For the past 6 months I've been working with Jacob Barua on the re-mastering of a student film called This-That. We have grappled with the digital transfer of 1989 VHS tapes and this process has rekindled our trans-continental friendship between London and Nairobi. It has also had us shedding old skins as we revisit academia as Film and Literature students at the University of Warwick. The film is distinctly autobiographical weaving in the poetic and political, cross dressing and referencing all manner of allusions and illusions. It's a quintessential student flick filled with angst and metaphysical cravings.
Let me tell you about our musical odyssey. Although I'm not a trained musician, music is essential to my art and film projects. Check out my homage to vinyl records. For the past five years I've created short sequences of music for my films, often using a pseudonym called Ewa Sikorski. When it came to extended film scores I worked with other composers and musicians: Laurence Eliot-Toms constructed a percussive jazz-tinged-score for Flood Light; Roberto Bove's electronic guitar vibrates through Vision of Paradise. This-That is the first time I've attempted to both score and sound mix a film. I have no fear of improvisation and overdubbing was my principle as a piano keyboard was hooked up to an array of Garageband instruments. Needless to say, this work in progress has not been plain sailing.
One area that needed a complete overhaul was the musical score. The original was a selection of 1980s mood pieces in the style of Vangelis and late Miles Davis. However the guiding spirit of the film was a short extract from Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 called Duo Seraphim. For copyright reasons the original music has been excised and replaced by a less punchy, but definitely more unified score. The new recording of Duo Seraphim was movingly performed by two tenors from the Queens Park Singers, Cathie Hammond and Théo Hénusse.
For the film, I have endeavoured to create an over arching theme and to provide variations throughout the thirty minute running time. While the central character in the film has very little to say, he is constantly hearing discordant sounds and the visionary singing of Monteverdi's angels. There are also specific visuals that required a subtle use of musical counterpoint and the dramatic sound of silence. This-That is about an isolated and alienated student and the score had to capture this off-beat tempo. Piano and harp in various combinations were used to evoke the ethereal atmosphere in which a student has fallen down to an ivory-towered world and desires a transcendental escape. In between lectures and library sequences, there are oriental themes that tie in with the then contemporary student movement in China, chants that are associated with the central female character and what I consider the best writing in the film, the dream sequence, where a delicate array of electronic voices is set against some poignant phrases from the Duo Seraphim: "Two seraphim cried to one another."
Why and how Monteverdi? In my third year at Warwick, I studied a musical module that was run by Rowland Cotterill that showcased his wonderful keyboard playing. The first piece of music on the course was Monteverdi's Vespers of the Virgin Mary and I was immediately bowled over by the expressive diversity of 13 separate pieces (15 if you count the plainsong in between) that are unified by a compositional virtuosity of style. As Jacob and I were in pre-planning for the film, I dragged him over to the music centre and we listened, spellbound, to the Duo Seraphim extract on a scratched vinyl record; incidentally, Warwick university has no specialist music department and it was through the efforts of Rowland that music was kept on the teaching agenda. Good on him, lucky me and blessed This-That!
In the past year, Jacob and I have been considering other composers and musicians, but in many respects, I was best suited to provide the inner musical phrasing for the central character. In real life, I was that young introspective man. Yes. Him was I. In my youth, I always wore a three piece suit, trilby and either Oxfords or heavy duty boots. Jacob had drawn on my real-life persona to construct this semi-fictional narrative. Like many young people and creative artists I was going through a phase of rebellion against main stream culture and establishing my own identity in dress that included the thunderous sound of boots with cast iron heel and toe points. Part of that Neo-Romantic play of costume in the 1980s was certainly influenced by the fashion and musical legacy of the late, great David Bowie; definitely more Thin White Duke than Ziggy.
I have attached the first few bars from the Duo Seraphim and also the opening tune minus the sound effects. You need to imagine this delicate structure of voices, piano and harp announcing the arrival of an enigmatic student who has arrived at Warwick University and where the military stomp of his boots collides with birdsong and fellow students.
The musical and narrative journey will complete a full circle. After a labyrinthine student union-ball scene that is punctuated with footage of the abortive chinese student movement, Him will return to nature and the opening theme will be reprised. The last shot of the film has an ascending piano scale with both the sound of marching boots and the tap, tap, tap of a manual typewriter. All of these prepare the way for a final complete rendering of the Duo Seraphim which takes the viewer to another plane of reality; one where 'this' could quite possibly be 'that'.
This-That will be screened at the University of Warwick on 3 March 2016 before doing the rounds of film festivals.
The trailer can be viewed online.
The confrontation of Them, Her and Him over a suitcase that contains unexpected objects - sacred and profane.