no pre-recorded sounds, the instruments are put through an array of effects to give us a very big palate of sounds and voices.

Have there ever been any silent movies that you wanted to do live scores for, which (for whatever reason) didn't work? Does German Expressionist cinema suit your style especially well?
We tend to be drawn to the darker side of cinema. We were commissioned to write a score to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by the Wellcome Trust in 2008 – they made the connection between the film’s angular stage sets and angst-ridden characters, and our music. But our own choices of film, such as Nosferatu, are edgy and dramatic - and Nosferatu is a great piece of cinema - as this is what inspires us. It also helps that this film is so well known; it is a real crowd-pleaser! It’s good to be asked to do something off your normal radar though – it’s surprising what you can come up with when you’re on unfamiliar ground. We have done a few improvised performances to British silent melodramas and we were very happy with what we came up with as a group when we were put on the spot. We are open to any genre of film and we would also love to work with contemporary filmmakers.

What makes a good silent movie score, in your view?
A good silent film score should not distract from what's happening on the screen - if the audience watch the band too much then it becomes about the band, and you lose the point, which is to watch the film. You have an element of power in performing to silent film: the music imposes a lot of the meaning upon the images, and it sets the tone and the mood for each scene. You have to strike a balance between having an understanding of what the filmmaker intended and having the confidence not to have to follow the images too slavishly. Films from the 1920s have a different pace, and for the uninitiated it can be hard work so a contemporary interpretation by musicians can really help. You can make people laugh, cry and jump out of there seats but we only do this in the name of accompanying the film and helping people to watch the film.

Which score are you proudest of?
Each of our scores has been approached in a different way. The Seashell and the Clergyman was our first and so we’re very fond of it and the attention to detail that we gave it. Nosferatu was written in much more collaborative way and features such a variety of different styles of music. It’s a real romp and matches the film, which is such a rollercoaster and full of now-iconic imagery. Dr. Caligari is in the Minima hot seat at the moment as we’ve just finished a two-month tour with it. We’re now turning our attention to brushing up our score for the Soviet science fiction silent film Aelita, Queen of Mars, which we’ll be playing at BFI Southbank in July.

You guys, obviously, perform live, but I was wondering if you've ever been commissioned to record a silent film score for a DVD release? I know silent movies often get re-scored for new releases.
This is something that's on the cards and we hope that before the end of the year that we might be in talks with DVD production companies to do just this. We have a couple of scores already recorded and ready to go!

Outside of your work, are there any old silent scores you are big fans of? I love Chaplin's 'Smile' from 'Modern Times', personally.
Our musical influences stem from all kinds of genres, as well as film soundtracks. Film composers that spring to mind are Bernard Herrmann, Carter Burwell and Danny Elfman rather than 1920s composers. We tend to write the music for its own sake and enjoy this creative process, rather than feel that we have to stick too closely to the images and the era they were made in.

MINIMA can often be seen touring the countries cinemas. Their current tour dates can be seen here.

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