Julia Holter and her band will be joined by the 36-strong Chorus of Opera North for the long-awaited premiere of her soundtrack for the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc at Huddersfield Town Hall on 23 November 2022, part of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf//).
There will be a further date for the ensemble at London’s Barbican on 25 November.
In partnership with the Barbican, hcmf// and Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club, this major commission for the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and composer is the latest in Opera North’s FILMusic series of live soundtracks. Originally scheduled for summer 2020, it was postponed due to the Covid pandemic.
Over the course of five studio albums Julia Holter has pushed her experiments with vocals, songwriting and musical structures into astonishing and beautiful new territories. Scoring Carl Theodor Dreyer’s visionary 1928 telling of the martyrdom of the French saint, she finds an immense sonic tapestry at her fingertips, and an opportunity to dig deeper into her longstanding fascination with the art, history and music of the medieval era.
The outer reaches of cinema have also exerted a strong pull on her, and she has acknowledged the influence of the films of Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier and even the Technicolor MGM confections of Vincente Minelli on her atmospheric, enigmatic writing.
The new score for Joan of Arc grows out of a 2017 live soundtrack that Holter performed with the film in LA, increased exponentially in scale, palette and possibilities, with her band – Sarah Belle Reid, Corey Fogel and Tashi Wada – joined by Opera North’s massed voices. It promises to bring together the breathtaking music of a remarkable contemporary artist with the intensely expressive universe of a landmark of early cinema.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti – a comic stage actress and singer before and after the film – gives a transcendent performance as Joan, sometimes framed by the strange angles of the set, but more often with her face shown in lingering close-up. Accounts of Dreyer’s uncompromising direction and the unwavering commitment of his lead, apparently driving the crew to tears during the scene in which her hair is cut, have passed into legend.
The critic Pauline Kael wrote that it “may be the finest performance ever recorded on film”. It has influenced everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Miami Vice and Heat director Michael Mann, who called it “experience conveyed purely from the visualisation of the human face: no one else has composed and realised human beings quite like Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
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 2020’s In My Own Time, the much-anticipated documentary on the elusive Greenwich Village singer-songwriter. She has also campaigned tirelessly for a rebalancing of streaming incomes in favour of musicians, an injustice thrown into stark relief by the pandemic.
“After a long wait, I’m so excited to finally be able to work with the Chorus of Opera North to perform my score to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc”, says Julia. “I’ll be adapting a couple of relevant medieval chants for the ensemble, to take the melodies to a wild place that reflects the rapture and trauma of Falconetti’s Joan, with the help of bells, trumpet, synth, bagpipe, and more”.
Priority booking for the Barbican date on 25 November opens on 31 March, with general booking from 7 April. Tickets for the hcmf// premiere in Huddersfield Town Hall (23 November) will go on sale in the coming months.