Scotland’s annual silent film festival, HippFest introduced its Taste of Silents season in 2017 to introduce new audiences to the rich and immersive world of silent film with live music, screened at the Festival’s home – the stunning Hippodrome Cinema Bo’ness.
The Fountain spoke with musicians Jane Gardner and Hazel Morrison about accompanying Häxan which is part of the programme this autumn.
TF: You have are performing as part of the Hippfest’s Taste of Silents season this year, can you tell us more about Häxan the film you are live scoring for those that have never seen it?
Hazel: Häxan is a disturbing lesson in witches, their practices and those who hunt them down. The past was an unsafe place for women whose men came down with a strange fever.
Jane: It is one of the weirdest and most unsettling films I’ve seen – thankfully with regular injections of the director’s irreverent humour! Drawing from Medieval beliefs, in particular those depicted in ancient art works, there are scenes of torture, potion-making, demons, devil worship, a witch giving birth to monsters, a spell which leaves a man unable to close his screaming mouth, and lots more gruesome stuff. The final chapter comments upon contemporary (1920s) treatment of women with mental illnesses whose behaviour or manner would have been regarded as witchcraft in the past.
TF: And your choice of instruments somewhat reflects the peculiarities of the film, what instruments are you playing for this performance?
Hazel: Percussion-wise I’ve gone for sounds that are pagan and eerie.
I am shaking goat’s hooves (cajchas), bowing cymbals, scraping a gong, rattling bells together and shoogling pennies around a metal bowl.
Jane: I’ll be using some of the alternative samples on my Yamaha electric piano, including church organ, vibraphone (I like when the sound is too low in pitch for the range of a real instrument), choir and harpsichord, and combinations of these. I’ll also play the Hippodrome’s acoustic piano, which will be untuned, and pluck/strum the strings inside.
TF: How did you get involved in Taste of Silents this year, have you been involved in Hippfest previous years?
Hazel: We were asked! Always look forward to playing the Hippodrome. This will be our first horror film together.
Jane: We were invited by Hippfest director Alison Strauss, who knows our work from the many silent film screenings we have accompanied in previous Hippodrome Festivals. They have been collaborations either just us or with other musicians including bassist Nico Bruce, accordionist Beth Morrison, violinist Roddy Long and cellist Su-a Lee.
Over the years we have devised scores to all sorts of films, from slapstick shorts, romantic comedy features and adventures to a 1930 Soviet historical/political drama. Each one poses
its own stylistic demands and technical challenges in order to reflect the various moods and scenes (and how to move from one to the next) in the musical accompaniment. Some films are 20 minutes or shorter and others are over two hours. Häxan is about 1 hour 45mins. As Hazel says, this will be our first horror as a duo. Unlike musicians at its premiere in 1922, we’ve been able to prepare with a practice DVD and so we know what’s coming next but other than that, the music will be pretty much entirely improvised – we’ve been enjoying being quite playful with it.
The fourth HippFest Taste of Silents season will run on selected dates between 11 Sep and 31 Oct. Upcoming films in the season include Chicago (16 Oct), and Häxan (31 Oct). For tickets and programme information for the Taste of Silents season visit the website.
HippFest will return to the Hippodrome for its full festival programme 16 – 20 March 2022.