Last year I was approached to be a part of the film and music series at HOME, Manchester's newest multi-arts venue. I was asked to create a live score for a silent film. My first choice was HÄXAN: witchcraft through the ages, a Danish horror documentary charting the varied perceptions of witchcraft and satanism from ancient times to the contemporary 1920s setting. So in August 2015, I began the process of writing songs to reflect the moods of superstition and demonic wickedness in the film.
One of the first sections I wrote for was the torture of Maria the Seamstress by the monks of the inquisition. Maria is an old woman who makes the mistake of visiting the home of a dying man. She is accused of being a witch, and of condemning the man to death. During Maria's torture, she confesses to acts of debauchery with Satan; to giving birth to Satan's children, and to flying on a broom stick to the Brocken (the mountain peak in German fairytales, where witches go to dance).
The scenes of the Brocken show silhouettes of flying witches in the night, the crazed dancing of minor demons and the antics of Satan's concubines. I wanted this five minute vignette to be like a music video. A high paced, beat heavy, dance video with these demonic forces revelling behind the band as we play the themes that they dance to. I wrote a short arrangement for the section with airy piano, a four-to-the-floor kick, a raspy bass pattern and some verses on Maria's relationship to Satan. This became Satan's Kitchen.
I then started on song ideas for the beginning of the film. The documentary starts with a slideshow. Beautiful images of the perceptions of the ancient world. For this part of the film I built up layers of wistful vocals against delayed guitars and a simple muted pulse on the bass to explain the images on screen. Slowly, ideas for all the various blocks of the film began to take shape.
At the beginning of October I began to work with my collaborators on the project, four students from the University of Salford. It has been their job to take some of these songs and ideas and build bigger arrangements out of them.
The results have been amazing to hear. Dave Fortune, a very tech savvy member of the team, has taken the simple ideas for Satan's Kitchen and warped them into a devilish, atmospheric-trance carouse for satanists. And Jamie Birkett, who's very well tuned to the need for dynamic variety, has shifted and shaped the ideas for the opening section of the film to great effect. Will Thomson, our resident pianist on the project, has taken one of my favourite songs, Tonight, and written some really emotive synth backing which compliments it so well. And Jacob Puckering has shaped the subtle backing for another emotive piece Inlaw's Inquisition, which runs alongside the torture of a young woman suspected of witchcraft.
I've never written so much material in such a short space of time and the arrangements the students and I are creating are dark, mystical and inventive. The rehearsals are intense and immersive, and I think we are all learning things that we can use to creating epic musical and visual works for years to come... that's the idea anyway. Fingers crossed.
HÄXAN with Live Score by Josephine Oniyama and students from the University of Salford takes place on 11th and 13th December, 2015 at HOME, Manchester. for more information, click here.