Philosophers, astronomers and lonely shepherds tending their flocks by night have long looked up at the sky with wonder and awe. Last Saturday night it was the turn of the audience at DCA in Dundee to study the heavens, but happily they were able to make their observations from a comfy seat in a cosy cinema. They also had the added pleasure of Herschel 36, a.k.a contemporary jazz musicians Paul Harrison and Stu Brown, who provided stunning live music accompaniment for a remarkable film.
Herschel 36’s highly improvised score for the early silent documentary Wunder der Schöpfung was premiered at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in March 2016 (*), and a tour of Scotland supported by Film Hub Scotland brought them (aptly enough) to the City of Discovery.
Wunder der Schöpfung was made in Germany in 1925, and it’s essentially a short history of astronomical discovery. It remains an entertaining combination of documentary, history, fiction, and animation realized by no less than fifteen special effects experts and nine cameramen.
It predates factual telly by a good ninety years, but it is instantly recognisable as the template for a documentary style that evolved into Open University diagrammatics and ultimately reinvented itself as a sexed up dossier on the universe at the hands of (Dr.) Brian Cox. It’s also full of errors, as Scotland’s Astronomer Royal, Professor John C. Brown is quick to point out in the accompanying notes, so it’s definitely a precursor of contemporary TV documentary.
This charming film is in fact much more direct, much clearer and considerably more engaging than the clunky, truncated expositions that pour interminably from BBC4. It is less sequential than contemporary narratives, because there was of course no Big Bang story arc to follow. There is nevertheless a rather chilling Doomsday scenario illustrating how the Earth might lose its mojo, stop spinning, and ultimately fall into the Sun. It’s an unwelcome, discomforting thought that hasn’t lost its capacity to chill the blood. This kind of heightened drama offered Harrison (on piano, keys and synthesized sounds) and Brown (on drums and assorted percussion) the chance to get their mojo really working on some thick, ambient, groove-laden explorations of their own.
In many ways, the places they took the music were surprisingly melodic given the obvious temptation to synth the soundtrack up to the max. There were plenty of reassuring bleeps, disturbing static bursts and oscillating waves of electronic sound, but there were also pointers to the period, and to the esoteric end of the cinema soundtrack spectrum.
In the opening sequences, where the massive power of the Sun and the mysteries of the Universe are linked by rational inquiring minds and equally irrational superstitions, Herschel 36 found themselves steering a steady course. The music gave a strong sense of moving steadfastly onwards into the unknown, and there is an underlying frisson of apprehension mixed with the thrill of the adventure.
It was an inventive and resourceful soundtrack that found more common ground with the music of Popol Vuh (*) and the auteur instincts of John Carpenter than with the bombast of Star Wars, or the noodle bar jazz of Blade Runner.
It was cross generational too, for experimental sounds are readily received by a public ear that has been acclimatized by exposure to its charms for decades; from the dark lunar days of Pink Floyd to current of-the-moment popsters like Twenty-One Pilots. So, basically everyone gets it now, and Herschel 36 revelled in the freedoms that such blanket approval affords. They are endlessly inventive of course, but the sheer density of the sound was the signature signal which was loud and clear enough to be heard in the next Galaxy.
Brown and Harrison have been working together for many years and their rapport goes far beyond mutual understanding. Both are gifted jazz musicians, so the improvisational nature of the music is almost a given. Yet it is the combination of Brown’s constant, insistent, pulsar-like presence and Harrison’s intuitive navigation that steers them through the stars.
The film runs to seven acts that are a bit like celluloid tablets of knowledge profusely illustrated with very carefully designed animations. The imagery might seem quaint, and the facts fuzzy, but its clarity of purpose is beyond dispute. I have to say though that, as a film narrative, Wunder der Schöpfung loses its head of steam around the fifth act, when greater reliance is clearly placed upon captions at the expense of pictures. However, if the filmmakers had used up all their best ideas in previous reels then Herschel 36 still had plenty in the locker.
At this stage, the presentation almost morphed into a conventional live band set, but the DCA cinema space proved amply capable of accommodating their thickly layered, visceral vibrations and SETI signals. If there is intelligent life out there, and let’s face it there must be life forms less stupid than us, then they will certainly visit us sometime in the future. They will want to hear where the sound of Herschel 36 came from, and what it all means.
(*) The Hippodrome in Bo’ness is Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema. Opened in 1912, and an A-listed historic building, it is the masterpiece of architect Matthew Steele, who left Bo’ness with a remarkable built heritage of early 20th century design styles.
(**) Popol Vuh were a German electronic avant-garde band founded by pianist and keyboardist Florian Fricke in 1969 with Holger Trülzsch (percussion), Frank Fiedler (recording engineer and technical assistance) and Fricke’s newlywed wife Bettina (tablas and production). They contributed music to several films by Werner Herzog.