Opera North Blog

Maiden voyage for new Battleship Potemkin soundtrack

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A new soundtrack for the classic Soviet film Battleship Potemkin is to receive its world premiere in the Howard Assembly Room on Saturday 18 November.

Commissioned by Opera North Projects to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the score is written and performed by Norwegian producer, composer and electronic musician Jan Bang – the linchpin of Opera North’s Humber Bridge sound walk earlier this year – and Matt Calvert of London avant-rockers Three Trapped Tigers.

Battleship Potemkin is an account of the 1905 naval mutiny during which the crew of a Russian Imperial Navy vessel rose up against their officers. Although it was commissioned as a propaganda vehicle to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the unrest, the film became a testbed for director Sergei Eisenstein’s groundbreaking montage techniques, achieved with quick, rhythmic cutting between shots to tell a story or provoke a reaction from the audience.

Almost a century on, Battleship Potemkin still makes for a mesmerising, visceral watch, and is regularly voted the greatest film of all time by critics and directors. The famous sequence featuring a pram bouncing down the Odessa Steps has been quoted in countless other films including Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables.

Recognising the potential of image and sound combined, Eisenstein himself hoped that the score would be rewritten every twenty years to renew the film’s power for subsequent generations.

Jan and Matt’s collaboration, for guitars, electronics and found sounds, acknowledges the period and setting of the film with grainy timbres, mechanical clanks and trailing echoes, but with its surging, visceral electronics and live manipulation it's also resolutely contemporary, finding new ways to heighten the impact of Eisenstein’s iconic visuals.

Musician and producer Matt Calvert comments:

I think our approach has prioritised sound and texture over melodies and harmony, almost as if to blur foley and music at times. Rather than approach each scene with a particular musical ‘script’ in mind, we have tried to devise a series of suitable ‘worlds’ which we can explore with improvisation, to keep some freshness and excitement, and to emphasise the sense of tension in the film.

I’m happy to challenge myself and adapt my process to Jan’s, which I’ve long been a fan of: feeding him sonic material to sample, working more with a sense of momentum than fixed pulses and finding the beauty in combinations of sound as much as in melodies.

Jan Bang, producer and musician, comments:

We haven’t scored the film in the traditional sense; our soundtrack is based on the idea of improvisation, and remaining open to all of the possibilities that the different scenes have to offer. Matt has been an exceptionally generous collaborator, and developing the score together – without any artistic limitations – has been a true joy. Hopefully some of that energy will transfer to the audience when we perform it.

Earlier this year Jan was the lead collaborator on The Height of the Reeds, Opera North’s commission for Hull UK City of Culture 2017. A sound walk for the Humber Bridge that wove the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North together with trumpeter Arve Henriksen, guitarist Eivind Aarset and the music of the bridge itself, The Height of the Reeds was a critical and popular success, with every slot sold out over its three month duration.

Jan first met Matt at the Punkt festival, which he co-founded in his hometown of Kristiansand in southern Norway. When Brian Eno curated the festival in 2012, he invited Three Trapped Tigers to play, and Matt and Jan have kept in touch ever since. “When Opera North offered me carte blanche for who to work with on Potemkin, Matt seemed an obvious choice”, says Jan. “I enjoy both his work with Three Trapped Tigers and with his forthcoming solo album, which is a thing of beauty.”

Dominic Gray, Projects Director, Opera North, comments:

Over recent years we’ve hosted some amazing live scores for iconic films in the Howard Assembly Room – from Murnau’s Sunrise with Joanna Macgregor, to La Haine with music by Asian Dub Foundation. For Potemkin we wanted to commission something new; a vibrant, contemporary response to one of the great classics of all time. Collaboration is key to Jan and Matt’s practice, and they have a real feel for what works musically, dramatically and cinematically. It’s a short film, just 75 minutes, but packed with detail, character and story, which the musicians respond to with sensitivity and imagination.

Jan Bang and Matt Calvert perform their new soundtrack for Battleship Potemkin in the Howard Assembly Room on Saturday 18 November. Tickets are priced at £15 (concessions available).


Images:
Poster for
Battleship Potemkin (detail), Anton Lavinsky, 1926
Matt Calvert and Jan Bang in rehearsals at Opera North, October 2017. Credit: Opera North

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