Ela Orleans, the self-proclaimed orchestrator of movies for ears, follows last year’s critically acclaimed Upper Hell album with a brand new score for Frank Borzage’s 1929 silent film Lucky Star. Orleans will perform the live score at the Mackintosh Church in Glasgow's Queen's Cross this Friday as part of the Glasgow Film Festival’s Sound & Vision programme.
GFF commissioned Orleans to create the score which resulted in the Glasgow-based, Polish-born musician having a month to craft a 100-minute score. At the time, she laughs, she hadn’t even seen the film but was such a fan of GFF and the Glasgow Film Theatre that she was eager to accept the offer.
“It’s gorgeous from the first scene,” she says, drawing parallels between Lucky Star and the work of the Borzage-influenced filmmaker Guy Maddin. “I felt really inspired by the pace of the movie, the environment, by the fact that it goes from the spring to the winter. And I had the freedom to do anything.”
Orleans started with the Foley (the sound effects) and sampled the sounds of birds in various different weather conditions to reflect the film’s spring to winter narrative. After scrapping her initial work on the film’s dance scene due to its incompatibility with the rest of the evolving score, Orleans composed the soundtrack in chronological order.
“It was very easy for me, and it was surprising that the music wrote itself,” she reflects in response to whether the creation of such a piece is more instinctive or analytic. “I’m not sure if I’m thinking that much about the director really, especially in this case where I can’t discuss anything with him. I felt very comfortable with my own feelings about it and how this should go. Also, I think the people commissioning me to do a silent movie trusted in my own style so I didn’t worry too much about it.”
The film itself explores the relationship between farm girl Mary and two contradictory suitors: her true love Tim, who is wheelchair-bound after returning from war, and the devious sergeant Wrenn who’s is by far Mary’s mother’s preferred choice for her daughter. Part of the magic of Orleans’ score is her ability to deliver different sonic palettes for both couples’ scenes: Mary and Tim’s scenes are backed by melodious piano and the sound of nature while Wrenn’s attempts to win Mary’s affections are supported by darker and more dissonant compositions.
Orleans describes Wrenn as: “Kind of a bad character but also comical. I didn’t feel like he was completely bad either, he’s more of a loser type. I introduced a crow sound every time he appears at first, just to introduce that he’s a bit of sneaky one.”
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Orleans picks a scene in which Wrenn walks Mary home from a party as “the creepiest and scariest one... Just watching it in silence and not knowing what was going to happen next.” She also concurs that some of the film’s themes are completely anachronistic in the cold light of 2016. To counter that, she continues, she aimed to write in keeping with the film’s original innocence and emotions.
The score was written on piano and features a tapestry of sonics - notably violin, sampled field recordings and her beautifully ethereal voice - to reflect the film’s shifting moods and emotions. Not that Orleans is one for describing music in detail as she in explains with Alban Berg’s famous quote to George Gershwin. “He said, ‘Mr. Gershwin, music is music.’ That’s one of my favourite things because it doesn’t matter if I do music for a film or for television, for example, it’s completely different from what I do when I do records.”
Performing the score live, however, is a very different prospect from composing it over the course of a month. “There are so many things which can go wrong,” Orleans accepts. “That’s the beauty of being on your own, you can’t hide and technology is your only friend. I hope everything will be good, and I have the whole day to prepare for it so I’m looking forward to it. I used to be very stressed out by things but now I’m just really enjoying it.”
Orleans will continue to develop the Lucky Star score after this week’s event and hopes to take it to other festivals and eventually release it as a soundtrack. A 100-minute running time, she notes wryly, might necessitate a sprawling triple-vinyl set.
“I don’t want this to be about me, I just want it to be about the movie,” she concludes with an expression that suggests quiet confidence in her abilities. “When he was my mentor, David Shire [composer of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three and The Conversation] said, ‘Don’t try to impress your musician friends when you’re doing a score for movies.’ So this is going to be something different from what I usually play, but it’s not going to be a totally different world.”
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Words: Ben Hopkins