Field Music

Sunderland band Field Music have reunited to perform a live soundtrack of twenties silent film Drifters. We find out about their love of film and how the project came about…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 9 Oct 2013
  • min read
It takes something pretty special to bring the original line up of any band back together - particularly a band as innovative as Sunderland’s Field Music.

So their commission from the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival to compose a new score for twenties silent film Drifters has many music and film lovers pretty excited. Especially as it marks the first time the original line-up of brothers Peter and David Brewis and Andrew Moore have played together since 2007.

The seminal silent documentary Drifters is certainly a regionally pertinent choice for the band and festival. It follows the working day of a herring fishing fleet as they set sail from the Shetland Islands to battle the elements of the North Sea fishing grounds. By the time you read this, the band will have debuted their live score at the event and be preparing to take their performance out on the road with the next scheduled gig at the Islington Assembly Rooms in London on 9 November.

We quizzed David about creating the soundtrack and the challenges it gave the band...

How did the project come about?

Berwick Film Festival asked whether we’d be interested in working with them on their event this year and maybe scoring a silent film. The festival is about the north-east coast and as we’re from there, they thought we’d be a relevant group to get involved.

It was the festival director who started throwing film ideas at us. We scrapped some due to practicalities and boring logistical stuff. But it was good for us not to be the ones choosing something. If we had, we’d have probably stuck within our comfort zone.

So they suggested Drifters. We checked it out and had a panic about how we might do it, then started formulating ideas.

What were the main challenges in writing music for the film?  

Well in Drifters there are a lot of modernist techniques used. There are a lot of quick cuts between juxtaposition of images and a lot of montage.

We’re novices at this. It’s the first time we’ve done a full score for any length of film and some of the clichés we were thinking we’d probably fall back on - do something long, slow and cinematic - just wouldn’t work alongside a barrage of quickly cut images.

Instead it made us think we need to do something that reflects the film but is still ‘us’. Otherwise what’s the point? So we used the tempo and momentum of the different sections of the film as inspiration rather than trying to play to every image on the screen.

Did the fact it was a silent film make it more of a challenge?

With a silent film you’re tempted to play all the sound effects because there obviously aren’t any. But you don’t need to do that. Your music should just add dramatic effect. But if you’re silent for a section of a silent film, it’s really odd as a musician. If that’s 10 seconds of silence, it’s 10 seconds of weirdness.

Did you write the score to picture?

Practically we didn’t think improvising as a trio to these fast cutting images would work for us. So we all went away with the film and improvised a few times on our own, recorded it all and pulled out the bits that work. Idea generation and editing were quite separate which they usually aren’t with our music.

So I’d sit down and play for 39 minutes. 30 minutes of which might be crap but I’d keep the good parts which I could bring to the band. It’s probably going to morph even more over the next few months.

Was it exciting to work to the parameters set by the film?

It alternated between feeling incredibly scary and incredibly liberating. If there are no constraints, then you fall back on the usual things you do. But this has led us in a whole bunch of new directions.

As a learning experience, it’s been a chance to explore new things and become better musicians and hopefully better writers. It’s been great having those constraints in place.

After the first rehearsal I came away thinking we had no chance of being able to make 39 minutes of music in three months. But by the second rehearsal it started to come together and it was exciting rather than overwhelming.

Do you think it will influence your future songwriting?

Definitely but it’s difficult to say how. We might do more improvising when we write. But it’s only when we start considering the next project that we’ll come across new ideas and processes we’ve developed through this score.

Have you any favourite composers?

Most of our favourite composers don’t do this type of thing. But I recently re-watched The Untouchables and the Morricone score to that is incredible. Myself and Pete are fans of some jazz scores from the fifties including The Man with the Golden Arm. Duke Wellington did the score for Anatomy of a Murder. But what we’re doing with this has no relation to those as they were very strictly composed, then edited to fit the film. This is a long musical performance which needs to be able to work away from the film in a clearer way.

We probably bring a more classic style of film composing to Field Music records than how we’ve worked with this.

Where else are you going to perform the score?

We’ve organised one show in London in November and are trying to organise more elsewhere. We’ve been invited to the Copenhagen documentary festival - but practically speaking due to family commitments it might not work. Definitely London and a couple more. We just need to finalise our plans.

Read our feature Score! Insider tips for writing soundtracks featuring comments from Neil Brand, Daniel Pemberton, Don Letts and Jon Hopkins.