‘He barely registered our existence – which is not good for performer/audience relations’

1 Apr 2012 @ 9.00 pm
| Opinion
A scene from Vampyr

Ian ColeYork composer Ian J Cole is distressed by a musical “performance” which is anything but

As a musician for more than 35 years, performance is an important facet of what I do. A few weeks ago my wife pointed out that Steven Severin (or plain Steve Bailey as his birth certificate states) was playing a live musical score to the silent film, Vampyr, at the City Screen in York.

Knowing I was both a horror film fan and an exponent of experimental/ambient music, she asked if I wanted to go to this spectacle. I of course said “yes” and promptly booked two tickets.

Vampyr is an amazing 1932 German film (City Screen had it listed as French) that tells the story of the arrival of a young man, Allan Grey, at an inn close to the village of Courtempierre and the strange goings-on thereafter. Although sold to us as a silent film, Vampyr did originally have dialogue, sound effects and a score. I’m not sure why the original dialogue was missing from the Severin-scored version but it was presented to the audience as a silent movie.

The City Screen website described Severin’s score as:

“The unsettling tale of fear and obsession finds its aural counterpart in Severin’s suitably textured score, a synthesised, highly atmospheric soundscape drawing the viewer rhythmically into the oneiric imagery on screen.”

Having read this I was excited and really looking forward to the event, although I did have to look up ‘oneiric’ [‘dreamlike’, dear reader]. I was not familiar with Severin’s music.

Of course, I knew he had been bass player in Siouxsie And The Banshees, a band whose music I had dismissed and disliked, with the exception of the pop song Hong Kong Garden, and an interesting cover of the Beatles’ Dear Prudence. So, after searching for Mr Severin on Spotify I was pleasantly surprised with his solo output, I particularly liked the soundtrack album ‘London Voodoo’ and made a mental note to buy a couple of CDs at the forthcoming performance.

The appointed day arrived; and to set things off correctly my wife and I went for a nice lunch in Plunkets and a gentle saunter to the City Screen for 2.30pm so we could get good seats. Being a musician/composer I wanted to sit in a position where I could watch the film and see how Serverin manipulated the electronics live.

I sat where I could watch Mr Severin’s hands and laptop screen and the main screen. A small man introduced ‘Steven’ to us and we gave him a round of applause. Steven nodded our existence then sat down at his computer and clicked the mouse and the show began. After a few seconds, Steven twiddled a knob on the mixer (making no discernable difference to the audio sound or volume output) and then sat there for 75 minutes looking at a stereo wav file running slowly across his computer screen.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and, for the most part, liked the score. There were a couple of sections where I didn’t think the music was right for what we were seeing but these were small criticisms.

At the end of the film Mr Severin stood up, nodded to us and walked out of the fire exit where he had walked in some 80 minutes before, without uttering a single word to us.

Here is where I have a big problem, how dare Mr Serverin (nee Bailey) call that a performance? There was no interaction with the audience whatsoever and he barely registered our existence which is not good for performer/audience relations.

It would have been nice for him to say, “Thanks for coming and I’ll spend a couple of minutes taking questions.” But no, he did a runner into the foyer to sign CDs. He might as well have not been there because anyone could have clicked the mouse button to start the show. My wife summed it up by saying “that’s money for old rope isn’t it?” and I have to agree with her.

The interesting thing is that I have to do a similar performance from my latest solo album at the Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music in Belfast. Instead of sitting staring at my computer screen, I am planning to do a live mix of one of the compositions with visuals triggered by what I’m mixing; I also intend to spending five minutes at the start talking about the piece of music.

I have been trying to get a choreographed dance sorted out for the performance but it won’t be ready in time. Sonorities are planning to video it and put it on YouTube so you’ll be able to decide for yourself if my approach to this type of laptop performance works.

And finally, a parting shot: the money I had allocated to the couple of CDs I was going to buy from Mr Severin was spent on a Daphne Oram CD and a Bjork CD, the latter a Super Audio Compact Disk, both to be discussed in a future blog.

Ian J Cole is a composer, sound designer and producer who splits his time between writing experimental music and being the creative force behind the pop group Katie And The Questions