Review - Playing with the Past, Filmhouse, 22nd August 2009

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No surprises here then – three of Edinburgh’s finest and most creative bands compose new music to accompany archive film footage selected from the Scottish Film Archive’s ample collection and perform it live while the films are projected onto the big screen – it was always going to be good. Add to that the rapturous reports from the first time this event was staged (as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June) and it was pretty much a shoo-in for a great night’s entertainment.

Eagleowl start things off with Granton Trawler, a black and white depiction of a day in the life of an Edinburgh fishing boat, their sweeping and dramatic sounds an apt accompaniment to the swelling and crashing of the waves on screen. The warmth of that rich, purring double bass is enough to keep out the chill of the North Sea, and it’s also there to remind us that this is very much Eagleowl’s creation, although it was created in response to another work of art. And indeed that’s what is so great about all of tonight’s performances: the bands sound like themselves and yet also seem to fit perfectly with the films.

Not, however, that fitting with the films has to mean mimicking the rhythm or mood of what’s on screen: something Eagleowl do particularly well in the second film, a psychedelic piece of abstraction by Norman McLaren, mixing up the tempo so that, rather than follow the images, they defiantly face them down with their own meaning. It’s something that Meursault and Found achieve almost as successfully on their own efforts.

Meursault begin with a charming video snapshot of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy visiting Edinburgh for the day before their show at the Playhouse. While the music is by no means sub-par, the film is so utterly engaging that it’s hard not to be distracted. On Night Mail, however, the band’s contribution most definitely enhances this already magnificent cinematic work. Soundtracking the journey of the Royal Mail train from dusk ‘til dawn as it carries the post up the country, dropping it off at various points along the way by ingenious means, Meursault add an extra dimension to the film, encapsulating the excitement of travel in their insistent rhythms and responding to the beautiful landscape shots in suitably majestic fashion. When Neil Pennycook’s colossal powerhouse of a voice kicks in after about ten minutes, the effect is stunning (literally – several members were seen to jump in their seats). The volume and force of the delivery serves as a contrast to the vulnerable refrain – “please don’t take me home” – a haunting line left ringing through your mind hours after the show.

Finally it’s Found, and their challenging choice of Camera Makes Whoopee, another rather abstract McLaren number, this time depicting the Glasgow School of Art Christmas Ball of 1934. If anything, this was the piece where the music seemed most tied down by the film, but to be fair to Found, it was a pretty abstract and musical film to begin with, so it’s possible that that’s what they were aiming for. They certainly capture the grotesque side of those orgies of consumption that are parties with some dirty, twangy guitar, while singing the words of the event poster was a typically self-conscious, typically Found way to end the piece.

An extremely satisfying night, then, and, perhaps surprisingly for a night of abstract film and mainly instrumental music, totally engrossing from start to finish. And the warm glow inside on leaving the Filmhouse?  Well that was probably a feeling of glee at the good fortune of living in a city with such vibrant, creative, musical-in-the-truest-sense-of-the-word groups at the heart of its scene.

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