The BFI's archive of public information films has a strange new soundtrack, courtesy of Mordant Music, while The Outer Church club hosts both haunted audio and video.
Many of us harbour vague childhood memories of public information films – short broadcasts shown at school or in-between TV programmes, reminding us not to climb pylons or get too close to frozen ponds. Others, perhaps a little older, might recall seeing more positive visions: glimpses of the future in documentaries of new towns, a filmed tour of a nuclear power station, or a demonstration of the latest computer technology.
Nostalgia for post-war aesthetics, obsolete technology, and maybe even for the sense that we were once more protected by those in charge than we are now, along with increasing ease of transferring analogue to digital formats, have all contributed to putting these films, originally commissioned by the Central Office of Information, back into the spotlight. The BFI are now on Volume 4 of their Stop! Look! Listen!DVDs of classic COI films, indicating that this is an enduring fascination. However, a more intriguing re-imagining of the public service film surfaces this week with the release of MisinforMation, a DVD collection of public information films newly soundtracked by enigmatic London-based electronic musician, Baron Mordant, whose releases under the name of Mordant Music have been at the forefront of a certain uncanny, very British kind of electronica that's been bubbling under the dance/electronic mainstream for a large part of this decade.
MisinforMation uses sound to make us see these films in a different light, often contradicting or confusing what's on the screen. A promotional film for an energy research facility is soundtracked with queasy drones and a warped voiceover seemingly transposed from another film, about fungal damage to old buildings; elsewhere, authoritative voices disappear into a psychedelic mulch of synth tones and radiophonic noise, and sounds from nature are twisted into dark electronica. There are moments of calm and beauty too – scenes from a documentary about prehistoric Britain are soundtracked by serene synthesisers and ghostly oscillations, in a hypnotic mix of old and new – while a Peter Greenaway-directed short about the new inkjet printer is a perfect match for the Mordant brand of sonic absurdism, as eggs, fingers and sausages are neatly printed with their names.
The Mordant Music sound comes from a similarly mixed set up, with vintage equipment used alongside soft synths and Ableton Live. “Digital and analogue nestle side by side in one general studio mulch,” says Baron Mordant, adding that “whatever's to hand can be rendered mordant...”
Although much of Mordant Music's output so far has had a strong visual presence, with strikingly designed record and CD sleeves reminiscent of forgotten TV station idents MisinforMation is “the first time I've worked seriously with visuals,” he says. “In the main, after culling a dearth of audio detritus from the VHS research transfers, I formulated a bedrock audio concept around each film. The main glue-sniffing sound from 'Illusions' [a 1983 film about solvent abuse] is a processed VHS squeal made to mimic inhalation – the key to the overall sound was to use the poorer quality VHS audio, with its squeals and wobbles, along with optical head errors and processed segments from the archive. When all of these were eventually aligned with the pristine film transfers I think it helped to maintain a grain of sound in keeping with the musty quality of the archive itself. I also cross-hatched a few sounds and improvised some synth parts.”
Some of the soundtracks on MisinforMation sound so twistedly appropriate you assume they're manipulations of the original ones, but the Baron insists not: “the scores were all made from scratch and each contains nothing of its original.” He was, however, influenced by the sound design of other public information films. Amid the growling noise track on 'A Dark Social Template', a human voice appears, singing a wry lament about new towns – the track, 'Where Can You Scream?' is taken from Mordant Music's 'SyMptoMs' (2009), and its use here was inspired by “a PIF about mills in Halifax which suddenly used a superb folk track out of the blue...I thought that the Mordant Music track would work well overlaid in the same way. It also provides a bit of respite from the grinding optical head noise which underpins the main score.”
While no one's quite agreed on a clear musical definition of the philosophical term 'hauntology', the mixture of ominous radiophonic sound, social history and melancholy, folk-influenced song that make up 'A Dark Social Template' fits well alongside the preoccupations of the musicians arranged under the hauntological umbrella, from the imagined new-town environments of the Belbury Poly and Advisory Circle projects on the Ghost Box label, to the spectral songs of Broadcast and spooked collages of Position Normal and Moon Wiring Club. Hauntological music seems more a state of mind than a genre in itself, attracting those receptive to resonances from the past and fascinated by imagined futures, both utopian and dystopian, and drawn to the strange atmospheres of the UK's rural and industrial landscapes.
It's easy to see how public information films fit into the picture. Music critic Joseph Stannard, who earlier this year took part in The Wire's Revenant Forms salon event on hauntology and music, at which Mordant Music performed, thinks that their disturbing qualities make them particularly attractive: “These films reveal the hidden dangers lurking behind the mundane, and I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that this theme is irresistible to musicians, who tend to be a perverse, paranoid bunch with a suspicion of the everyday bordering on the gnostic. I mean that in a good way, of course,” he says.
Stannard, who admits to some troubling childhood memories of COI classic Play Safe: Kids and Planes, points out that the films' original sound content was as notable and influential as the visual. “The most memorable and effective PIFs relied heavily upon sound to make their impact. Perhaps the best example is the echo on Donald Pleasance’s voice at the end of the infamous Lonely Water film when he mutters, 'I’LL BE BACK!' Mention that film to someone and they’ll usually repeat two lines, 'I am the spirit of cold and lonely water' and that one, including the echo, 'backbackbackbackbackback...' The music was frequently sourced from libraries such as KPM, Boosey & Hawkes and De Wolfe, who employed high calibre musicians and composers including Ron Geesin, Alan Hawkshaw and John Cameron. Library music inspires a peculiar devotion in musicians working in sample-based electronic music – perhaps because they're striving to create a mood or atmosphere rather than express their emotions in the singer-songwriter tradition.”
Recently, Stannard has been gathering together some of these musicians to perform at his monthly Brighton-based club night, The Outer Church , the last edition of which saw Mordant Music create a live soundtrack to MisinforMation. With artists such as Moon Wiring Club and Ghost Box's Julian House working with film and video in preference to traditional live performance, it's not surprising that film-based performances are becoming an important part of the club's remit.
“I’ve just started collaborating with an Australian video artist based in Norway called Jade Boyd, who I came across at the Unsound Festival in Krakow,” says Stannard. “I was blown away by her live collaboration with electronic composer Alan Howarth, who worked with director John Carpenter. Jade made this eerie dream collage out of fragments of Carpenter’s films which I found really moving: the combination of Howarth’s music and Jade’s visuals drove home what a significant part of my life these films and their soundtracks are. So it made sense to invite Jade to participate in The Outer Church. I also plan to screen films without live musical accompaniment, starting in January 2011 with two pieces by American director and sound designer Graham Reznick. One of the films is a 3D short, which I’m really excited about.
“There’s a Stephen King short story called ‘Crouch End’ – not a great story, basically a hamfisted Lovecraft pastiche – in which a police officer tells his colleague about ‘thin spots', areas where the membrane between our dimension and the next is worn down and perforated. Fanciful as it sounds, I’d like to think that each edition of The Outer Church constitutes a further erosion of that membrane via the use of both sound and vision.”
Exclusive extract from MisinforMation courtesy of BFI DVD.
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.