Live Soundtracks was a Saturday night in Barcelona which pitted Finland’s Sasu Ripatti in his Vladislav Delay guise against fellow countryman and cinematic hero Aki Kaurismäki in an attempt to address the timeless question of the role of sound in cinema. The end result may have raised more questions than answers, but it was a fascinating experiment nonetheless.
The inspired choice of venue, an art laden basement of a futuristic hotel, might have had a lot to do with inciting enthusiasm. Early arrivals and hangers on were treated to a seamless blending of the flowing lines and reflective glamour of Richard Roger’s futuristic Hesperia Towers with the sounds of crisp techno courtesy of DJ Marc Steinwiese. This downstairs sala was an excellent setting for the pre-show music, complete with a hint of fashion and a handful of installations inspired by one of the fathers of modernism, Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Comfortable without ever being a hedonistic, the space was a genuinely stimulating intersection of cultures, for once more than merely a makeshift zone refitted for club fodder.
An organisational hitch set everything running late and cut the music half an hour early before the roundtable discussion on the state of music and sound in film, itself a somewhat stilted affair. The four experts gave only their version of history and an individual critique rather than creating genuine chance to challenge and respond, but this was never going to be the drawcard of the night.
Yet their arguments were still the raison d’être of the event: how does music transform our interpretation of the moving image and why is there still such a lack of musical force in cinema?
The choice of film, Aki Kaurismäki's I Hired a Contract Killer, was Ripatti’s. In some ways it was a surprising choice, in others not. On one hand, Kaurismäki films are famous for their simplicity of direction, their non-acting and understated humour in portraying tragic or tense situations, something of a contrast with the busy, abstract and cerebral music of Vladislav Delay. On the other hand, Kaurismäki structures his shortish films around longer scenic chapters that are almost dialogue-free, with subtle photography used to place the responsibility of willing emotion upon the characters upon the viewer. Vladislav Delay’s music is thus a good fit, sliding easily underneath the images to direct your attention of emotion. The pairing also is an attempt to define something of a Finnish identity or ‘state of art’: Both Ripatti and Kaurismäki play with the stereotyped view of Finns as cold and isolationist, and tonight it was replaced with something communal and determinedly committed.
The quality of the music itself, as well as its intersection with the film, was special and Ripatti clearly knew what he wanted. Every chapter of the film was met with an equal chapter of music, each building on a clear theme. The opening montage of English streets and mundane work scenes were filled with heavy and arrhythmic beats, recalling Delay’s Anima album, evoking a mechanistic society nicely. Other passages combined scenes of drinking and smoking with more jazzy elements, even sampled guitars, while the climactic arrival of the contract killers was greeted with violent clusters of rising and confused percussive noise before a sharp and abrupt gunshot peak. Best of all, scenes of deep thought were met effectively by underpinning drones that beautifully expressed the duration of the implied thought, projecting a well of emotion in the otherwise expressionless face of the characters.
The music overall was classic Vladislav Delay and drew from all his albums. It was unpredictable yet focused, developing and organic, yet somehow steely or unevenly logical. Live, Vladislav Delay seemed a much better prospect than a past Luomo gig I saw. The only difficulty with such a venture is how to listen passively: watching (and necessarily reading subtitles) is like putting on an album and picking up a book. When you see the words, you don’t actively listen to the music and vice versa.
Events such as this though, which take away the safety of context, really highlight how beautiful the synergy between sound and image can be. Good music finding its groove is one thing, but great music locking into a moving image is something else. It’s a shame contemporary cinema doesn’t acknowledge this as often as it should. Live Soundtracks will take the show on the road around Europe and offer more events in the future, and from the success of this outing, they’ll be something to look forward to.