Dan Tepfer: Natural Machines AV show
24 Nov 2019
LONDON Kings Place (Hall One)
90 York Way
The masterpiece of early cinema, Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin finds its new sound with Opera North’s 2017 commission, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and also to honour the wish of Eisenstein himself, who hoped the score would be rewritten every 20 years to retain its relevance for each new generation.
The film will be screened with Norwegian electronic musician and producer Jan Bang and Matt Calvert (Three Trapped Tigers) performing the score live with guitars, electronics and found sounds which are utterly fitting to the scenery, intensifying Eisenstein’s phenomenal imagery.
Commissioned and produced by Opera North Projects.
The most dramatic sections are the crashing crescendos that accompany the dramatic set pieces. Prokofiev, it is not, but very much a 21st Century response: the brutality and tension are amplified, the glory played down – no stirring marches or hymns to solidarity.
An interview with Jan Bang and Matt Calvert
Battleship Potemkin is an account of the 1905 naval mutiny during which the crew of a Russian Imperial Navy vessel rose up against their officers. Although it was commissioned as a propaganda vehicle to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the unrest, the film became a testbed for Eisenstein’s groundbreaking montage techniques, achieved with quick, rhythmic cutting between shots to tell a story or provoke a reaction from the audience.
Almost a century on, Battleship Potemkin still makes for a mesmerising watch, and is regularly voted the greatest film of all time by critics and directors. The famous sequence featuring a pram bouncing down the Odessa Steps has been quoted in countless other films including Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables.
Jan and Matt’s collaboration, for guitars, electronics and found sounds, acknowledges the period and setting of the film with grainy timbres, mechanical clanks and trailing echoes, but with its surging, visceral electronics and live manipulation it is also resolutely contemporary, finding new ways to heighten the impact of Eisenstein’s iconic visuals.
How did you come to collaborate on this particular project?
Jan: Matt came to Punkt (festival in Kristiansand) when we invited Brian Eno to curate the festival in 2012. Matt’s band Three Trapped Tigers were one of Brian’s choices, and I´ve just stayed in touch with Matt ever since. When Opera North proposed the Battleship Potemkin commission, he was an obvious choice for me as I enjoy both his work with the Tigers and with his forthcoming solo album, which is a thing of beauty.
Matt: I was already a fan of Jan’s from his work with Arve Henriksen and I’ve played at a few other Punkt events since our first performance in Kristiansand, so it’s a real pleasure to get to collaborate with him on this commission.
How did the writing process work?
Matt: Jan is from Kristiansand in Norway, and for the last 15 months I’ve been living between Berlin and the UK. We talked on Skype about how to approach the film before rehearsing, but I think being aware of each other’s skills meant that we came together in Leeds knowing what was possible. We decided that actually we should just get in a room and decide what to do then - keep it open and fresh.
Jan: Ahead of the first performance we met for a very inspiring, productive two-day session in Opera North’s rehearsal studio in Leeds, sharing ideas and creating new material.
Are there any notable musical/sonic influences or touchstones that you’ve referred to in developing the work?
Jan: While the original score by Edmund Meisel is rhythmically driven, and to some extent a result of Eisenstein’s demand for music to complement the images’ rhythmic structure, our approach is different of obvious reasons, as it´s just the two of us, and we’re looking at exploring different dynamic areas.
Matt: I’ve been enjoying making music from abstracted inspirations recently, and so far we’ve not made too many specific musical references. Although, at first I thought some lead guitar in the style of the Top Gun Anthem would be good… I mean, it’s set on a warship too, right?I think our approach has prioritised sound and texture over melodies and harmony, almost as if to blur foley and music at times. I’m happy to challenge myself and adapt my process to Jan’s, which I’ve long been a fan of: feeding him sonic material to sample, working more with a sense of momentum than fixed pulses and finding the beauty in combinations of sound as much as in melodies.
Is there a finished ‘score’ or will there be lots of room for spontaneity at each performance?
Matt: I have done a lot of improvising in the past, but a lot of what I do now is very composed. The nature of Jan’s work these days is mostly improvised - in fact, his whole process relies on being fed sound to sample and re-interpret in the moment. Rather than approach each scene with a particular musical ‘script’ in mind, we have tried to devise a series of suitable ‘worlds’ which we can explore with improvisation, to maintain the freshness and excitement, and particularly to emphasise the sense of tension in the film.
Jan: We haven’t scored the film in the traditional sense; our soundtrack is based on the idea of remaining open to all the possibilities that the different scenes have to offer. Matt has been an exceptionally generous collaborator, and developing the score together – without any artistic limitations – has been a true joy. Hopefully some of that energy will transfer to the audiences when we perform it.