Brighton Festival 2017
Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 film Under the Skin impressed critics with its uncomfortable portrayal of an otherworldly predator, for which Mica Levi’s beautiful, elemental and skewed music provided the intoxicating soundtrack.
Previously known as a DJ and singer-songwriter in her band Micachu and the Shapes, with whom the London Sinfonietta have collaborated, Levi was catapulted to international fame and earned herself a BAFTA nomination for the film score, which she conducts live. With strains of Ligeti and Cage running through its hazy mix of digitally-processed and live sound, it veers between sensuality and disquiet to compelling effect.
The Dome is a lovely venue, and the orchestra are artfully and moodily lit. I am excited! This is a strange, beautiful, and strangely beautiful film, and the prospect of watching it accompanied by a live orchestra is cool.
I’ve seen it before, and remember being struck by it. It’s not flawless in my memory by any stretch of the imagination, but still, I remember being very affected.
Mica Levi is adorably humble and unassuming in her extremely brief introduction.
The film starts in silence. Which is fine. And then after a minute or two ghostly droning, whining hums start to come from the speakers. At first I think: “Oh! Maybe the musicians are only playing some of the score, or over it. Or something.”
I take an immersion-breaking moment to look around, and spot the tell-tale quivers of some of their bow-arms. “Oh! So they ARE playing live, but there’s so much reverb in this score that they still have to be amplified through speakers!” Ok. Fine.
The film itself is engrossing, and I’m already seeing things on a second viewing that I wasn’t expecting. So it’s another few minutes before I start thinking again. “So, these guys are all here, and must be working pretty hard, and must be pretty gifted to be able to produce this sort of noise, but to be honest I can’t really tell any difference!”
You see, the problem is that the volume is as high in the mix as it would be without the orchestra being present, and the sound is coming from the speakers high on the walls, rather than the instruments, so other than occasionally looking at the musicians and their scores (faintly illuminated by modest little LEDs), how is this any different?
I find myself wondering what the unplugged version of the score would be, and feel faintly sad that I can’t hear that version, despite how brilliant this one obviously is.
Don’t get me wrong: this is an astonishing, haunting, hypnotic, unexpected film. It tells its story with pictures rather than words, in the tradition of Tarkovsky. If you haven’t seen it then you certainly should.
And the score is at least half of what makes it such an arresting and disturbing piece of work. Not only that, but the sheer effort of conducting (pun intended) such an elaborate performance must have been huge, and I am mightily impressed.
It’s very hard to tell what would have felt different had this merely been a screening without the live accompaniment, and in a different nice venue. This is still worth coming out for, no doubt, and definitely a masterful display of skill and invention on the part of Mica Levi. I just wish, given all that effort and skill, that I could have had a slightly more intimate sonic experience.
By Tom Beesley