Music Meets the Silent Movie

An interview with the Devotional Ensemble

28 June 2015

Ahead of a very special screening of the rarely seen silent film The Power of the Press (Sun 5 July, 18:00), we chat to Adam from The Devotional Ensemble, the quartet that is set to play a live musical accompaniment. Featuring members of indie lo-fi combo Spare Snare, the ensemble has performed at many artists’ film and video screenings.

The upcoming event, part of Print Festival Scotland, will have print enthusiasts fascinated by a sequence showing newspapers being assembled, typeset and running through the presses, while everyone else will get the chance to simply enjoy a cracking comedy thriller by one of Hollywood’s great directors, with a fantastic live band to boot.

You’ve played to silent films at DCA before - what’s the experience like for those who haven’t enjoyed it before?

"As you get absorbed into the film, you forget we are there."

It’s always an interesting experience, at first you are aware that the band is there, but as you get absorbed into the film, you forget we are there. That’s what we set out to do, we try to capture the atmosphere of the film sympathetically, without being obtrusive and annoying and taking away from the filmmaker’s intention. We normally use guitars, percussion instruments, synthesisers, ukelele and sometimes instruments like kalimba.

How do you and The devotional Ensemble approach putting music to a silent film?

"We try to create an atmosphere or a ‘wash’ of sound over the film."

We normally watch the film together first without doing anything musical to try to gauge the mood of the film and to get a feel for all the difference scenes. Then we’ll work out a recurring motif that will be used throughout the film. After that we split the film up into difference sections relating to the various scenes and we will come up with a structure of music that we improvise around reacting to what is on the screen at that particular moment. We try to create an atmosphere or a ‘wash’ of sound over the film rather than being too obvious by doing sound effects and the like, which can end up being a bit slapstick and silly.

Can you describe The Power of the Press to someone who hasn't seen it before?

The Power of the Press is quite a fun comedy about  a young reporter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) at a newspaper who is desperate to get his first big story, but along the way gets caught up in a seedy political underworld. There is a really interesting section where you see the process of a newspaper being printed in the 1920s, from start to finish, which will appeal to printmakers.

Music is such a huge part of film. What is your favourite film score and soundtrack?

One of my favourites is Ennio Morricone, especially in the ‘Dollar’s’ Trilogy, the music is so upfront and dramatic, which may seem over the top, but it fits really well and enhances the whole tension in these films. John Barry is another favourite of mine, there’s all the James Bond soundtracks but the more off the beaten track music he composed for films like Midnight Cowboy is excellent. 

Finally, what are your favourite silent films?

Metropolis, which is quite an obvious one, but it’s way ahead of it time and so iconic it has to be mentioned. Less obvious is Man With Movie a Camera, an incidental documentary and inventive shots from 1920s Soviet era Ukraine and Russia, captures everyday life really well. Also, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is funny, poignant and politically sensitive, one of the last films of the silent era which contained some sound effects.

Join Adam Lockhart and the rest of The Devotional Ensemble on Sun 5 July for The Power of the Press

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