In anticipation of the premiere performance of her live score for the classic 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc, Julia Holter has shared some of the inspirations behind her new commission for the Chorus of Opera North.
The first performance of the live soundtrack, in Huddersfield’s historic Town Hall for Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf//) on 23 November, will be followed by a further date at London’s Barbican on 25 November. “I haven’t looked forward to a project so much in a long time”, says the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and composer.
With her own band joined by Opera North’s 36-strong Chorus, Holter has taken the opportunity to dig deeper into her longstanding fascination with the art, history and music of the medieval era.
On her last studio album, Aviary, her unique approach to vocals took in everything from found texts to wordless abstraction and electronic processing. Driven by a deep engagement with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s visionary film and actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s astonishing performance in the lead role, Holter has pushed her music further into new territory as she writes for Opera North’s massed voices.
“The live score began centred upon my voice through a contact mic on my throat, the words rendered unintelligible, retaining the pitch yet tongue-less”, she explains.
“There is so much powerful cinematography in the film, without a lot of change in scenery, almost like a theatre stage. There is so much beauty and space available to the composer and yet I was hoping not to take advantage of that space too much; I wanted to keep the mystery.
“I was inspired by an essay, Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, in which the poet Anne Carson explores the untranslatability of the sublime—how, throughout Joan’s trial, the judges are trying to forcibly extricate some kind of material from Joan to manipulate into their narrative, while Joan stays true to the inexplicability of her spiritual experience with vague statements like, ‘The light comes in the name of the voice’.
“I had the entire Chorus of Opera North to work with, so I had to figure out a way to bring out that ‘sublime unintelligibility’ with a group of operatic voices as well as my own.
“Alongside some notable quotes of Joan’s from the film to set to music, I also wanted to set and adapt a couple of medieval chants relevant to Joan’s story and/or time (Te Deum and Ave Maris Stella), and so throughout, we hear these chants in various forms—sometimes only as very long stretched-out and isolated syllables decapitated from their word context, and sometimes sung more conventionally.
“But always there is some muddying up—between my contact mic and the Chorus, there is Sarah Belle Reid on trumpet and electronics distorting words by singing into the trumpet as well as playing, often sounding fragments of the chant. Tashi Wada’s synth will provide, among other things, a bed of harmonisations of the chants to both work with and against the chorus’ melodies, and his bagpipe resonating with the trumpet swells. And finally percussionist Corey Fogel will be punctuating the most impassioned moments on, among other things, timpani and a giant bell”.
While lockdowns have frustrated the project’s schedule, the last two years have brought even more acclaim for Holter as a soundtrack composer, with the film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, featuring her original score, taking awards at Sundance and Berlin International Film Festival. Having covered Karen Dalton’s songs in the past, Holter also scored In My Own Time, the much-anticipated documentary on the elusive Greenwich Village singer-songwriter. She has also campaigned for a rebalancing of streaming incomes in favour of musicians, an injustice thrown into stark relief by the pandemic; and in 2021 she was appointed Professor of the Practice in Songwriting at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“I’m very excited to finally be working on this live score with the great Chorus of Opera North, for whom I’m really honoured to be able to write this music”, she says. “I don’t know exactly how it will turn out honestly, but I would say that usually when I feel that way it’s a good thing!”
Commissioned and produced by Opera North Projects. Co-produced by the Barbican, hcmf// and Brudenell Social Club.