In an era frequently characterized as that of “peak television” and in which the expression “Netflix and chill” has become ubiquitous, it’s interesting to note that multimedia projects involving live musical performances and traditional projected film images are also having a moment. The USC Thornton School of Music Orchestra demonstrated new technology for synchronizing live players with animation at the Granada this fall, and on Halloween, Philip Glass joined the Kronos Quartet for a live performance of his soundtrack to the Bela Lugosi film Dracula at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. When Kronos appeared at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on November 19, the second half of the concert was dominated by Silent Cranes, which employed an elaborate film montage as an integral part of its overall construction.
Into this expanding universe of multimedia performances (and the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall) strides the Orlando Consort, an exemplary vocal group specializing in early music. The group’s project, which is known as “Voices Appeared: Silent Cinema and Medieval Music—The Passion of Joan of Arc,” stems from an observation that might not have occurred to someone without an extensive working knowledge of 15th century French music. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic silent film about the trial of Joan of Arc has been paired with music by everyone from J.S. Bach to Nick Cave, but until now, no one has ever thought to use music that would have been common at the time. The Orlando Consort has thus applied its expertise in the music of the first three decades of the 15th century, and of the English, French, and Burgundian courts, to create something that complements the aesthetic impact of the film and augments its attention to historical accuracy.
The project has received rave reviews since the Consort began performing it in 2014. In the weeks leading up to their appearance at UCSB, I corresponded with Donald Greig, a founding member and the architect of this unusual collaboration across time and media.
When did you first encounter The Passion of Joan of Arc? What was your initial impression of the film? First of all, I studied film at University of Kent back in the early ’80s and then taught for a while before music took over. I was grounded in post-structuralist theory, miles away from Dreyer, though lecturers and students alike were all cinephiles. For all that, I didn’t actually see the film until a few years’ back. I think it’s one of those guilty secrets that culture vultures fear to admit, like not having read War and Peace or not having seen a single Wagner opera. It’s a film that, when you mention it, people nod sagely and say the know it, but their knowledge is often based merely on the iconic image of Falconetti’s face, which is surely the most recognizable representation of Joan of Arc there is. Anyway, having seen it — and having been knocked out by it — the idea of adding music from the period of Joan’s life was fairly obvious, in so far as I know a lot about the musical culture of the time.
I understand that the primary goal of the project is to create an enhanced experience of the film, but I also sense that this is an unusually interesting point of entry for audiences who may not be familiar with early music. Was that something you had in mind as a potential secondary benefit? Turning to your second question, yes, I’m secretly pleased that I’m introducing cinephiles to early music they would otherwise not hear, and introducing early-music — or simply music — fans to silent movies. Both are very sophisticated forms, whereas the common belief is that both are primitive. Far from it. It’s also a very easy concept to grasp, with the music functioning as both a soundscape of the period and also providing textual, liturgical, emotional, and cultural links with the action (have a look at the scene breakdown on the website for more explanation of some of those links).
The description you provide of how this process differs from conventional film scoring is quite engaging. Did you work as a group to create that, or was it mainly the work of one person? This was pretty much all my own work (including resolving various technical issues of synchronization), though it was impossible without the willingness and faith of my colleagues to try some of the various difficult things I required of them, notably working from a very exact “flick track” (this my neologism for a visual “click track,” such as is used in studios). I spent a great deal of time working my way through scores of music, working out how it would sound with us singing it, what tempi were possible, what pitch, and what music worked best with each segment. We had a series of workshop-like sessions to see how the pieces worked with the film itself, and after a try-out in London before an audience of students, lecturers and friends, I made some significant changes, leaving more space here and there for the film to “speak” directly to the audience at key moments, for example.
You mention that audience reactions have been powerful. Could you go into more detail? I’ve seen the film a couple of times and it’s wonderful, but also very strange. Do you think that the music helps people to adjust to Dreyer’s methods? You’re right, though, to point to the film’s strangeness. It is bizarre — no credits, no historical context, no indication of who is who and why they’re trying to prove Jeanne a heretic. Stylistically it’s easier to pinpoint influences and derivations, but generically it’s a courtroom drama, traditionally the most wordy format. Yet it’s silent.
I’m keen to stress, though, that it’s not a difficult movie, nor is it strange because it’s silent. It’s entirely comprehensible and very powerful. We’ve even had tears afterward, and that’s not because we were singing out of tune. On that basis, I think we might be helping people to adjust to Dreyer’s vision, but I think there’s something to be said for music accompanying this film. Yes, we can watch it in reverential silence, but the crowd scenes at the end in particular benefit from some kind of aural accompaniment. Crowds, after all, don’t riot in silence.
The Orlando Consort will perform “Voices Appeared: Silent Cinema and Medieval Music — The Passion of Joan of Arc” at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall on Sunday, January 10, at 4 p.m. as part of UCSB Arts and Lectures. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call (805) 893-3535.