Back in 1926 when Buster Keaton teamed up with Marion Mack and United Artists to make the wonderful silent film, The General, we don’t suppose he dreamt that almost a century later it would be re-soundtracked by a dreamy-folktronic-neo-classical trio from Derbyshire. In his defence, you’d have to have a heck of an imagination to see that coming!
Although sadly Buster died fifty years too early to hear it, that’s exactly what has happened courtesy of the wonderful Haiku Salut. The band, commissioned by the Nottingham Contemporary as part of the BFI’s Comedy Genius Season, spent two months of the winter in their studio on the edge of the Peak District, giving the revered film something of a sonic overhaul. The score is set for release on Secret Name in August, and today we’re premiering the latest track from it, Going Back.
Going Back is the soundtrack to one of The General’s most famous scenes, a visual treat, as trains fly back and forth, and reverse back up the tracks. The track captures the harum-scarum nature of the visuals, as the band use their “loopery and laptopery” to full affect. The track starts with a woozy, in their own words, “austere”, arpeggio, before a delightfully unusual, reversed guitar solo slips in and seems for just a moment to hold the action in a moment of serene, melancholy stasis. From there it bursts into life once more, before a marching snare, with more than a hint of a chugging locomotive, moves the track to a joyous, speeding close.
Check out the track below, and read on for Sophie and Gemma from the band discussing, how the project came about, finding the emotion in the man they called The Great Stone Face, and how the best things sometimes happen by accident.
Sophie: “Last year we were asked by Nottingham Contemporary to write a contemporary live score to ‘The General’ to be performed as part of BFI’s comedy season. We found out the project was going ahead when we were on tour in October, and that the first performance would be in the second week in January. That meant writing a continuous 80 minute live score in two months and have it rehearsed and ready to perform. It was everything you’d imagine it to be. Sometime elating, mainly exhausting, overall very fun. It was the first winter in our new studio, which is a converted 18th century stable. It’s a very inspiring space but Derbyshire winters can be cold. A lot of time was spent huddled up to the heater writing and editing and arranging and chipping and writing.
Very often we have patterns or melodies or phrases saved for when they make sense within the context of another piece of music. We started this project with only one piece of music, the rest was written from scratch. It was lucky that this piece of music found its natural place within the film pretty much immediately and only needed some minor rearranging to work well with the picture. The song is called ‘Reunited’ and it begins slowly and with trepidation. The drone is a recording of Gemma’s voice transposed to an extremely low octave, and the noise of the rain is a recording of me in the shower. We were going to chop up the sound of the falling water to make a rhythmic atmosphere but it ended up working as continuous piece soundtracking the rain falling on the night.
When we sat down to start writing the music we had no idea whether it was going to be serious, light-hearted or both. The film is comical, but the subject matter is not comical, and although the acting and the intent is hilarious it’s hard to keep laughing when everything keeps going wrong for Johnnie. The story is emotional and we wanted to try and bring out a different aspect to the film to the comedic one.”
Gemma: “Largely the purpose of music in silent films is to contribute to the atmosphere and exaggerate emotional cues to guide the viewer through the story. Buster Keaton’s delivery is so expressive and the comic scenes speak for themselves so we were keen from the start not to overstate anything. That gave us an opportunity to to focus on the subtitles of Johnnie’s emotional state, latching onto his more brooding and melancholy side and creating a more pensive feel to the piece.”
Sophie: “’Going Back’ was one of the last pieces we wrote for the score. That section of the film is full of trains moving at speed and then reversing down the tracks. The film gave us so much to work with and it kind of just flowed out. It begins with a very austere arpeggio which bends and melts into a reverse guitar part which is one of my favourite bits on the record. I love the way that reversing audio can bring out hidden emotions and harmonies, and Gemma’s guitar part creates a feeling of nostalgia which feels sad and peaceful at the same time. The ending has a general feeling of triumph and momentum as the train speeds away. The marching snare at the finish was created by mistake – I had written another melody part and was dragging the clip from one instrument track to another, I accidentally dropped it onto a drum track and it created this really proud and hopeful marching snare pattern. The best things happen by accident.”
Haiku Salut’s single Loves/Going back is out June 7th via Secret Name, followed by The General Soundtrack on August 2nd. Click HERE for more information on Haiku Salut.