Filling silence: Mira Calix scores Champagne

One of nine composers commissioned to score the new restorations of Hitchcock’s silent films, Mira Calix discusses bringing her cutting-edge sensibility to one of the director’s rare comedies.

Samuel Wigley

Mira Calix

Mira Calix
Credit: Jana Chiellino

It’s a long way from the glitchy electronic soundscapes of Warp Records to writing a new score for a film by the Master of Suspense. For composer Mira Calix, it’s a trajectory that’s encompassed setting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 to music for The Royal Shakespeare Company, an award-winning commission for Streetwise Opera incorporating 100 choral voices, and Nunu – a concert piece scored for electronics, the London Sinfonietta and live insects that premiered at the Royal Festival Hall before touring internationally.

Once purely electronic, Calix’s restlessly explorative music is now more likely to interweave the digital and the organic, bringing in classical influences and found sound with only a glancing regard for genre boundaries. If her projects over the last decade have seen the textures of avant-garde techno permeating the rarified air of the concert hall, her latest commission brings Calix’s cutting-edge sensibility to the world of silent cinema.

Calix was one of nine composers charged by the BFI to write a score for the new restorations of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films screening as part of The Genius of Hitchcock season. Live musical accompaniments to screenings of silent classics are increasingly popular, a means of rejuvenating some of the cinematic treasures of the past; and Calix herself has previously written new music for screenings of Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

But Hitchcock’s 1928 Champagne presented the composer with a different set of challenges – not least because this tale of a roaring twenties flapper (Betty Balfour) exasperating her father with her frivolous life of excess is not the thriller Calix imagined it to be, but a romantic comedy.

Betty Balfour and Jean Bradin on the set of Champagne (1928)

Betty Balfour and Jean Bradin on the set of Champagne (1928)

When were you first approached about scoring a Hitchcock silent?

It was last year. I was actually doing The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which is by Lotte Reiniger. I did the soundtrack to that two or three years ago at the BFI, and that’s when I found out about the Hitchcock restoration project – through a casual conversation, before it was announced. I’m a big Hitchcock fan, so I really wanted to do it back then, even though at that point it was very early days for the project.

Were you familiar with the early Hitchcocks before?

Like most Hitchcock fans, no, not really! I didn’t know Champagne at all until I was commissioned to write the soundtrack. No, I came in at [his] American films really. I knew The Lodger [1926] and Blackmail [1929] – the two from the silent era that are generally known. But it amazed me, since I began working on this, how many people are totally oblivious to the fact that he even made silent films. I knew he’d made them, but I hadn’t really watched them.

Are you a fan of silent cinema in general? You’d scored Prince Achmed…

I’m totally unknowledgeable about silent cinema. My first experience was with Prince Achmed, so I learnt quite a lot working on that, although it’s very different – it’s an animation. It’s quite interesting because Champagne and Achmed were made in the same time period. Achmed took a long time to make, but it’s the same time period – though it’s amazing how different they are. Animation – especially Achmed – looks so contemporary, even though it’s very naive and very old, while live action has dated much more for [the modern viewer]. So I can’t say I know very much about silent film: I’m still learning.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

How did you come to be selected to score Champagne? Was there a choice of film?

I think when I came onboard, Nitin [Sawhney] was already doing The Lodger. I was announced in the second batch, so I knew which films had gone. I knew Daniel [Patrick Cohen] was doing The Pleasure Garden [1926]. But I got given Champagne, I didn’t select it. It’s a strange choice if you know the music I write. Champagne I very much perceive to be a romantic comedy… I didn’t have much suspense in my film!

It’s a very atypical, non-thriller Hitchcock film, though there are some Hitchcockian moments in it…

There are. It’s been a long process of working on this film, and I’ve been through various different phases with it. I think at first I really struggled. The first layer of watching the film, I just didn’t see the Hitchcock in it. I was probably just going, “Oh my God, it’s a comedy!” Though Hitchcock films do have touches of comedy, and romance is [always] big – or relationships. But at first I could only see the things that didn’t fit my expectations. Not necessarily in a negative way, but what I mean is I took those things in – the differences from my perception, and the differences from the other films that I know. And then, as I started to get to know the film more and more, I started to see… particularly in the cinematography, that was obvious from the start, but other layers, and the really messed-up relationships in the film. There’s two men, really three, very much manipulating the female character – now that is very Hitchcock.

Champagne (1928)

Champagne (1928)

The film has a 1920s high society setting. Is there a Jazz Age influence on your score?

Yes, there is! I think that’s the one thing that people won’t expect from me. About three years ago, I spent a long time collaborating with a jazz band on a film project, though nothing like this at all. With this, I have embraced [the jazz influences], but in my own style. So it’s not like you come and hear pure jazz, but it’s definitely influenced. The film is very flapper era, very beautiful, and there are lots of parties. This film has a lot of parties! So I’ve worked with something that I don’t normally do: there is a lot of 4/4. I’ve used a lot of electronics and beats, so that these parties feel like something we would go to now.

How did you set about writing the score?

You start by watching the film. It’s very difficult because when you first start watching the film, you are just watching it in silence, and unlike somebody else just watching the film in silence you’re perfectly aware that you’re going to have to fill every moment of silence. It’s a very strange process, the first few times you watch the film. But there are things that start to stick out. Like I said, at first I didn’t see any Hitchcock in the film, but then it started to reveal itself. You’re focusing on different things, and some things become very clear, such as how I should use electronics and rhythms. Because I really have just four characters [in the film], I worked by tracing little theme tunes for each of the characters, which is a very traditional film scoring method. Everything evolved from these four characters, and then [my approach] started to become scene-based from this point. I didn’t have the original script or scene breakdown, so I worked by dividing the whole film into 12 moods and then creating ‘mood boards’. And then by breaking the film up into individual scenes. So I’ve got a lot of charts!

What kind of instrumentation have you written the score for?

Electronics, voice, clarinet, bass clarinet, cello, and then using a range of horns: we’ve got a cornet, flugelhorn, trumpet – again, very much embracing that time period, that jazz feel. There’s lots of mutes. And there are three live, female vocalists. Each instrument loosely has a character, and the voice is obviously very much Betty, the main character.

Mira Calix

Mira Calix
Credit: Jana Chiellino

Did any sequences of the film particularly inspire you?

There wasn’t really a scene, although there’s the nauseous, boozy ship scene which is amazing, quite early on, where everyone lurches [from side to side on the rolling liner]. No, it was really the fact that once I got over my feeling that this was very different to how Hitchcock is normally, I started to see how contemporary the film is. Just this idea of a female character who’s controlled by her father, but then who is also a socialite – just famous for being famous. It really looks at celebrity in a particular way. It’s dealing with celebrity, and hedonism, and control. It was that that took me with the film. I’ve joked it’s like a page of Grazia, but it is. So many things are so familiar. A bit like when I was talking about Achmed having a freshness, Champagne is very contemporary, it’s very fresh.

With the combination of these modern themes and your electronic touches, the film should appeal to younger audiences. Are you worried, conversely, that your modern musical approaches might offend film purists?

I hadn’t really thought about the purists once, until you said that! I’m trying to make a soundtrack that works for contemporary audiences, in order to look at the film in a way that makes it feel fresh and understandable. The pacing [in silent cinema] is very different to what we’re used to. There are things that a modern audience do struggle with, so I’m trying to counteract that and work with the film, to bring out the best, [the elements] that make it most relatable. No, I didn’t think about the purists, but I don’t generally in anything I do, because I have no idea what they would want or expect. Champagne is from 1928, and we don’t even have an original score. I guess you would make something that was very much of that era soundtrack-wise, but no that wasn’t a concern. I’m trying to make the film relatable.

Have you discussed your approach with the other commissioned composers? Has there been a camaraderie?

Yes, there have been moments where we’ve met, and there has been camaraderie. The people I met, Nitin and Neil [Brand] and Daniel, were all ahead of me in the process, so they’d all completed [their scores] while I was still working. Our approaches have all been very different, but there’s been lots of commonality. Neil was great. I said I’d found watching the film silent very difficult, and he’s done lots of silent films and he said that’s very normal. Although our films are very different and our music is very different, this is very much a project so we have something in common. It’s been great to get little bits of advice, or share experiences with someone who knows exactly what you’re going through.

Champagne (1928)

Champagne (1928)

Would you accept a silent film commission again?

I’m actually about to score a non-silent film at the moment. So that will be interesting. I won’t know what to do with all the dialogue! Please, just stop speaking! [Silent films] are brilliant because you have this huge space to work in, without being troubled by dialogue or sound design. On the other hand, it also has its challenges, particularly because there’s no atmosphere. That’s the one thing about silent film when you’re working on it. They’re on a ship. There’s no sound on the ship. It’s about bringing things back in layers. I think that’s the thing that distinguishes working on silent films from non-silent films. The atmosphere of the space the actors are in, it’s not there. So it’s how you recreate that, how you choose to recreate that. I know with these films, we’ve all done it quite differently. That’s the thing you really notice as the composer.

Does that mean that your score includes, for example, watery sound effects or do you try to recreate the atmosphere musically?

It’s not necessarily foley-like, as in “they’re on a ship, so you can hear water.” There are a lot of scenes where Betty’s baking, for example, where I’ve used cutlery to create rhythms. I’ve created some space in a slightly subverted way. I created the spaces they’re in with an electronic track, but not necessarily conventionally. It’s very important to me to fill up that layer that a contemporary audience is used to, and to have those sounds in the film: the sounds of the life in which the film is taking place.


Sample Mira Calix’s new score for Champagne

The film’s opening credits roll before shots of a champagne bottle being popped open and the fizz gushing out into a glass…

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