Flow, texture, scale and orchestration - a score for Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin

I'm en route to Calstock in Cornwall where my friend the conductor Patrick Bailey is directing his brilliant Kevos Ensemble in a revival of my live cinema score to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), this evening, at Calstock Arts. It was first commissioned by and performed at the Brighton Festival in May 2005, when Patrick conducted the New Music Players. He later recorded the work along with my score to Strike! for Tartan DVD. This recording was used in TV's Story of Film with Mark Cousins.

A couple of years ago I wrote a book chapter for K J Donnelly on a range of my live cinema scores for silent films, including Battleship Potemkin. It was good to have a chance to think about the impact of Eisenstein's visual language on my music - in terms of scale and the ways in which energy could be created through a kind of collision of musical elements. Working on this chapter reminded me just how extraordinarily sustained the famous Odessa Steps scene actually is - it's a construction in time whereas one tends to think of it as frozen stills due to the way it is referenced in art, writing and culture:

I chose to write my Potemkin score for a tight ensemble with orchestral and percussive qualities and an emphasis on granular and earthy timbres (flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet, piano, percussion, cello and double bass).  These qualities were extended through the use of four channel electronics, which spatialised the sound with special attention to the percussion part at a critical point in the film - the famous Odessa Steps scene. This latter scene is compelling to watch and demanding to compose because, although one recalls the famous stills of the woman with smashed glasses (which inspired Francis Bacon) and the pram descending the steps, it is easy to forget that these fragmentary images appear fleetingly in a relentlessly sustained visual line of 7 minutes 25 seconds, or nearly 10% of the running time of the film, from the first time the cossacks fire on the innocent bystanders all the way to the symbolic destruction of the opera house and the roaring stone lion.

(from Donnelly, K. J., & Wallengren, A. K. (Eds.). (2016). Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema. Springer.)

I guess creating a bespoke score for today for this classic film is one way to remember the scale and achievement of this film as a temporal and incredibly rhythmic artwork. These points can get lost when experiencing the 'compilation' Shostakovich score, and the social realist scores dating way back to the Soviet era. One thing I picked up from studying Eisenstein's own comments on supervising Meisel's original score is that he had very precise ideas about the rhythmic relationship between picture and music and was intent on producing what we would call today an overwhelming immersive effect of total theatre. Film as the highest stage of the arts...not just ‘entertainment’.

For myself, looking back on this piece, I think the experience of working on a sustained 75 minute score made a big impact on my compositional ideas, particularly in terms of sheer scale and the mixing and modulation of musical ideas, orchestration, mixing live acoustic and electronic sound, and the idea that flows of music could merge, shift and layer in polytempos, like the extraordinary mixes of crowd scenes with close ups as the people of Odessa converge on the harbour at the news of the uprising on the Battleship Potemkin. Ideas about flow, texture, scale, orchestration and a layered yet translucent approach to harmony all fed into my later "cinematic" and surrealistic chamber opera, When the Flame Dies, a collaboration with writer Roger Morris.

I'm very grateful to Patrick and the Kevos Ensemble for reviving this score and really looking forward to tonight's performance in Calstock, and then a second performance in Newlyn, also in Cornwall.

Calstock (13.4.2019): http://www.crbo.co.uk/event/the-battleship-potemkin-kevos/17514

Newlyn (27.4.2019): http://www.crbo.co.uk/event/the-battleship-potemkin-kevos/17513

Calstock Arts Centre, Cornwall

Calstock Arts Centre, Cornwall

Kevos Ensemble in rehearsal - Battleship Potemkin with score by Ed Hughes.  13.4.2019 Calstock Arts Centre

Kevos Ensemble in rehearsal - Battleship Potemkin with score by Ed Hughes.

13.4.2019 Calstock Arts Centre

14.4.2019 Now I am on the train on the way back from Cornwall where I had a performance of Battleship Potemkin last night in a small place called Calstock. The reception was mixed – several people came up and said they loved it but I heard one man say on the way out ‘great film but I wish I’d worn earplugs!’

There was a moderately challenging Q&A afterwards – some interesting questions. One person thought that the music should have been stylistically closer to 1925 – I said that perhaps new scores were more like reimagining old work, like a new production of an old play. Another asked why do we assume films need music… implication behind that was a bit obvious. Another said did I agree with the politics of Potemkin. I said I didn’t agree with communism (I’d already said that Eisenstein suffered under Stalin and that the real staying power of the film was in its remarkable visual constructions and narrative).

I am really enjoying a Christopher Hitchens essay sent to me by my brother, Nick (On Animal Farm in Hitchens, C. (2011). Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve). It reminded me of how impressed I was by reading through Orwell’s essays which are so clear-sighted, and critical both of empire and of what happened in the Soviet Union. I like Hitchens’s remark ‘many of Stalin’s victims nonetheless still considered themselves to be socialists and did not trust an intellectual of the Right to voice their feelings’ (p.233). It seems to me to suggest that compassion for people can sing through a work of art in a way that is important and timeless and contemporary, however constrained the work is by the politics of the day. Actually that’s what artists do best I think – say something about the truth of human experience whether that’s suffering or joy. Perhaps there is a link here between Eisenstein and Shostakovich. It is possible to criticise capitalism through art while rejecting the ideologies of the ‘left’ which led to such unimaginable suffering across the USSR under Stalin.

Ed Hughes