On 31st March 2019 at lA villette in Paris I performed my soundtrack to the silent film Häxan (1922).
I’ve written below about my approach to creating the soundtrack. There’s a summary in French and English (thank you to Nico Marcel for the French translation) and beneath the trailer and poster is a more in-depth text (English only).
Musicalement, l'orchestration a été influencée, en partie, par la musique concrète et par la poésie sonore, avec des phrases rhytmiques et mélodiques construites à partir d'effets sonores diégétiques et de voix découpées et traitées. Celles-ci sont déclenchées en direct, de même que d’autres pièces préparées sur ordinateur, et accompagnées par du saxophone, de la flûte à bec, du clavier et des vocaux. Je synchronise l'orchestration au film dans un cadre déterminée, et en le regardant à la manière des accompagnateurs de l'époque du muet.
Mon approche conceptuelle pour la création de l'orchestration se concentre sur une implication féministe critique de la thématique psychanalitique du film qui pose problème: l'idée que les "sorcières" médiévales et les nonnes souffraient en fait d'hystérie au lieu d'être entraînées par le diable. Bien que le scénariste/réalisateur Christiensen condamne les actes des chasseurs de sorcières qui désignent les femmes comme boucs émissaires des maux de la société et qui les punissent suite aux désirs sexuels des hommes, il identifie la source du "problème" de la sorcellerie comme venant des femmes elles-même; dans leur supposée maladie mentale. Cela est, sans doute involontairement, un phénomème de ce qui maintenant appellé la culpabilisation des victimes. En cela, il focalise la portée psychanalitique seuleument sur les femmes et non pas sur les hommes du film. En réponse à cela, j'utilise dans l'orchestration un commentaire épisodique qui suggèrent une perspective psychanalitique sur les protagonistes masculins autant que féminins.
Parallèlement à mon immersion dans le lourd aspect psychanalitique du film, j'ai voulu dialoguer avec l'aspect humoristique, l'exubérance et l'étrangeté surréaliste contenus dans beaucoup de scènes du film, l'orchestration reflétant la diversité de la narration et la représentation des pratiques montrées dans le film.
L'orchestration live a d'abord été commissionée en 2013 par Scottish Film en tant que part de la Gothic Season du British Film Institute, avec trois représentations solo au Filmhouse Cinema d'Edimbourg, à Dundee Contemporary Arts et au Glasgow Film Theatre. L'orchestration a été révisée et mise à jour pour cette représentation à Paris.
On a musical level the soundtrack was influenced, in part, by musique concrète and sound poetry, with rhythmic and melodic phrases constructed from diegetic sound effects and cut-up, processed voices. These are triggered live alongside other laptop-based parts, and accompanied by live saxophone, recorder, keyboard and vocals. I synchronise the soundtrack to the film within a pre-composed framework, watching as I play in the manner of silent-era accompanists.
My conceptual approach to creating the soundtrack centred on a critical feminist engagement with the film’s problematic psychoanalytic theme: the idea that medieval ‘witches’ and nuns were actually suffering from hysteria, rather than being driven by the devil. Although writer/director Christensen condemns the actions of witch hunters in scapegoating women for society’s ills and punishing them for the sexual desires of men, he nevertheless goes on to locate the source of the ‘witchcraft problem’ within women themselves: in their supposed mental ill health. It is, perhaps unwittingly, an instance of what we might now call victim-blaming. In doing so he trains his psychoanalytic lens only onto women and not also onto the men in the film. In response I employ a sporadic commentary, embedded in the soundtrack, suggesting a psychoanalytic perspective on the actions of the men as well as the women portrayed.
At the same time as immersing myself in this psychologically heavy aspect of the film, I also wanted to engage with the humour, exuberance and surreal strangeness of many of the film’s scenes, reflecting in the soundtrack some of the variety in narrative and representational practices that occur throughout the film.
The live soundtrack was first commissioned in 2013 by Scottish Film as part of the British Film Institute's Gothic Season, with three live solo performances at Filmhouse Cinema in Edinburgh, Dundee Contemporary Arts and Glasgow Film Theatre. The soundtrack has been revised and updated for this performance in Paris.
Creating the soundtrack
Häxan is structured somewhat like an academic treatise, with an introduction, chapters developing the themes, and a conclusion. Indeed, it is referred to in the opening intertitles as a “historic-cultural lecture.” However, the logic you would expect from a format like this is disrupted by a fluctuation in narrative positions and modes of representation throughout the film. This movement gives Häxan its status as an ambiguous 'documentary', integrating “fact, fiction, objective reality, hallucination”. Nevertheless, there appears to be a concerted attempt to present the film, at least on one level, as a serious examination of medieval witchcraft. In the film's final chapter, Christensen presents a Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation of the behaviour of witches and ‘possessed’ nuns. He asserts that unconscious drives and hysteria (more precisely a late-19th Century understanding of hysteria as a mental illness with particular symptoms, primarily affecting women) accounts better for their actions than the medieval view that they were being controlled by the devil. Christensen presents his thesis through a series of scenes that show the “connections between the witch and today’s hysteric” (Chapter 7).
Diagnosing a woman as a hysteric and committing her to an asylum, or imprisoning, torturing and perhaps killing her for witchcraft: in both cases the woman is treated as the source of the problem, her own voice and agency is denied, and she is classed as an object that needs to be contained, transformed or silenced. Christensen highlights the parallels between accusations of witchcraft and hysteria, and is critical of the treatment of the women portrayed in his film, both as witches and hysterics. He argues they should be better understood, and he pities and sympathises with them. Throughout the film, he shows how women (‘witches’) are scapegoated and blamed, accused of doing the work of the devil to explain the occurrence of disease and misfortune and the prohibited desires and actions of men. To me, it seems like a classic example of an ‘outsider’ group being used to absolve those in power of responsibility, thus maintaining the status quo. Christensen, however, comes to a different conclusion. He dismisses what he sees as outdated beliefs in witchcraft, but then goes on to replace these with a diagnosis of hysteria, which once again locates the origin of the problem within women themselves, something we might now call victim-blaming. The cause of the “witch mania”, as he describes it, came at least in part from those women accused of being witches: “This witch mania had a lot to do with bad nerves” (Ch.7).
In the film we see women being both blamed and pitied, understood as both too powerful and too weak. As witches, they are shown possessing immense power that must be destroyed and protected against, but they are also understood as essentially lacking any real agency and in that sense being powerless: they are empty vessels controlled by the devil…or by hysteria. This dichotomy of holding women responsible and therefore powerful, but simultaneously denying that this power is truly theirs, is something we can see resurfacing over and over again in the history of women’s subjugation, because to have acknowledged women’s self-possessed (and not devil/hysteria-possessed) agency and power would have meant upsetting the entire patriarchal system.
Christensen is of course a product of his time and, with this context in mind, he can be applauded not only for making a ground-breaking, genre-defying, visually stunning film but also one that draws attention to some of the acute injustices women have historically faced. Nevertheless, creating a contemporary soundtrack offers a chance to engage with and critically reassess his analyses and conclusions, reflecting some of the thinking of our own times.
Following Christensen’s logic that the impulses of medieval witches and nuns arose from hysteria and unconscious drives rather than from the devil, we might assume that his psychoanalytic interpretations would also be applied to the thoughts and behaviour of the male characters in the film – there is plenty of material there: the incessant, hysterical (!) pursuit and punishment of witches by the church’s witch hunters; the forbidden sexual desires of a young priest, no longer repressed, which are then blamed on the woman he lusts after – she bewitched him! – and the sado masochistic whipping from a superior priest that follows his confession. These are just a few examples among many. However, Christensen doesn’t put forward any psychoanalytic interpretations of the men depicted in the film. In response to this, I employ a sporadic commentary in the soundtrack suggesting a psychoanalytic perspective on the actions of the men as well as the women portrayed. I am not personally suggesting that psychoanalytic explanations alone can adequately account for the medieval preoccupation with witchcraft and the demonization of women – far from it. My point is that, if one chooses to pursue a psychoanalytic route to understanding, it ought to apply across the board, to men too.
After watching Häxan for the first time I found I wanted to watch it again through the psychoanalytic lens that Christensen reveals only at the end. I wanted to engage with this perspective throughout the soundtrack, as well as apply it to the men in the film. In the Scottish performances I used the words and voice of the psychoanalyst and academic Juliet Mitchell taken from an interview with her about the history of hysteria. For the Paris performance her words have been translated into French and re-voiced by Cecile Communal. Mitchell has written extensively on psychoanalysis, feminism and hysteria and is a real inspiration (see e.g. Psychoanalysis and Feminism: A Radical Reassessment of Freudian Psychoanalysis and Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria). This ‘psychoanalytic voice’ appears intermittently throughout the performance, mimicking the authorial, documentary nature of the film's intertitles. In a dislocated and somewhat surreal fashion that reflects the film's own flights of fancy, it brings a psychoanalytic perspective into play for the audience from early on and questions the frame of Christensen’s female-centred analysis. The fact that the voice is a woman’s, in the role of an expert observer, was also important to me in disrupting the dominant women-as-victims narrative that Christensen sets up in the film.
Alongside this narrative, however, Christensen also plays with his representations, creating a sense of ambiguity and the possibility for other readings of the film and its framing of women. In the many scenes of witches gathering together - partying, plotting, having fun, helping each other out - women are portrayed as self-possessed, self-sufficient and full of life, humour, creativity and strength. These portrayals of female power, although they are treated as fantasy, nevertheless create a grey area within the film’s more explicit denials of female agency. I like to see them as a latent celebration of women’s emancipation (or the potential for it – it was 1922), and I tried in the music accompanying these scenes to bring out the energy and excitement of these women being together.
Composition and performance
Composing the soundtrack involved a continual 'back and forth' between music and film, and much trial and error, making decisions based on a combination of what worked within the music itself (as it was important to me that the music retain its own internal coherence), and on how I wanted the soundtrack to relate to the film at various points: to be tightly or more loosely synchronised, diegetic or nondiegetic, sympathetic or challenging to the film's representations, humorous or serious, and so on. I wanted the soundtrack to occupy a shifting relationship to the film, reflecting Christensen's own practice of frequent narrative transformations.
In composing the music, I used a collage process of layering individually crafted sounds, phrases and loops on top of each other, in the computer, combining a mixture of experimentation, intuitive practice and conscious design. In several sections I then wrote vocal, saxophone, recorder and keyboard parts to be performed live alongside the pre-recorded elements which are triggered live from a laptop.
Building on my interest in the field of sound poetry – or making music from the spoken voice – I made use of the potential within silent film soundtracks to abstract and play with the role of the voice, a potential which disappeared to a large extent with the foregrounding of synched dialogue speech in sound films. I employ several women’s voices (Cecile Communal, M Pia Gamon Samper, Juliet Mitchell, me) in a variety of modes throughout the film: as words and sentences (the psychoanalytic commentary), as cut-up phonemes, and as non-verbal utterances such as laughter and screaming, sometimes rendered natural and intelligible, sometimes heavily processed, indecipherable and other-worldly, often used to create musical phrases. There is also my own singing voice, sometimes live and sometimes recorded and processed, sometimes solo and sometimes choral. Other elements within the soundtrack include diegetic sound effects, frequently manipulated to create rhythmic and melodic phrases, which draws on my interest in musique concrète; programmed drums and percussion; organs and synths, including a recorded and processed Roland 100M modular synthesiser; and some diegetic instrumentation. All parts of the soundtrack are performed or triggered live and are synchronised live to the film within a prior-composed framework.
My approach to synchronisation with Häxan can be set in the context of conventions of accompanying silent films, both in the silent film era and today. In the silent era, films were often accompanied by a “miniature orchestra” playing pre-existing compositions with little attempt at synchronisation beyond the selection of pieces broadly complementary to the film's general subject matter. The original Danish premiere of Häxan in 1922, for example, was accompanied by an orchestra playing works by (amongst others) Schubert, Bruch, Gluck and Beethoven. Much contemporary live soundtrack practice (at least in the field of silent films) harks back to this convention of playing existing music without particular concern for synchronisation. Especially with the advent of bands performing to silent films, the focus is often on performing their existing material. Even when a new score is composed, synchronisation may well not be an aim. This is no bad thing, but I am particularly interested in music-film synchronisation, so I engaged with this in the creation of the soundtrack. My attempts at some closely synchronised passages can be related to the early silent film convention of accompaniment by a solo pianist who would tailor their music to the narrative developments on screen.
My aim was to include some passages of fairly tight synchronisation alongside more loosely synchronised parts, both for the sake of variety and to convey changes in my perspective on the film. I wanted to create a soundtrack that was attuned to the on-screen action (through synchronisation of tempo, mood, and the use – and sometimes direct synchronisation – of diegetic sounds), whilst at the same time seeking more subtly to question the film’s conclusions. Through synchronising the soundtrack to the film in a variety of ways, I felt I could best convey my dialogue with it. At a practical level, as I wrote the soundtrack to be realised as a live performance, it was designed to enable live synchronisation of soundtrack to film, so even though there is a comprehensive prior-composed plan, every performance ends up being a little different to the next. Alongside the live instrumental and vocal parts, this element of live spontaneity with the synchronisation helps keep the performances alive.
 Fujiwara, C. (2001) 'Häxan', The Criterion Collection, available at http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/147-haxan.
 The late 19th Century diagnostic category of hysteria that Christensen adopts has long been discredited, and more recent attempts within the psychoanalytic community to reclaim its significance exist far from the stigmatisation and subjugation of women that that used to be a central part of diagnosing hysteria. See, for example, Mitchell, J. (2001) Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria. New York: Basic Books.
The interview was part of the BBC Radio 4 history of ideas programme 'In Our Time' (BBC Radio 4, 2004).
 Chion, M. (1994) Audio-Vision: Soud on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.172 – 178.
 Burrows, J. (2012) 'The Art of Not “Playing to Pictures” in British Cinemas, 1906–1914' in Brown and Davison eds. The Sounds of the Silents in Britain, Oxford:OUP, p.120.
 Anderson, G. (2001) 'Häxan: About the Music', The Criterion Collection, available at http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/148-haxan-about-the-music.