Monday, 18 March 2013

(8) The voice of Joan of Arc: Irene Buckley Q&A

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Two weeks ago I headed down from Galway to Cork to attend the Cork French Film Festival, which took place from March 3 to March 10. A small festival with a long history, since this was already its 24th year. I didn't intend to go and see many of the screenings, since I have already seen most of the films, however, one particular event of the festival caught my attention and it was the screening of an absolute cinematic masterpiece, Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, starring the unforgettable Renée Falconetti. The screening would take place at St. Fin Barre's Cathedral and would have live musical accompaniment. How often do you get to go to a cathedral and enjoy a masterpiece of cinema, moreover, accompanied with live music? So with this in mind I packed my bag and headed for the lovely city of Cork.
Over the years many composers have composed music for The Passion of Joan of Arc, in the DVD edition we can hear Richard Einhorn's score, surfing through the jungle of youtube you can also find a version, where an indie rock band Joan of Arc accompanies the film. So, to make my journey even more worthwhile I got in touch with Irene Buckley, who is the composer of the musical score for this special event, inviting her to join me for a cup of tea. An invitation which she kindly accepted. So below you can read the result of a lovely afternoon's chat about music, films and the project itself. Enjoy!

Irene Buckley. Standing outside Carnegie Hall
during rehearsals for Flu, 2007.
So about Saturday's experience, it was not really a screening of the film or a concert, but an experience. Did it work out as you wanted it to work out?
Yes, it did. I was very happy with how the performance went. We had two different performers to the original show - this time Molly Lynch as the soprano and James McVinnie on organ. It's always a little nerve-racking to have different performers, as it could potentially change the sound quite a bit, but they did a wonderful job.
During it, it started to rain, do you think it added something to the screening/concert or took away from it?
I was a little apprehensive at first, as I didn't know what the sound was! I am, as you can imagine, listening closely to the music during the performance, to check the balance etc., so hearing this extra layer of sound was strange at first! But from hearing people's reactions afterwards, they all agreed that the sound of the rain added something to the experience.
Yes, it was a bit confusing at the beginning. However, I think it even more emphasised the atmosphere of the film and the music.
I read in your homepage, that this is not your first experience in the film industry, previously you have written original scores for My Beamish Boy, Liberty Hall, God and Napoleon, Na Zimmers, to name only a few.
What does music give to the film in a general sense?
A few weeks ago, I saw Michael Haneke's beautiful film Amour - somebody told me that there was no soundtrack, so I really wanted to see it. There are some pieces of classical music in this film, but no original music was written for it. I found this really interesting as I felt it didn't need any music when I watched it. Music could have made it overly sentimental and therefore less real. So, I may have to reconsider the whole purpose of music in film!
Did you know that Carl Theodor Dreyer did not want any musical accompaniment for The Passion of Joan of Arc?
Well, it's difficult to know if he would approve of this score! But thankfully so far, I have been getting some nice compliments.
I would also like to compliment your musical score, as it complimented the film.
Thank you. What I hoped to accomplish for The Passion of Joan of Arc was to create a score that played to the strengths of the film, without becoming overbearing or distracting.
So, how did the project of The Passion of Joan of Arc get started?
The artistic director of the Cork French Film Festival, Paul Callanan, contacted me and asked me to write the music for the film.
Last year...
Yes, it was screened for the first time last year in the Cork French Film Festival, at Triskel's Christchurch.
Have you seen the film before? When you started to work on the project, did you watch it with or without music?
No, I had never seen this film before this project. I began to watch it with music, written by Richard Einhorn, but then I didn't want it to influence me too much, so I watched it without music.
From which point of view did you approach the film, from Dreyer, Joan of Arc or your own as a viewer's point of view?
I wished to produce a score that was restrained to reflect Joan's character and her actions. I wanted to create a voice for Joan, allowing her to express a range of emotions from reflection to crying out. There was a wish to create a sound world that protected Joan, while at the same time creating a claustrophobic, saturated atmosphere to magnify the intimacy and confinement of the close up shots.
I enjoyed, in particular, when the organ for the first time started to play together with the soprano, it reminded me of the place where we were watching the film - that we are all in the cathedral. I read that in your score you have used the text and the structure of the Requiem Mass. Is that the reason why the screenings/concerts take place in churches and cathedrals?
There are a few reasons why the church is an appropriate setting for a screening such as this – one is because of the obvious connotations with the church in this film, but another one is because I use the church or pipe organ. You may not have noticed, but a lot of the very low rumbling sounds heard in the score are actually produced by the organ. I knew that low pedal notes could create a beating or pulsing effect by playing two notes simultaneously that are close together in frequency. I use this effect in particular scenes throughout the film, some are heard alone where others are heard submerged under an already dense electronic soundscape.
The film depicts Joan of Arc's trial, imprisonment, torture and execution. For which part of it was the hardest to write music?
Normally, there are many constraints when writing music for film. There are less constraints in The Passion of Joan of Arc as there is no audible dialogue. Because of this, I had free reign to a certain extent. However, I was extremely conscious that the story took precedence, and I was more than happy for the music to be an 'additional' element rather than the primary focus. Since it is a silent film, I needed to write continuous music for 90 minutes, so transitions between sections/pieces was also something I had to think about.
Dreyer shot the film from the first to the last scene in the right chronological order, did you write music in the same way?
I wrote it almost in the right order. In general, when I write I tend to start at the beginning and work through it until I reach the end. I remember my composition teacher telling me that I can start with the end and then write the beginning, that I don't need to worry about the whole structure, about what happens in the middle. But it always feels more natural for me to start at the beginning and finish with the end. This process though, tends to be a slower method for me.
How long did it take you to write the music for the film?
It took me four months.
Your compositions have been already played in Carnagie Hall, are you also planning to bring this project overseas?
Yes, we are going to Union Chapel in London in July, which is an amazing venue and then we are in discussions about a Paris performance and where would be the most suitable venue - there are so many beautiful churches in Paris!
You are now finishing your PhD, I would like to wish you good luck with it.
Thank you. Yes, I am now finishing off my PhD - I got a bit side-tracked for a while though, as I had a lot of projects to work on.
What's next for you after finishing PhD, any more music projects for films?
I will begin to write an opera this year, called The Lament of Art O' Leary. For the text, I am using a beautiful translation of this famous lament by the Irish poet Vona Groarke. I am also writing it for the soprano Emma Nash, who performs on The Passion of Joan of Arc.

St. Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork.

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