Feature: Dead Space Chamber Music & Bava’s Black Sabbath

Dead Space Chamber Music by Katie Murt Photography 1

Defying Genre, Independence, & Underscoring a Film

The Three Faces of Fear face-to-face with a live three-piece: part performance art, part foley artistry, part improvisation, Bava’s classic terror-trilogy Black Sabbath finds the perfect ambient accompaniment in Dead Space Chamber Music. In an intimate cinematic setting, the music is close and the atmosphere closer, as the closing act of the film is scored by their echoing, neoclassical intensity.

Following the tense, domestic drama The Telephone and the weird and wonderful tale of The Wurdulak, The Drop of Water is the most traditionally terrifying of the trio. The film, lit with gorgeous, incandescent pastels, follows a young woman as she’s plagued by fatal guilt after pocketing a ring from a corpse. Yet, it’s not with the corpse’s fingers that the terror grips tight, but with creeping acoustics: with little dialogue, a droning fly, and the dripping water, a lot of the terror is in the transcendental sound, and it’s something that attracted the trio to the film, says voice artist Ellen Southern.

‘It’s a sonic film, so we took the soundtrack and chose which sounds to keep, fading sound in and out from the original and playing alongside,’ as well as ‘performing the speech not as just a voiceover, but as an eerie sung suggestion of the spoken content, so it sounds more like an incantation, or that the speech is dismbodied, drifting and haunting the proceedings.’ With speech sampled, echoed, and sung-over, the effect is atmospheric, melancholic, and far from simply evoking the scenes in the film, the music, part composition, part improvisation, is existing, elemental and experimental.

As well as natural intensity, there’s a nuanced and intelligent grounding to the sound. Classically-trained guitarist Tom Bush, who originally suggested scoring The Drop of Water, uses pedals and plays the guitar with a screwdriver to distort the sound and produce a devilish, unforgiving wail for the ghost, which works because, as Ellen details, ‘the electricity in an electric guitar makes it a living instrument, so any movement will make it sing’. And cellist Liz Muir lets her cello live with the gentlest glissandos and the grandest gestures, with the sound of the droning fly dragged across the strings one of the most evocative, visceral, and effective parts of the performance.

The intimacy of artist and instrument is elemental; yet, for Ellen, it’s a ‘ritual, not a recital’. The music they take their name from is an intimate form of classical music, and with that focus, they can experiment, improvise, and free the ‘catharsis’ from the classicism. ‘It’s performative, but there’s also a move through emotions.’

With something to emotional and elemental, moments that focus on the performative aspects means ‘people won’t forget we’re there, or that there’s something performative going on.’ Ellen acting as a foley artist as well as a voice artist lets the focus of her performance be both visual and vocal, and there are times when the live image – particularly Ellen lighting a match in the pit – is more striking than the instruments or filmic picture. At these moments, the performance is three-fold, with the sight, sound, and smell of the match immersing us in the experience.

Though accomplished, the performance was an experiment in form for the three-piece, although experimentation is at their core. Every performance is ephemeral, with elements of improvisation and a real immersion into the experience of the viewer as well as the performer, and as such their work is ‘always experimental’. ‘Our work is created in front of people, and there’s no separation from them. It’s a living thing’. And will there be more live musical film accompaniments in the future? ‘What we do defies genre and definition,’ and as such, it’s ‘uncommercial’, but there’s ‘community’ and creative control, so whatever is in the future, they’re ‘proud to be part of the cultural tapestry.’

20th Century Flicks, Bristol, 13th May 2018, private event for invited audience (thank you Ellen for the invite!), image: Katie Murt, Dead Space Chamber MusicOeria EP & Dead Space Chamber Music Album

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