One of the one of the earliest ethnographic films, Salt for Svanetia documents the life of the Svan people in the isolated, mountainous northwestern part of the Georgian Soviet Republic. Following a long blacklisting by Stalinist censors, its director Mikhail Kalatozov went on to direct the better-known classics The Cranes Are Flying (1957), and I Am Cuba (1964).
We asked Moishe's Bagel pianist Phil Alexander (back, left) to tell us a bit more about the soundtrack and screening.
How did your soundtrack for Salt for Svanetia come about?
We were contacted by Alison Strauss at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness. Ali asked if we would be interested in writing and performing a new score to an old film. After several options were discussed, she hit upon Salt for Svanetia. The film’s combination of ethnography, evocative landscape and dramatic narrative was instantly appealing to all of us.
What will be the format for the Leeds concert and screening?
We'll begin with a full set, followed by the film screening after an interval. The film itself is short (50 minutes) but also intense. We feel that it is well framed by some non-filmic music, which offers audiences a chance to hear some of our other work and also sets the musical scene for our soundtrack. It also relaxes us a little bit, as launching straight into the film can be a daunting thing.
What was your approach to writing and recording the soundtrack? Did you try to bring any Georgian or Svan musical elements into the mix?
We are not at all experienced in Georgian music, although we love what we have heard. Consequently, we responded to the film with our own musical language, rather than attempting to incorporate others. Our approach was to write music which was inspired by the imagery and narrative of the film, and then we worked with this material to fit it more specifically to certain scenes and emotions. The result (we hope) is a score which enhances the film and its story whilst remaining true to our own musical influences. It was also a chance to explore some of the more overtly filmic elements of our own writing. All band members contributed in different ways to the outcome.
Do you think your soundtrack might alter the ways in which the film is received, and if so, how?
I hope so! Silent film has always been accompanied by live music. The interaction of the two is a very special thing, and I would like to think that the physical presence of our performance adds something important to the cinematic experience. Although we don’t shape the structure or narrative, we do certainly comment upon it musically, bringing out certain dramatic elements and (very occasionally, in this case) comedic ones.
Do you mean the bit with the cows?
Yes, and also getting the donkey across the bridge.
Your own career has taken in tango, folk with Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, avant-garde music and even celtic salsa. What makes you return to klezmer as your focus?
I have just finished a PhD looking at klezmer and Yiddish music in Berlin, so it is very much in my mind. I have always felt both a strong personal and musical connection to klezmer, and although our music is not traditional, I think that the influence of klezmer is often present. Klezmer music – in all its forms – offers a world which I am still discovering...
Moishe's Bagel. Photograph: Alex Hewitt
You spent five years in a Jewish wedding band – performing with Moishe’s Bagel must be a very different experience?
Yes it is! Performing with Gregori Schechter taught me much about how to respond to a dancing audience, how to shape a performance according to specific needs at specific times. Although the majority of Moishe's Bagel’s music takes place in a concert environment, I think I still carry some of that with me. In Moishe's Bagel I get the chance to explore aspects of improvisation and spontaneous changes in musical decisions which are not so possible in a straight, function-based klezmer band. But the connection between audience and performer is just as strong.
To book tickets or to find out more about the Howard Assembly Room screening and performance, which is part of our ongoing FILMusic strand, visit the Moishe's Bagel webpage.