Nick Janaway, Solarference ( Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) in Conversation with Nick ChurchillWritten by Nick Churchill
© Words - Nick Churchill
Award-winning folktronica duo Solarference perform their electrifying live soundtrack to John S Robertson’s 1920 silent film of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on tour this spring.The all-original soundtrack weaves layers of folk song and soundscape as it brings to life the shadowy magic on screen as Robert Louis Stevenson’s story revels in the contradictions of human nature.Described as “one of the most original acts playing English folk music” by fRoots magazine, Solarference – Nick Janaway and Sarah Owen –
perform with voices, laptops, instruments and sound objects. Their work is rooted in a repertoire of English and Welsh traditional songs, set within a world of transformed sounds. They use their own specially designed performance software to sample and shape sounds, improvising and responding to the film, making each performance unique. Ahead of the tour, Nick Janaway took time out to answer our many questions…
The Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde soundtrack is a real ‘back to the future’ project – tomorrow’s sounds, yesterday’s images – how did it come about?
When we started making music as Solarference, we collaborated a lot with circus artists and theatre makers, and we’ve always wanted to incorporate some visual element to our live music shows. We mentioned this to Thomas Brooman, who programmes at Salisbury Arts Centre and he suggested we develop a live soundtrack for a silent film. This 1920 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde instantly bowled us over and inspired us. This film is an absolute gift to work with and improvise to since it’s so visually rich, it just keeps giving ideas, and our music’s a great fit atmospherically. We first performed the show at Salisbury in February 2013.
Of course, silent films were often shown with live piano accompaniment, what does this live element bring to the film screening?
In many ways, cinema piano or organ players were the first film sound designers, making an emotionally driven sonic world for the film with the resources that they had at that time. We’re doing the same thing but with more modern resources – laptops and our own home made sound transformation software. We do use traditional instruments too and lots of human voice – which definitely stands the test of time! Much of our soundtrack is improvised around a minimal scaffolding of structure – we’re very much responding to the film as it unfolds. We’re not making a literal soundtrack, but a companion piece, highlighting the emotions and concepts the film presents.
What brought you to this particular film?
We’ve now seen this film many times and never fail to find something new with each viewing. The central performance by John Barrymore is unbelievably intense and moving – his Mr Hyde is seriously scary, even more so when you realise it’s mainly the actor’s facial contortions rather than make up and effects. Sometimes it still gives us nightmares! This film version is a deeply philosophical take on the classic story, full of questions and comments about morality and the individual in society. I think our soundtrack ties in conceptually with the film, since our music is all about gradual transformation, exploring how far you can manipulate an organic sound without it losing its human essence, which is what the character’s going through in transforming himself.
How do you approach the task of composing a score for images that were made almost 100 years ago?
Each image in the film feels so highly charged with emotion and symbolism that it’s a natural choice for a musical response. We do use a lot of tense, suspended sounds and fractured voice samples, with a kind of scratchy analogue feel that really suits the old footage. Plus our music is deeply based around folk songs, which transport the listener time-wise, a melding of old and new. A significant difference we’ve noticed between this film and those you might see in the cinema today is to do with pacing and the emphasis on emotion – this film has lots of long close ups of facial expressions that convey a real depth of feeling. Music can give voice to these emotions, so we’ve found it our job to translate all this feeling into sound as it unravels in the film. Even though it’s nearly a century old, the film feels so relevant to any human experience.
What’s your background – do you and Sarah come from the world of traditional music, or has music fate brought you there?
I studied theatre and sound design; Sarah studied music specialising in voice and electronic composition. When we first met at university we talked about making a folk and drum and bass band. That didn’t exactly end up happening! Neither of us was born into the English folk tradition, but it was something we each felt drawn to, we feel a deep emotional and imaginative resonance that comes through the ages, through these traditional songs. Also for each of us, live electronics has a wonderful scope for sonic expression and creativity, but we’d really seen a lot of electronic performances that felt alienating and disengaging on a human level, despite the amazing sounds. So we tried to combine the best of both worlds, and we’ve ended up sustaining this unusual style and practice together since the two of us hold both of those worlds close to our hearts.
Having worked with other live performers in various media, is there a preferred setting for the music of Solarference?
Our ideal setting for our music is any setting where people are at liberty to listen closely and immerse themselves in an experience, which is maybe quite a rare thing these days. We want to invite people to explore sonic possibilities while listening. Perhaps strangely, that form of listening seems a lot easier to get to when the music’s alongside other media or part of a bigger world, like a film or a theatre show, when there’s more to help draw the audience member in. We find it really satisfying collaborating with other media, having something else to bounce off helps you get fired up to make things in the moment!
Do you identify your music as ‘folk’?
Yes! Because we’re performing traditional songs that have been handed down for centuries. It is still a folk song even if you’re playing a laptop rather than a fiddle, or if you’re filtering and mixing soundwaves whilst singing, rather than strumming a banjo. It’s not even about crossover, it’s just our genuine approach to playing these songs in this day and age.
What about the performances – it’s a long way from smoky pub backroom folk club singarounds… or is it?
Smoky pub back rooms are just one way of experiencing folk music – we feel that there’s no single ‘right’ way of experiencing music, even traditional music. In a way, there will still be some elements of that folk club informality, as after the film screening we’ll be giving the audience a chance to chat to us about our process of making sounds for the film and even get them involved in trying it themselves if they like, since it all happens right there...
How technically aware do you have to be to make music as Solarference – the performance software on your website looks pretty daunting?
We designed our performance software ourselves, it’s home made, because there wasn’t really anything out there that did just what we wanted to do in performance. We don’t use pre-recorded samples, we sample the sounds right there in the performance space and morph them as we go. Our software enables that performance form, and we especially designed it to work well with voice sounds. As you might imagine, coding sound software is pretty technically involved! It takes a bit of a mental leap that sound can be expressed digitally, and once you’re into thinking in that digital representation you can get really creative on that level. It’s not your straight-up loop pedal or effects box, you can transform and reshape the sounds in quite a deep way. A simple example is how a sound changes when you're playing tiny fragments of it all out of order – still recognisable as a voice or a glockenspiel for example, but abstracted, textural and malleable. Or how you can change a reverb to change the implied space the sound is happening in. Playing with all these parameters is very much like playing an instrument, or moulding something out of clay perhaps. So it’s not really technical awareness that we need to play, once we’re on stage it’s mainly creative awareness, making artistic decisions in the moment. And since we keep tweaking and changing the software to adapt to how we perform, it has become something we can play really freely and smoothly.
Your album Lips of Clay showcased some startlingly interpretations of traditional songs, how have they been received by the folk establishment?
I don’t know about the folk establishment, but we’ve received a lot of positive support for our album from lots of people in different musical worlds, including in traditional folk circles, and we’re very grateful for that. Even though our arrangements aren’t what some people might expect, we’re always mindful to respond authentically to the songs that we find, bringing all our influences and experience into that process. And I think (well, I hope!) people are able to perceive that honesty and heart in the way we engage with the songs.
What’s next; any plans to record your own songs?
Though both of us do write our own songs too, we don’t tend to work with those together as Solarference – though we often rewrite traditional lyrics, tunes and harmonies, so our songwriting brains are very much engaged. What’s next is hopefully more collaboration, perhaps with other visual-based artists, since it has been such a good experience working with film on this project. And possibly something that brings other singers’ voices into the mix. We did a remix for folk singer Sam Lee last year and it was awesome to apply our techniques to someone else’s vision of a song. I’m not sure if that’d be an idea for another album, or just a collection of remixes and collaborations. We’ve also had a rough idea for a live album or DVD. In any case we’re certainly keen to keep exploring these two huge and inspiring worlds of electronics and traditional song!
Solarference Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde tour 2014
March 8 Lighthouse, Poole 0844 406 8666 www.lighthousepoole.co.uk
March 9 Exeter Phoenix 01392 667080 www.exeterphoenix.org.uk
March 15 Calstock Arts 01822 833183 www.calstockarts.org
March 18 Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury 01684 295074 www.rosestheatre.org
April 24 Evergreen Hall, Broadwell 01594 833334 www.forestofdeanonline.co.uk/events/last-thurs-club
May 4 The Lantern, Colston Hall, Bristol 0844 887 1500 www.colstonhall.org