On Sunday 28th July, VIFF Vancity Theatre presents Alexander Medvedkin’s fabled Soviet comedy, HAPPINESS, a silent film from 1935, with a brand new score performed live by the Little Chamber Music Series that could, led by composer Mark Haney. We checked in with Mark to get his thoughts on the process and the movie.
What is the Little Chamber Music Series That Could?
Mark Haney: The Little Chamber Music Series That Could is a registered charity dedicated to bringing new music and compositions to different events, communities and projects. We mainly host free, accessible events at Mountain View Cemetery, but have created projects around Vancouver.
Have you composed film scores before, and how did this one come about?
MH: I have scored some short films; about 20 years ago I used a 4 track reel-to-reel tape machine to create a soundtrack for an early Super 8 film by acclaimed artist Kara Blake, and also created music for the soundtrack to filmmaker/cartoonist D. Boyd’s short film Cell. I used equations written in his notebooks as the basis for music I wrote for the soundtrack of a documentary about nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi, commissioned by the Fermi family. My album Aim for the Roses was the basis of and soundtrack for the 2016 documentary of the same name by John Bolton.
This soundtrack came about through a collaboration with VIFF Vancity Theatre Programmer Tom Charity. I was moderating an artist talk as part of the PuSH Festival, which led to further conversations. Tom gave me a list of several silent films, and Happiness had an interesting mix of absurdity and striking imagery, and I was drawn to the Russian folk setting.
What are your thoughts about HAPPINESS and how did you approach this piece?
MH: Happiness is so darkly humorous that it fits my sensibility perfectly! There are such clear messages about the plight of the lowest class of any society, that the film feels as relevant as it would have been 85 years ago. I tried to capture some of the angst or feel of the Soviet era, and balanced that with a wry sense of humour. I also tried to carry forth some of the traditions of live performed scores from the silent movie era; clear themes for characters that come back in different iterations and permutations, a sense of interplay with the visuals and support for the plot.
I picked 3 poems by Mandelstam and turned them into dark folk songs to frame the film; the poems fit the movie perfectly, and Mandelstam was certainly a victim of the Soviet regime. The idea of using songs actually came from Tom, and I’m glad he thought of it! Not only do the poems fit the themes of the film and serve to strengthen the overall presentation, but it adds connection to the history of silent film presentation. Plus we have an amazing soprano (Dory Hayley) as part of the ensemble.
Tell us about the make up of the ensemble for Sunday and what we should expect
MH: I’ll be playing double bass (playing bass is still my favourite part of my far-reaching artistic practice), Adrian Verdejo will be playing classical guitar which will add the folk feel to the soundtrack, Mark Takeshi McGregor will be playing the alto flute, which is a bit larger and lower than a flute and has a haunting tone, Saina Khaledi is playing santour, which is a persian instrument that is a type of dulcimer, Dory Hayley is bringing her remarkable voice and Julie Hintz-Barrera will be adding vocal percussion, electronics and looping to the group.
My idea was to create an ensemble with its own sound, a unique combination that would offer a lot of sound possibilities and had ties to both the historical era and the sounds of today. It’s an incredible group of musicians, and you can expect the ensemble to create a sound world that will transform the experience of watching this historically important film.
Will you be doing more film scores?
MH: Yes! This one was too much fun to stop now. Tom and I are already scheming about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. My hope is to keep this same ensemble together and to create several soundtracks over the next few years. It’s an exciting idea, having a group dedicated to creating live soundtracks.
You have a series of concerts coming up at Mountain View Cemetery in August, tell us about that.
MH: We have 3 great events coming up on the first 3 Sundays of August:
- On August 4 Dory Hayley will be performing Schoenberg’s landmark Pierrot Lunaire in a co-production with Little Chamber Music and Blueridge Chamber Music Festival (Dory is a co-Artistic Director of Blueridge). Along with the musical performance, there will be dance created by Olivia C. Davies (9pm in the Celebration Hall)
- On August 11 we’re paying tribute to Joe Raposo, a great songwriter who wrote many of the great Sesame Street songs. We have put together an all-star band and will be performing Joe’s songs in tribute to a great artist who has been gone for 30 years (3:30 and 7pm in the Celebration Hall)
- August 18 will bring Treesong to the cemetery; Treesong is a collaboration between composer Brad Muirhead and artist Dave Gowmans, who has hand carved wooden Fuhorns. This will be outdoors from 7:30-9 and is not to be missed! The Fuhorns are bizarre and beautiful and Treesong creates evocative, truly unique sounds and music.
HAPPINESS screens just once, 7.30 pm Sunday 28th July. See also Chris Marker’s documentary The Last Bolshevik, about Happiness director Alexander Medvedkin, screening Saturday and Sunday.