Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Chat With Laura Groves

I met Laura Groves in the last year's London International Women Film Festival, known as Bird's Eye View. There, Laura and her band, Blue Roses, accompanied the silent Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde with their electronic sound.

At the time, I wrote for Iranian Film Monthly about her imaginative work which was loaded with care for the meaning of every single image, and delivered a feminine sensibility throughout the film. Despite a personal dislike for electronic music for the silent cinema, and various forms of experimentation with the silent films, I was stunned by the brilliance of the Groves’s music and the way it contributed to the film. Her instrumentation was a combination of keyboards, synthesizers, guitar, piano, violin and innovative use of percussions. She even sang for two scenes.

What Laura Groves had achieved in Dr. Jekyll was interesting enough to persuade me to learn more about her work, so two weeks after the screening, I met her again, this time in the bar of the NFT.

Was it your first experience in performing for silent film?

Yes, definitely, my first experience of doing anything for picture. So it was a challenge. Because I’ve always wanted to decide on going to film music in some way but it was always just a kind one notion in my head. I’ve never practically done it.

How did you get involved in this program?

I was asked by the people at Birds Eye View Film Festival. They got in touch and said they’d like to commission a score as part of that program which was a festival about women in film. It was called Bloody Women, so it was based around horror genre. They just approached me and asked me if I wanted to do it.

I know you’re working in a cultural environment, so you must have certain affinity for various forms of art, but tell me, as a musician, how do you see cinema?

When I see a film I want it to be this full experience. It is basically something special to accompany a silent film, the chance to communicate this experience with the audience and you are experiencing something that you watch and become completely engrossed and sharing this in your own way. You interpret it and you can interpret it differently. That’s the way I approached it. Just be aware of the background and what’s there on the screen. I want to be fully engrossed when I go to see a film and use my own imagination to go into that world.

Yes, maybe that’s the main, though unconscious, reason for anyone who is going to the movies. OK, when you were working on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, did you know that your approach to the music for that film can change the meaning of film or scenes, on the other hand, you can transcend the feeling that the director and the film is trying to deliver. You could make it more beautiful more appealing to the audience, because usually people don’t go to the theater to sit in absolute silence. It’s impossible. From the first days, in history of cinema, somebody was making some noise or sound effect.

Absolutely, I didn’t fully understand the power of music for a silent film, having never written any music for film before. First I wrote some initial ideas- some little bits of music. Of course it starts when you first watching the film and listening to the sound track that is already on that. And then sitting and watching it in silence and putting my own music on top. It’s experimental music and realizing how much the music does actually do that, what you just described. Someone like me who is not an expert in this field, always goes to cinema and takes the music for granted, not in a negative way but it’s always there. You are not sitting and listening to the music. It’s there and it’s obviously playing a very important role but I had never quite grasped the significance of how much it can actually change the experience of watching the film. I watched the film again and again. I stuck the pieces of paper together to create a timeline, and made notes, all the timings and know how to official presentation of putting the scenes in order and where the big moments, action sequences and that sort of thing. When I first watched the film my initial thought was it’s too much for me I don’t know how to do it, it’s really hard, it’s really long. But that broke it down and that was my guide, and then my next stage was writing themes for characters which was really important, so I picked up the characters that needed themes and then because of the way I did it, I obviously didn’t write a piece of music which is twenty minutes long, that could be a challenge. I brought in Hannah Peel - someone I could discuss my initial ideas with and who could provide opinions. As I’d never attempted a soundtrack before, it was a huge help to have another musical brain there at this stage- to encourage me really. She suggested things and brought some of her own ideas in, and then we started to piece together. Also Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde score was the first time I had James Field as the drummer. He wasn’t in Blue Roses before. I brought him especially for the film because I knew he would enjoy it and respond to it and have his own ideas. I worked with Hannah- she worked with me a lot and I had played her music. She has been a part of Blue Roses in the past year. The band has a sort of changing line of people, but I worked with her a lot we’ve got a good work relationships. So it’s perfect really. I like cooperating with other musicians.

Is there any difference between the last rehearsals for
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the original performance in NFT? By this I mean did you have any space for improvisation in your final performance?

Probably, yeah! Because as I said before, I didn’t set everything in stone. I didn’t want to do that- I wanted to keep that element of the improvisation firstly. I was very intent on keeping everything as reaction to what was actually happening on the screen and not just writing a set piece of music with no room for maneuver. It was very much inspired by audience’s response to us watching the screen, and during the performance I was keeping it quite free. There was a framework there to guide us but there was a lot of leeway within that. Generally, we rehearsed it many times and we came to know what we were doing. But there are differences, definitely, because there were these elements of improvisation. For example, there was this murder scene in the middle and that was all based around a loop. So the loop was always running on the same place at the same time. There was always a guide there. It was not completely just a free form but reactions, rise and falls ordered to just respond to that. And me, and other musicians wanted to work together and look at the film and respond to it.

What about the instrumentation? It was interesting that it really fits the world and mood of Dr. Jekyll.

I just basically used the instruments that I use for my own band that I’m comfortable and feel natural to me, because that would be the most obvious way of doing it. I love creating atmospheres, and I didn’t want to pick instruments that are slightly uncomfortable for me. I used synthesizer, piano, electric guitar, violin, Kaos pad, drum kit and other percussion. Also some vocal work, an autoharp, and Stylophonec. I like to mix acoustic things with electronic.

It’s was just like the music you are creating on records. I was listening to some of your music, and even on record there is a combination of electric music with acoustic sound.

I like that mixture, because I don’t like taking the human elements out of films. I like textures of sounds and how they go together.

In your record there were some elements of trying to capture a cinematic sound, like the sound of scratches of an old 78 rpm record, when needle is skipping a part. It was very cinematic, in a way.

Yes, I put the song through an old tape, in a reel-to-reel player that I bought from the charity shop, just to get that sound. I think it is cinematic. I think it communicates something with people. It’s kind of an old sounding thing which there is something in that that may invokes nostalgia or sympathy or some sort of emotion which is what I tried to do.

The thing that moves me very much is that how modern music, literature, or even painting is influenced by cinema and the idea of shots, narrative and sequences. Many of them now try to tell a story with images, images that can be create by sound. Isn't it the same with you and your music? Do you see it as a kind picturesque form of creativity?

Yes, I think so. The first record that I did three years ago, it was very much inspired by the places I was in when I wrote and recorded, everything that associates with that place was always in my mind. When I’m writing a song I’m picturing things- situations, places, whatever the song is about, and feeling the atmosphere that I associate with these things. So trying to bring it across is so important to me, so I’d hope that it come across the sound. I also want to develop that side of music anyway. It’s very important. The whole point of my desire to make music is to communicate these feelings to others. People of course interpret these things in their own way, but as long as the music is evocative enough for people to find meaning in it, then I’m happy.

The only criticism I have is the use of drums. I think the amount of percussive sound was too much for a theatre. Of course, usually in silent films the music is used to duplicate the action of the film, but that wasn’t the case with Dr. Jekyll. Sometimes it was too distracting, because a silent film is very sensitive. It’s the most sensitive form of motion picture. Sometimes just a very simple sound in the middle of a scene can change the way you are reacting to the film. I think it was a little bit aggressive for the mood that you created very smoothly with other instruments. I strongly believe drum was breaking the intimate feeling that you were creating between the film and the audience.

It’s good to know from the audience perspective, because it’s such a different environment that I used to. I’m used to going to a venue and play as a band and the band is the main focus. But that’s obviously not the case in the cinema. As soon as I arrived in the cinema, it was such a different atmosphere, only the acoustic quality of the room is so different to me, it was definitely a learning experience.

I want to quote a line from a very famous film scholar, Susan Sontag. She says that “silence remains an inescapable form of speech.” When it comes to silent movies, I know directors who have made films and they wanted them to be shown without any music like Passions of Joan of Arc by Carl Dryer. And even in modern cinema, there are directors who are very keen to use silence in different parts of the film, directors like Hitchcock, for instance in The Birds or Torn Curtain. Absolute silence is really intense. I think it’s the most powerful sound! Of course, the existence of music is necessary to give meaning to that moment of silence. When we are listening to the music of Ahmad Jamal or Count Basie, some of the best moments are when they are not playing anything, between two notes I mean. Just one note here and one note there. It’s very important and I think now, it’s one of the forgotten things about scoring and writing and performing for silent movies, especially in the American way of treating the silent film. There are many DVD distributions in America and naturally there is lots of music for silent films, and they try to follow every action and every move and create a sound for everything and I’m not sure if it is the best way of treating silent film. In Dr. Jekyll, I heard some of those silent moments which were really necessary and powerful.

I hadn’t thought about it before but I think I agree with you. It’s a very powerful thing and I suppose it could create a lot of tension, just to create a break in music. I was aware of, as you were saying before, so literal the music that was following every single movement, knocking on the door and the things like that. I just wanted it to be spacious, to leave space for people’s interpretation, people’s thoughts and I thing silence is the moment that people’s thoughts can take over, it’s emptiness there. But it’s not empty. It has got a lot of meaning.

You wrote a leitmotiv for every major character in the film. How did you interpret, musically, these characters? I was really moved by the vocal part. You were singing the whole sequence with Dr. Jekyll’s fiancé. I’m interested in her even more than Dr. Jekyll.

I thought she was most interesting character in the whole film, really. Because suppose you intent to concentrate on Dr. Jekyll only. But she was the real victim of the film. She was completely innocent. He was a victim but it was his own fault. She was really innocent, so I really wanted to bring it across. It was really sad. So I thought giving her a voice. I wanted to bring that across the mystery of the old, the kind of supernatural element and capture that in a very simple kind of piano melody. It was really a kind of organic reaction to what I was seeing.

Musicwise, what is the best scene in the film? The best juxtaposition of image and sound.

There are many scenes that I really enjoy playing, including the murder scene for all its high drama, or the first transformation scene in the lab. However, I think one of the most satisfying is a short scene in the latter part of the film where a spider-like creature crawls onto Jekyll’s bed- we realize that Jekyll is now powerless to stop Hyde. I did find it genuinely quite disturbing and wanted to create a suitably unsettling atmosphere to go along with it. It is one of the simplest musical sequences we used- not actually tonal as such, but fully sound-effect based. We moved a pen along the wooden keys on my autoharp- this being a very resonant instrument it created quite a good sound to work with. I held a microphone up to the autoharp whilst making this sound, which I then put through the Kaos pad in order to manipulate the sound with a grain shifter. I enjoyed using an acoustic sound but changing it beyond all recognition using electronics. This way I could truly follow what was happening on screen and increase the intensity of sound as appropriate- as the creature got closer and closer to the sleeping Jekyll. It’s a short scene, but I think the combination of the imagery and sound was powerful and really illustrated to me the way sound can control the mood of a scene.


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