It is undoubtedly unfair to use this line from L’Inhumaine to headline this piece but, somehow, unavoidable. I spent much of last week in the company of the deceased film-maker Marcel L’Herbier and the very live accompaniment to his silent films. I saw L’Argent (1928) and Claude Autant-Lara’s Fait-divers (1924) at the BFI with beautiful, fluent improvised piano by John Sweeney. Also at the BFI I saw Le Vertige (1926) with accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano, accordion and flute. The films were featured in the 4th Fashion in Film Festival entitled Marcel L’Herbier; Fabricating Dreams. This was new territory for me as I did not know these films…my knowledge of L’Herbier was limited to a fast forward search for a staged riot rumored (erroneously) to have been shot at the first performance of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. (see my post on 12th February). At each of these performances I was struck by the singular technique of improvisation used by the musicians…responding to a particular character or visual cue or to the implied sound of the action. These were long films and I imagined the players’ relief when they could pick-up on the fairly straightforward appearance of their fellow musicians on screen and play a bit of more or less straightforward jazz. One sequence in Le Vertige featured a ball with two bands, one black, one white, at opposite ends of the hall, giving an opportunity for mixing styles and pace in a single, protracted scene. These are the kinds of performance that invite, even demand, virtuosity and both musicians I heard rose to the occasion.
Stephen Horne’s music for L’Inhumaine (1924) at the Barbican took the possibilities of live accompaniment to a new level. Expanding his one-man orchestra to include a xylophone, an electronic keyboard and a theremin he also made full use of the inside of the piano in the best improvisation ‘tradition’. There was no incongruity to this contemporary (mis)use of the piano – like all the films I saw L’Inhumaine was pushing at the limits of technique in their moment. Indeed the theremin was patented in 1928, only 4 years after this film was made. These films represent a moment just before the advent of sound on film where narrative and expression were being expanded and re-envisioned in a kind of false dawn of the avant-garde. Many of the experiments that L’Herbier and others undertook were discarded in the closure that came with continuous, explanatory dialogue. There is so much fertile territory here that could be explored…from the purely cinematic to both real and imagined sonic effect. When the inter-title came up (an inter-title designed by Fernand Léger at that) ’…unexpected music…hateful…’ the film shows a needle spinning on a shellac record and at this point Horne brought the ghostly wail of the theremin to the fore. In the finale, set in the Léger designed laboratory of the hero where there was once a Darius Milhaud percussion soundtrack…now lost, he could follow through with a glorious chaos of effects and flashes of sound while the laboratory on the screen exploded into life…
The 4th Fashion in Film Festival ran from 10 – 19 May in London, curated by Marketa Uhlirova, Caroline Evans and Dionne Griffith.
Go to www.fashioninfilm.com for a short interview with Stephen Horne.