Following the premiere of his new film The Nine Muses, director John Akomfrah, a founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective, talks to Daniel Trilling about the sound and music in his films.
Throughout his career, the director John Akomfrah has not only questioned the kind of stories we tell, but the way they are told. Since his earliest work with the Black Audio Film Collective, which he founded in 1982, Akomfrah has explored radical new forms of film-making in order to introduce voices and perspectives - notably those of black and Asian Britons - that have been shut out of official narratives.
The Nine Muses, which premiered at the London Film Festival this month (a shorter version, titled Mnemosyne, has been on display in art galleries throughout the year), is Akomfrah’s take on the story of mass migration in post-war Britain. Arising from a commission by the Made in England arts project, which gave Akomfrah unfettered access to the BBC’s television, sound and film archives, the film mixes footage of immigrant life in the West Midlands with haunting shots of a frozen Alaskan landscape. Just as remarkable, however, is its soundtrack, on which a series of actors read snatches of poetry, novels and philosophy, mingled with industrial noise, songs, and the synth-based compositions of Akomfrah’s collaborator Trevor Mathison.
Sound – music; effects; the tone and range of the narrative voice – has always been crucial to Akomfrah’s approach, perhaps more so than it is to many other directors. Our conversation focused on ‘The Nine Muses’, but also discussed are his films Handsworth Songs (1986), which applied the techniques of multiple narrative voices and an immersive soundtrack to an account of race riots in the West Midlands; and The Last Angel of History (1995), a documentary about the concept of Afrofuturism in music that explored in particular the influence of Lee “Scratch” Perry, George Clinton and Sun Ra.
Daniel Trilling: At what point in the film-making process do you start to think about the soundtrack?
John Akomfrah: One of the things I’ve tried to do in my work is to reconfigure the traditional relationship between a narrative piece, whether it’s documentary or fiction, and the sound. The traditional relationship is that you put your thing together and then at some point you score it. The assumption always is that the sound component either confirms or establishes something that’s already in place.
I’ve tried to seek a more dialogue-driven relationship between sound and image. The impulse for that comes from two distinct but interrelated sources. One is an abiding passion for the improvisatory gesture in jazz; the second is non-western musical forms, particularly Indian classical music. I’ve tried to see what happens if you bring those two together in some way; what kind of film making aesthetic that might suggest.
DT: It seems that you allow sound to set the mood, rhythm and pace of your narratives in a much more pervasive way than many conventional films do.
JA: In some ways The Nine Muses is the most successful of the attempts at trying to force this marriage. It starts with the recognition that the distinction between sound and music is of very little use for what we’re trying to do.
DT: That allows a dialogue not just between sound and image, but between different elements of the soundtrack itself. In The Nine Muses, the Leontyne Price spiritual ‘Motherless Child’, which marks an emotional peak in the narrative, fades off into echoes and grinding, metallic noise.
JA: I’m fond of trying to force apparently dissonant sounds to cohabit the same narrative space as non-dissonant sounds. Leontyne Price is singing about being motherless, but marrying her with post-Eno, post-Stockhausen type sounds that suggest another universe of openness and open possibilities, suddenly something really strange starts to happen which can’t be anticipated in advance of trying it.
DT: Your films often group together elements that have arisen from this improvisatory process in sequences that one could almost describe as “songs”. Indeed, that word featured in the title of your debut film, Handsworth Songs.
JA: The musical worlds of these films take the form they do also partly because I’ve worked for so long with [composer] Trevor Mathison. We’re both very interested in noise, for want of a better word: what Trevor at one point called the “post-soul noise”. These are sounds that take their cue from pre-existing black musics, be it dub or funk, but they’ve been defamiliarised, put through a sonic box that renders them strange and unusual.
DT: The Last Angel of History is a film about dub, funk, jazz and techno, yet the soundtrack features Mathison’s compositions, rather than any of the music discussed.
JA: The Last Angel of History is about these Black Atlantic sonic worlds that are palpably present in black cultures. They co-exist with the established, legitimate world, but function more like ghosts. It’s a bit like how dub functions with reggae: I am here, I may never quite be the thing everyone accepts as the real, but I am nevertheless essential to how the thing works.
I loved working on that film because, yes, it’s about dub and it’s about studio-based jazz and it’s about funk, but actually there are none of those tracks in the film! Last Angel proved conclusively to both me and Trevor that you could actually use your own sounds to bring [these worlds] into being.
DT: So you take the idea of creating alternate worlds from sound, but use sounds that tie in with a different set of experiences – for example, Britain’s history of immigration in The Nine Muses.
JA: I’ve always tried not to name too precisely what one could call the legitimate sound for any particular thing. One use of Indian music in The Nine Muses, for instance, is by two of my favourite Indian musicians, the Gundecha brothers, who sing dhrupad [a courtly form of vocal music based on chanting]. They would be as surprised as anyone that their music [in my film] signals the coming of migration, because it’s from a completely different universe. However the feel of dhrupad always seemed to me to be one that can suggest movement, so it worked in that way without necessarily being anthropologically precise.
I like music or sounds that suggest counterpoints to innocence. The fact that you’re black or Asian or whatever isn’t in itself enough. It’s trying to find sounds that might interrogate the implications of being those things. That’s really what I’ve been trying to do.
DT: You’ve written about your desire to create “new ruins” for people to wander in.
JA: I’ve been obsessed for a long time with something I read in Derek Walcott’s Omeros, where he talks about diasporic lives being characterised by an absence of ruins. There are no monuments that even as ruins attest to your existence, of your passing through a space. This then means that the intangibles, be they sound or words, become necessary building blocks. Lives that are not legitimised in the official monument can then be given a certain kind of legitimacy.
That’s very important in The Nine Muses. The very construction of it is about trying to say something of the migrant narrative. It’s not a completely foreign thing brought over and it’s not just from Britain, it’s an amalgam of these two things. And I wanted the soundtrack, broadly put, to mirror that. By that I mean not simply the “music” but also the words; the cadences and rhythm of words and exactly what sorts of words are seen to coexist with the music.
DT: That brings us on to the voices themselves. There seems to be something quite evocative in having patrician English male voices narrate the film.
JA: What seemed to me to be absolutely crucial when we started this film was to first banish that voice that you’re talking about – what people call the “voice of God” – and then bring it back again. Every single bit of archive used in the film would have [originally been narrated in] that voice, but the voice would have said something very different. It would have said: I know everything and everything I’m going to tell you is the absolute truth. Anything that isn’t what I’ve said is not true.
But if you could get that voice to recite poetry, for instance, which is a highly subjective reading of a situation, then that voice starts to resonate differently. It also seems to me that once you let the voice back in, be it male or female, then weirdly you start to see the range of it. Because as they [the various narrators] come in to speak partial truths you suddenly start to see the texture of each voice and what each voice does.
DT: You’re making quite a bold statement by quoting so many canonical authors in The Nine Muses: Milton, Dante, Beckett, James Joyce and Shakespeare, to name a few.
JA: Yes. It’s an argument with myself but also with a certain kind of position that people like me have traditionally been seen to champion, which is the deconstruction and the dethroning of the great patriarchal authors of yore. Again I would say that it’s all about trying to get plurality of voices.
When you actually go and read Paradise Lost again, for example, you realise that the whole piece is about this tension between being and becoming. Now, I am as interested in that question as Milton [was]. That seems to me to be not just a migrant narrative but the narrative of all lives. You start off in one place and the question is what will you become and what are the processes by which you go on to become this thing?
DT: So is this where sound comes into your films? Does it set up a space where questions like these can be asked – by a plurality of voices?
JA: Absolutely. And there’s no attempt to try and force a unity in the voices. This is only impossible for people who have not heard new music, or not heard Ornette Coleman. Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics said OK, we will agree to start here, and at that point you can fuck off where you want to go, alright? What’s important is what everyone’s making of this.
So the use of these voices in this way is tied to a certain conceptual understanding of how free jazz improvisational techniques have been working in music, certainly for the last 90 years. With The Nine Muses the idea was that you can apply that not just to the sound but to words.
Sound On Film
Sound on Film examines how sound, music and film inform one another, from soundtracks and sound design to documentaries and live performance. We explore cinema past and present, digging into archives and seeking out new symbioses of sound and image.