Scoring ‘Brébeuf’ for Video Jam

The Video Jam event at Manchester Jewish Museum draws closer. Next Thursday (12th) I will be joining Flamingods, Metaphysical Human, Layfullstop and the Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir in performing a live score for a selection of short films and extracts, all focussing around a brief of faith and ritual. I’ve been assigned to write for Brébeuf by Stephen Broomer (see my previous post for more info on the film itself) and this event is shaping up to be a really intriguing and intimate night, so much so that tickets have now sold out. I wanted to take a moment and write a bit of context for my part in this show.

Video Jam during its SPACES tour. Image from The Salfordian.
Video Jam during its SPACES tour. Image from The Salfordian.

This event feels like a first for me. Only on a couple of other occasions have I done a solo public performance of a piece entirely of my own making and this one will be on an instrument with which I’ve only recently become properly acquainted. In my excitement I decided to set a challenge for myself whilst considering the brief I was given, and originally had plans for an ensemble piece. Unfortunately, due to various issues it never came to be, so instead my challenge would be to write and play a piece for the psaltery, alone. If you’re aware of any of my recent work, you might know that my collaborations with the Liverpool University Players has pushed me toward some experimentation with medieval instruments – including this 22-string trapezoidal lap harp (pictured below). Picking the psaltery made sense as I had done some basic work with it before and the history of the instrument is steeped in connections to faith and religion. Firstly, the word itself comes from Christian literature in 3rd Century B.C, and a book of Psalms bound with containing additional devotional material has become known as a ‘Psalter’ from the hymns sung with this harp (Source). That and I would need some belief in myself if I was going to become proficient enough on this niche instrument to competently write and perform a 10 minute film score with it.

The Psaltery - very kindly on load from the Liverpool University Players. Has been augmented with a Fishman SBT-HP Transducer Pickup.
The Psaltery – very kindly on loan from the Liverpool University Players. Has been augmented with a Fishman SBT-HP Transducer Pickup.

In keeping with the kind of neo-medieval styles I had been trying (like with Untold), I added a pickup to the instrument so it can be sent directly to my Boss GT-10 (meant for a guitar). This allowed me to incorporate looping, adjustments to volume, pitch manipulation and a multitude of other digital effects into the live performance. Stephen Broomer has said that some of his films – Brébeuf included – look at the way history and legend combine (Source), so this felt like a good way of tingeing a historical item with modern exaggeration. However, in all honesty I was intimidated at first by the film I was scoring for – Brébeuf is an abstract study of Huronia, Ontario, containing landscapes, collages and stabs of imagery. Water, earth, snow and stone; natural elements are displayed and manipulated in equal amounts of reflective calm and panicked contortions. Images of the cross seem bound up with a small red tree called sumac. Amongst this I felt themes of worship, memorial and brutality. With all that in mind, I faced perhaps my most impressionistic brief so far and considered a compositional approach.

A still from Brébeuf by Stephen Broomer. Image from INCITE!

I am not a religious person, nor do I come from a religious family, so I suppose my perceptions of faith in that context are always one of an ‘outsider’. However, I have been a following a daily habit of vipassana meditation for about two years now and my personal views on the matter have slowly started to stem (albeit with some hesitation) from a belief in presence and impermanence. If this has affected my music in any way, then it has likely given encouragement to the rising/falling dynamics and minimalistic tendencies of my more classical output. As a result, what I’ve been writing for this performance has brought out the historical uses of the psaltery for spiritual and ritual purposes. The use of drones, repetition and bell-like harmonies feature heavily, as the digital effects enhance the instruments sensitive and incremental changes in tone. As an original piece it establishes some key subjects, builds and fragments in ways similar to that of the film. I confess the whole process has been a testing ground and will have to wait for the performance and the judgements of the audience to see if that’s been successful at all. But there is no doubting that, at least while playing it, the psaltery has a hypnotic and meditative quality to it that I have not experienced before.

Video Jam at the Manchester Jewish Museum takes place Thursday 12th November at 8pm.

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