An interview with the makers of London Symphony
Released later this week, LONDON SYMPHONY is something a little different – a brand new city symphony which takes viewers on a breathless and breath-taking journey through the capital. By turns exciting, witty, revealing and relaxing, the project explores the city while examining contemporary life.
Influenced by the avant-garde documentaries of the 1920s, LONDON SYMPHONY'S intoxicating fusion of silent film and classical music avoids pastiche, while remaining playfully aware of cinematic history: the city symphony genre, which consists of poetic pieces seeking to capture the spirt of a given city, is traditionally thought to begin with Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's MANHATTA (1921), and culminate in Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929). BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927), made by pioneering experimental filmmaker Walter Ruttmann, stands as another towering example of the way city symphonies use innovative, musical techniques to capture the rhythms of daily life.
Featuring a powerful new classical composition by James McWilliam, and crisp black and white images directed and edited by Alex Barrett, LONDON SYMPHONY received its World Premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film. Over the next few months, it will tour around over 35 venues throughout the UK. Perhaps most exciting of all, though, are three very special events supported by the Arts Council England, which will see McWilliam's music performed live by the Covent Garden Sinfonia (formerly the Orchestra of St Paul's). In keeping with the project's focus on the diverse communities of London, these events will take place at the world-renowned Barbican Centre, the iconic brutalist Alexandra & Ainsworth Housing Estate, and the Shree Ghanapathy Hindu Temple in Wimbledon.
This interview features contributions from composer McWilliam (JM), director Barrett (AB), and producer, Katharine Round (KR).
What was the original inspiration for the project, and how did it come around?
AB: A few years ago [in 2009], James and I worked together on a mini-symphony about Hungerford Bridge in London. It was basically a short cinepoem inspired by the city symphonies of the 1920s. Later, around summer 2013, I had the idea of trying to turn it into a longer piece… I thought it would be interesting to try and look at life today through the lens of the past – to use this 'old' style in conjunction with modern technology to create a musically-driven rumination on modernism and modern life. But I knew that for the idea to work, the music had to be right. So I gave James a call… I was a bit nervous, as I'd already decided that I wouldn't do it without him. Thankfully, he was mad enough to want to get involved!
JM: When Alex approached me, I was certainly interested in being part of a large-scale moving image project that had no sound other than my music. I enjoyed working on the Hungerford short and thought the idea of exploring these same themes over a 70-minute piece based on the city that I lived in would be a lot of fun. Of course, I couldn't appreciate then just how much work it would be and I'm glad that I didn't, otherwise I might well have said no!
It seems like you two collaborated very closely on the project. Can you talk about the working relationship between you?
JM: Our original idea was for me to write the music first, and then for Alex to cut to the music, but we quickly realised that it wasn't going to be as simple as this. The idea that I was going to sit down to a blank page and write 70 minutes of music when I had so many other commitments was foolish. Putting aside how busy I was with other work, my wife fell pregnant in the early stages of production. Actually, my wife and I agreed that I'd have the music written by the time our daughter was born. Martha, our daughter, is just about to turn two and I finished the score just a few weeks ago!
Katharine, what attracted you to the project? How and when did you get involved?
KR: Alex approached me in 2013 to ask if I'd like to come on board. I was intrigued by the idea of a modern-day film in the 1920s city symphony genre and it seemed to be a fit with my aim to support films that stretch the boundaries of factual filmmaking: in form, content or ideally both. I met with Alex and Rahim and we chatted about the concept and how the film might work.
Aside from the original city symphonies, what were your influences?
AB: If you're talking about cinema, I'd say that I was influenced by other silent films – for instance, I was thinking of Coeur fidèle (Jean Epstein, 1923) when I put our carousel scene together, and the blur/dissolve transition that I used in the Kagyu Samye Dzong scene drew on a similar technique in The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928). Our brief flash of colour was inspired by Fejos'Lonesome (1928), which actually begins with a short city symphony sequence of sorts. I was also thinking about things like Ruttman's early animations, or some of Hans Richter's work – the way they use rhythm and motion. I looked to the British GPO work for the same reasons, actually – things like Nightmail(1936), obviously, but alsowork by Len Lye and especially Norman McLaren. McLaren's Book Bargain (1937) directly inspired our newspaper scene. But we were also influenced by other media – for instance, Cocteau's paintings, the critical writings of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and lots of photography – Paul Strand and Margaret Bourke-White spring to mind, but Alexander Rodchenko was the most important. But our biggest influences, of course, were the people and the communities of London – the space of the city, and those who inhabit it.
JM: Of course, the beautiful work that Alex did inspired my process, but I made an early decision that I wasn't going to directly represent what I saw on screen in the music. If the music does nothing other than reflect what's on the screen then there's little point in it being there. The beauty of working with an abstract language is that it can 'mean' anything and because I don't know the audience's expectations or experiences I can't predict how they will interpret my music. It's sometimes chaotic and ugly, confrontational and challenging. It's also beautiful and colourful with moments of calm and resolution. This isn't a score that quietly passes you by and whether you agree with it or not it's hopefully a score that you can't ignore. I can't say that other composers particularly influenced me. I've lived in London for over 20 years and it's my home, this feeling of being a Londoner permeates the score. I wrote music that came naturally based on what I felt about London and the wonderful film that Alex made. If you were after a purely technical description then most of the music is based on the 'Westminster Quarters', which Londoners hear everyday from the clock tower of Westminster Palace. Beginning with this pattern I created hundreds of melodic and harmonic variations using the method of 'change ringing' and much of the rhythmic material originates from the word LONDON in Morse code. Other than those few sentences, there's not a great deal that I can tell you about how I composed the music.
How were the locations chosen?
AB: In a large number of ways. I guess it started with Rahim and me working out the themes of the piece. From there, Rahim wrote a script, which I then turned into a location list. For example, we knew we wanted to explore religion, so Rahim wrote the langar scene into the script. I then made a list of suitable Gurdwaras, and we went from there. But, generally, it was also about speaking to people, getting recommendations and researching interesting places, or sides of the city that we might not have thought of. There was also some luck involved – sometimes we would come across pictures when looking something up, or stumble upon interesting buildings when we were out shooting. There was a lot of walking around London involved! But, basically, when it comes down to it, all the locations were chosen for their relationship to the themes which Rahim and I outlined in our initial plans.
Can you elaborate at all on what those themes were?
AB: Well, as I said earlier, I was interested in exploring life in the modern era. I wanted to look at modernism, at the way the city has risen up around its historic centre, and the contrasts this has created. Contrast, actually, is a key word… The whole city, in one way or another, is built on contrasts, and this is something that became a key factor in the film. But the most important thing, really, was to celebrate the city's cosmopolitan spirit, and champion its rich diversity of people, architecture, culture and religion. In an era of divisive politics, this felt like an important message to reinforce.
The release strategy is interesting – can you talk more about how you developed that?
KR: Absolutely. What Alex, Jim and Rahim have created is a celebration of the entirety of the city and it is fitting that it should be experienced as a live event by a diverse range of Londoners, not just those who would go to arthouse cinemas or classical music concerts. The idea was to take the film and the music directly into a range of communities that make London what it is. It was slightly mad in a way but I loved the idea of us taking a live orchestra to the centre of London's most iconic estate, or a Hindu temple, creating something that felt inclusive and where the audience were as much part of the event as the artists.
It is also an interesting time to be making a celebratory film about diversity, as Brexit has put the spotlight on a lot of the communities that feature in the piece. However, we feel it's the perfect time for communities across the capital to embrace what they love about the city and show that we are strong and united.